The job title of “systems engineer” might not sound all that glamorous at first, but once you consider that these IT pros work on complex systems that can include military aircraft and tanks, the job description suddenly becomes a lot more exciting.
As David Walden, Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP) and INCOSE certification program manager, explained it, a systems engineer is an IT professional who heads up a development project on an intricate, software-intensive system. The system engineer has a broad role, looking at the entire system from conception to final disposal.
Take, for example, a nuclear reactor. Walden said the systems engineer would need to consider: “How do you dispose of that system safely, in a way that is both economical and good for the environment? How do you design the system so that it can be easily disassembled or reused or recycled?
“[Ultimately], a systems engineer looks at the whole problem and interfaces with the customer to determine what the real need is, envision what that system will be and then make sure it’s delivered and meets and exceeds [the] customer’s expectations,” Walden said.
“They translate all of those vague and soft-and-fuzzy stakeholder [requirements] — ‘I want a car that goes fast,’ ‘I want a rocket ship that can be launched 42 times’ — and then they work with the design engineers to make that a technical reality.”
Like many roles in the IT industry, there are organizations dedicated to training and certifying systems engineers. One such organization is the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE). The professional society — created in 1990 — serves more than 6,000 professionals worldwide through its efforts to provide education and development opportunities to the global systems engineering community. INCOSE also establishes professional standards for the field.
Earlier this year, INCOSE upgraded its certification program to a three-tiered model. CSEP is the core certification for the program and validates a foundational level of systems engineering knowledge. This exam — created in 2004 — was upgraded in July in conjunction with the release of a new version of INCOSE’s Systems Engineering Handbook: Version 3.1. This upgrade gives the exam an international perspective, using international standard ISO/IEC 15288.
The CSEP is for professionals with a minimum bachelor’s degree in science or a technical subject, along with five years of experience in systems engineering. The degree also can be replaced by additional years of experience.
While upgrading the exam, INCOSE also added a specialization option in Department of Defense acquisition (CSEP Acq). This exam, which must be completed either concurrently or after passing the core CSEP exam, validates knowledge of systems engineering within a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) acquisition environment. This certification is ideal for both current DOD professionals — to help them climb the career ladder — and industry professionals who work on government contracts and want to highlight their credibility and understanding of the DOD development process.
Also new to INCOSE certifications is the entry-level Associate Systems Engineering Professional (ASEP). The ASEP certification requires passing the same exam for the CSEP, as well as a bachelor’s degree, only the ASEP does not require an experience component. The ASEP is good for up to 10 years, by which time INCOSE expects the professional to have upgraded to CSEP status.
And for seasoned systems engineers, INCOSE will unveil its Expert Systems Engineering Professional (ESEP) certification in 2009.
“ESEP is targeted for a very limited audience of senior leaders in system engineering,” Walden explained. “And the way that we [will validate] that is not through a knowledge exam, but through a detailed interview process with the applicant and [his or her] references.”
In order for the credentials to be renewed — which is every three years for CSEP and five for ASEP — INCOSE certifications also require participation in continuing learning experiences within an allotted time period.
“The two main ways that you can earn PDUs [professional development units] are through taking some type of professional development such as university courses [or] internal training courses, [or] through volunteering,” which can include giving a paper at a systems engineering event or working on a professional standards committee, Walden said.
“The reason that we have a requirement for renewal is we want this to be a lifelong learning process,” he said.
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