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ASK OCE — August 17, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 12

 

Systems engineers are made, not born. So what does it take to make one?

It depends who you ask, according to Carolyn Casey, Career Development and Leadership Manager for the Engineering Directorate at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). “You have a lot of disagreement about what systems engineering is,” Casey says.

Casey knows this from experience, having helped to found the Systems Engineering Education Development (SEED) program at GSFC. SEED is a two-year professional development program that takes mid-level discipline engineers and prepares them to be systems engineers.

Through a combination of technical coursework, leadership training, on-the-job rotational assignments, and mentoring and coaching, SEED seeks to broaden participants’ exposure to the various engineering disciplines, subsystems, and phases of the mission life cycle. “SEED is more than a program to provide classroom training,” says Carl Wales, SEED Program Manager.

While NASA’s current senior management has emphasized the need to develop the Agency’s systems engineering capability, SEED has been a long time coming at Goddard. According to Casey, the idea first surfaced in 1983 through the center’s in-house training and development series for its managers and supervisors. “The problem was identified that every project needs competent systems engineers, it takes time (to develop them), and we don’t have a process in place.”

The idea kicked around the corridors without the backing of senior management for more than a decade until the late 1990s, when Goddard received word from NASA headquarters that it was chosen to serve as a “center of excellence” across the Agency for systems engineering. With this mandate as a catalyst, a team including Casey began to identify the requirements for a systems engineering development program by using the DACUM (Develop a Curriculum) process.

“We got a group of current systems engineers together in a room and said, OK, what is it that you do?” Casey recalls. From there, the team derived a set of systems engineering competencies and conducted a gap analysis to determine which competencies required new offerings.

After rolling out a limited pilot program in 1999-2000, the program assumed its current configuration with a class that began in 2002. The program’s success has made the selection process increasingly competitive, with three applicants vying for every place in the class of eighteen who were selected in 2006.

SEED is governed by an Advisory Board that includes leaders across Goddard’s Applied Engineering and Technical Directorate. Participants in the program, nicknamed SEEDlings, make regular presentations to the Board, which offers a high degree of visibility with the senior managers in the engineering community at Goddard. “The Advisory Board ultimately concurs that a SEEDling is ready to graduate,” Wales explains.

The program places a high priority on leadership and communication skills, using NASA’s Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership courses, as well as outside offerings to cover these areas. It has brought in communications experts to help participants understand and develop both verbal and non-verbal communication.

“If you want to be a good system engineer, you have to have good leadership skills. You have to know how to work with people. You have to know how to lead people,” says Wales. “Technical ability is only part of what you need in the toolbox.”

 

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