Twelve Systems Engineering Roles

Keywords roles systems engineering

(published in the INCOSE proceedings of 1996)

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Twelve roles are described which are occasionally or frequently assumed to constitute the practice of systems engineering. Some roles fit naturally as life-cycle roles, others fit the Program Management set of roles, while still others are not normally thought of in either group. Interactions between the roles are discussed, and the systems engineering roles assumed by the papers in the inaugural issue of Systems Engineering, the Journal of INCOSE, are compared to these categories.


Since its inception, INCOSE has been attempting to resolve the question of what, exactly, is systems engineering. Several dualities have been explored, including whether systems engineers are specialists or generalists, and whether systems engineering is a set of life-cycle roles, such as the generation of specifications and verification programs, or an overall program management discipline. There has even been a discussion on whether systems engineering is a discipline or an attitude [Mar 92]. Worthy and wise arguments have been put forth on both sides of each issue, leaving some to despair of ever being able to pin down definitions that all can agree on.

A local chapter presentation on the value of systems engineering provided the impetus for this paper. The presenters seemed to be talking about entirely different definitions of systems engineering and the roles that systems engineers play. A compilation of the roles seemed essential to deciding many important questions in the field of systems engineering. A companion paper in this volume, "The Value of Twelve Systems Engineering Roles" [Sheard 96], addresses the value of systems engineering from the point of view of the roles described in this paper.

To derive these twelve systems engineering roles, papers in the inaugural issue of Systems Engineering, the Journal of INCOSE, were reviewed for assumptions about roles that systems engineers play. More than sixty descriptions of roles were collected and grouped into the twelve groupings presented below. Then four years of INCOSE symposium proceedings were scanned to ensure that most of the possible systems engineering roles were captured. The intent was to include roles applicable both to the typical DOD and aerospace environment and to less standard systems engineering environments such as smaller programs and commercial companies. Finally, the Washington Post newspaper’s "High Tech" classified advertisement section was examined to determine what the world of employers considered systems engineering to be.

This paper is organized in four sections. First, the meaning of "systems engineering roles" is discussed. Next, twelve systems engineering roles are defined. These roles are then considered in relation to "life-cycle" and "program management" roles, the two major paradigms of systems engineering responsibility. Finally, the roles assumed in the first issue of Systems Engineering are characterized with respect to the twelve defined roles.

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