The infusion of software and embedded technology into manufacturing product systems and systems components has led to an increased demand for professionals in the field of systems engineering. To help satisfy that demand, IBM forged a partnership with the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Advanced Systems Engineering to help prepare students for jobs in the systems engineering profession. Manufacturing Business Technology recently sat down with Mark Lefebvre, Director, IBM’s Rational Systems Marketing, to discuss the field of systems engineering, what makes it an attractive career option, the driving forces behind its growth and development, and IBM’s partnership with UCF.

For people who don’t have a lot of understanding of what systems engineering professionals do, what kind of services and products are those individuals involved with?

It’s those companies who are designing product systems or systems components that are infusing software and embedded technology into the hardware. You can think of the usual suspects: car manufacturers, aircraft manufacturers, and electronic consumer goods; anything that is Internet-aware and has the ability to sense and respond to the environment surrounding it. It can adapt, it can communicate, whether that’s through the web or through other subsystems … Anything where you have physical assets that have embedded technology that communicates with back-end IT.

The recent economic recession has hit certain employment sectors, the manufacturing sector included, pretty hard. Some of the jobs that used to be out there, they’re going to be gone for good now. For young people looking at their future career options, what makes systems engineering a good option to consider?

What the systems engineer has to look forward to is a very lucrative and in-demand career choice… Folks that can solve problems, folks that can piece together the mechanical, electrical, and software domains that I referred to earlier, they tend to work across functional domains. It’s not as bit-intensive. They’re not necessarily designing products themselves, but they’re responsible for the system and how the whole system interoperates, as well as how it’s designed to meet the requirements of the customer’s specifications … According to the CNN studies we’ve seen, obviously there’s the very high salary, the growth within those jobs is quite fast, and it spans across a number of industries … If you look at the verticals these product products are going into, this whole transformation of smart cities and smart health care…where organizations such as governments, and industry, and academia, are getting together to solve some of these daunting problems we see in the world right now, how to make use of scarce resources, how to get more efficiency, how to take cost out, how to get innovation to market faster … all of this plays well into the demand and future of systems engineering students.

What are some of the things professionals or college students can do to prepare to transition well into this kind of career?

Well, the obvious answer is math and science… (But) I hire engineers, and I hire marketing professionals, and I’ve been in the industry for quite some time, and I look for a combination of right-brain and left-brain thinking ... And then perhaps internships, where they have an opportunity to do some work before they actually commit to a vocation. That would help them sort of put their toes in the water before they have an opportunity to commit to an education. And it also lets them see what’s on the back end of this, in terms of what industry is doing with people with those skills.

What are some of the driving forces behind, or the critical aspects of, this partnership between IBM and UCF that will allow this effort to be a successful one?

Two things: First of all, demand on the back end for the people who are actually making the investment in a 4-to-6-year program, or even in an 8-year-program, if they’re advancing in their graduate degrees. (And then) I think it’s a sustained commitment by all parties… IBM, obviously we’re donating software and subject matter experts, and we’ve got folks that are on campus working with our customers and their students, and so forth, advancing the state-of-the-art with regards to systems engineering. UCF is obviously committed to the real estate, the research environment, and the pipeline of students. And then the industrial partners are creating demand for the folks with those skills on the back end so that they have a place to work.

In your opinion, what have been some of the contributing factors that have allowed for the growth and development of this particular engineering field?

I really think it’s demand. If you look at it in the context…what IBM’s doing with this notion of a smarter planet …where I focus is on companies who are building what I call smart products. These products have embedded technology that allows them to adapt and respond, and so on and so forth. Software is really kind of the thread that enables all these hardware products to work together. And so if I look at it from the context of my customers, they’re asking for the skills that are necessary to help them embed software and embed technology in their products. And so I think it’s really a demand by industry that’s driving it ... It’s really forcing them to become systems companies and software companies, where perhaps they hadn’t had that focus before. There are complexities involved, there’s risk involved, and you’ve seen some of the news that’s out there with regard to product recalls and so forth. So if you don’t get it right, there are serious ramifications. So I think it’s demand that’s really driving the growth, and I think there’s a unique set of skills that are required in order to make that happen.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This really causes traditional product manufacturers to re-think their value chain. Value is shifting from the mechanics to the functionality, and how all this stuff not only ties together within the product itself, but also allows it to be integrated into higher levels of system integration. It’s really connecting the embedded software…with the back end IT, so you have other value that’s been delivered to the consumer. That’s really where I think this whole notion of transformation is coming from.