So you’re a systems engineer? So what’s that?

Abstract: SKA Africa employs systems engineers. So what do they do?…

Carl Sagan was probably the world’s greatest systems thinker. Over the course of 13 episodes of his seminal 1980s TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage he managed to weave a thread through the billions of galaxies, the billions of neurons in the human brain, and everything in between, and in the process make us wonder about our purpose in the universe. If he were alive today he’d see those connections taking shape at SKA Africa in the minds and work of the systems engineers.

According to SKA Research Professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Chairman of the SKA Cosmology Working Group, Roy Maartens, researchers at SKA Africa have “devised a means of using the world’s largest telescope in new ways that will help shape the future of cosmology”. That word “new” is both exciting and troubling, because what SKA is doing has never been done before, at least not at this scale. There is no blueprint for rolling out a project of this magnitude; it really is frontier science, and whereas the American Wild West may have opened up through the barrel of a six-shooter, SKA cannot afford to be gung-ho. If it’s going to succeed, it has to know what it’s doing, even if it’s never done it before! Cue the discipline with the “big picture” view.

Systems engineering: it’s about the value from connections

NASA are no strangers to complex projects designed to connect humans with space, and so their handbook on systems engineering is a good place to start to get an idea of what it’s about. The handbook describes systems engineering as “a holistic, integrative discipline, wherein the contributions of structural engineers, electrical engineers, mechanism designers, power engineers, human factors engineers, and many more disciplines are evaluated and balanced, one against another, to produce a coherent whole that is not dominated by the perspective of a single discipline”.

For the systems engineer, the value added by the overall system, over and above that contributed independently by the parts, is primarily created by the relationship among those parts; that is, how they are interconnected.

These “parts” or elements can include hardware, software, facilities, policies, documents and, of course, people. Linking all these parts requires a special kind of thinker.

The connected mind of the systems thinker

In his book The Fifth Discipline, leading American systems scientist Peter Senge describes systems thinking as “a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than static snapshots”.

For a systems thinker, uncertainty is an inevitable attribute of any complex system, especially when that system – such as those being designed at SKA Africa – is new. Whereas uncertainty cannot be eliminated, it can be mitigated through open-minded thinking, working through scenarios, and designing feedback and feed-forward learning loops in the design of a system to trace and measure the impacts of the relationships between the various components of the system.

Moreover systems thinkers know that the human component of any system is critical, not only because it includes customers, stakeholders, scientists, developers and users, but because it drives so much of the uncertainty.

Systems engineering, then, embraces uncertainty as well as the irrationality of the human component of a system, with the more analytical and rational, technical components to provide a “bigger picture”.

SKA’s “big picture” thinkers

The Telescope Manager Consortium of the SKA is responsible for managing the telescope hardware and software to perform the astronomical observations, as well as the data to support operators, maintainers, engineers and science users in achieving their operational, maintenance and engineering goals. It’s a perfect environment for systems thinkers.

Gerhard Le Roux, a senior systems engineer with the consortium, admits to diverse interests outside of his specialisation in electronic engineering. These include geology, economics, biology and psychology. He says that although attributes of system engineers are difficult to define, there are definite commonalities between system engineers. He agrees with Senge: “It’s the way they look at something. They see connections. They don’t focus on the specifics, but instead see relations between what is in front of them and what they have seen earlier, elsewhere. They also tend to think more abstractly about things – to see a pattern in the details.”

Seeing patterns is one thing, applying them is another. Paul Swart, also a senior systems engineer with the Telescope Manager Consortium, points to the importance of designing the architecture of a system in order to find a solution to a problem. “You obviously need a good knowledge of the technology and specific engineering principles.”

Le Roux and Swart both agree that their part of the project has some serious challenges, ironically often an outcome of the diversity of input needed to cope with the complexity of a project the size of SKA. “Given the geographical spread of the whole project and diverse backgrounds of those involved,” says Le Roux, “communication remains one of the biggest challenges.”

Swart says that one way system engineers can contribute to smoothing out problems of communication is using a language that is common to all; and it’s not English. It’s a modelling language called OMG SysML – a general-purpose graphical modelling language for specifying, analysing, designing, and verifying complex systems that may include hardware, software, information, personnel, procedures, and facilities. “In some respects,” says Swart, “it is better than natural languages.”

The need for balance and negotiation

The word “balance” seems at the forefront in the vocabulary of systems engineers at SKA Africa. “Any system involves two forces,” says Le Roux. “It involves diversity and commonality, divergent and convergent thinking. Any system where everyone thinks the same will eventually die, but if it has that balance right, then it will thrive.”

Swart agrees that balance is critical, as is the willingness to compromise in negotiations; having a “big picture” view helps. “I’ve learned that there are many brilliant and talented people at SKA – a vast reservoir of knowledge and expertise that can be drawn upon.”

Scientists at SKA have what it takes to see the “big picture” , to see the patterns, the connections, and to add to the balance: “They have a lot of domain knowledge about the problem – in this case astronomy – and, while drawing on that knowledge as well as knowledge of past solutions, are comfortable to collaborate with engineers to find new solutions to new problems.”

Originally published in the February 2015 edition of the SKA Africa newsletter.