In March 2008, the Office of the Chief Engineer (OCE) met with top NASA systems engineers (SEs) to develop a shared understanding and agreement regarding the practice of systems engineering across the agency. As a critical core competency, the effective development of SEs is vital to the future of NASA’s success. This development requires an understanding of the characteristics or behaviors that enable employees to be highly effective SEs.
This study was conducted to identify the characteristics or behaviors frequently observed in highly regarded SEs at NASA. Data from this study will be used to design or update systems engineering training, development, coaching and mentoring programs to develop these behaviors in SEs. This data will also help NASA Engineering Leadership to more quickly identify and support the development of high potential future SE leaders.
Centers identified “highly regarded Systems Engineers” to participate in a study to determine the behaviors that contributed to their success. The selected SEs were individuals that the centers determined as the “go to person” with regards to systems engineering. The number of interviewees varied by NASA Center. The methodology and protocol for this study mirrored a study previously conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
In spite of the fact that the practice of systems engineering varies across centers, the behaviors of highly effective system engineers were very consistent. The consistent behaviors exhibited by NASA/JPL highly effective SEs fall into five broad top themes: leadership, attitudes and attributes, communication, problem solving and systems thinking, and technical acumen. Within each of these broad theme areas, specific descriptors of these behaviors were identified along with examples of actual behaviors associated with these theme descriptions.
The findings of this study provide a firm basis on which to build strong systems engineering competencies that will support individual development and program and project needs across NASA. The awareness and understanding of these specific behaviors will also help advance the field of systems engineering development outside NASA by providing greater focus on the human dynamics that, when combined with technical knowledge and abilities, contribute to successful engineering projects and mission success.