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15 June 2011

Systems Engineers, IT, and Sanitation Engineers

I feel a strong kinship to the civil engineer who specializes in garbage removal and landfills when PC bureaucrats call garbage collectors Sanitation Engineers.

The IT industry labels just about anybody a Systems Engineer. They demean the title by giving it to people who have skills in computer networks, software coding, or server administration, but may have little or no education in engineering, no multidisciplinary background, and no high-level perspective of systems development. I respect the IT folks knowledge and the hard work they put in to acquire their expertise, but that doesn't make them engineers, let alone systems engineers.

Systems Engineers work both at detail and at higher design levels. They consider business needs, requirements analysis, risk management, cost estimation, project planning, use cases, life cycle analysis, design, integration, and verification and testing. Their broader perspective requires formal, multidisciplined education and extensive experience so they can communicate with and bring together business, management, and engineers from different disciplines to communicate with the customer and deliver a complete and coherent design or service.

Two guilty parties who lead the title inflation include Microsoft, with its Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification, and Cisco Systems, with its Cisco Certified Network Engineer certification. MCSEs and CCNEs know their subjects, but passing a test qualifies them as technicians or technologists, not as engineers who devoted four or more years to passing hundreds of tests in dozens of subjects.

Some say the usurpation of the SE title is a non-issue. As a job-hunter, I disagree strongly.

The mis-labeling has wasted hundreds of hours of my life over the past 20 months. I have to access and scan dozens of job descriptions for each systems engineering position I find.

Example:  Sherlock Tech knowingly inflates a Systems Administrator into a Systems Engineer. You're full of you-know-what, Sherlock.

When you multiply that by having to read dozens of systems engineering job descriptions to find one position for which I qualify, you find a very large, tedious, and discouraging task.

Many disciplines such as hydraulics, controls, mechanical, optical, power, and manufacturing engineering -- not just IT -- usurp the term. In their case, the mis-labeling constitutes a lateral misplacement. The problem seems not merely due to inflation, but also due to laziness. This compounds the challenge of job searching for SEs, but also for job hunters in those other disciplines.

The Department of Labor and state employment departments have contributed by cataloging some technical occupations by discipline and others by industry. For example, aerospace and IT are not disciplines; they are industries. Computer systems, networks, software, and (cross-functional) are disciplines.

When I was in school, we already had a term and major for students of IT. It was Computer Systems Engineering. (Some schools lagged in separating out the computer majors from Electronic Engineering, or Electronic Engineering from Electrical Engineering, too.) Software Engineering had just starting to break out as a separate discipline.

A little specificity would go a long way in the job market.

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