Starting college in 1979, I had an idea of what I wanted to become. I wanted to a systems engineer. I also remember that that discipline did not seem very common. I am not sure I even a program when I was searching. It was only much later when I figured out it was hiding in Industrial Engineering that I mostly ignored.
I ignored Industrial Engineering because, well, it was about industry. It turns out that most of the systems engineering concepts I was interested in came out of the earlier efforts in optimizing manufacturing processes. I wasn’t smart enough to figure that at the time. My focus was on systems engineering for a different purpose.
I ended up picking Electrical Engineering. There were a lot of silly reasons for choosing the field. Certainly one of the reasons was that the course catalog included a lot of courses with “systems” in their names: Control Systems, Communications Systems. I did gravitate toward these courses and when I graduated I told recruiters “actually I’m more of a systems engineer”. The fact that I stated that so earnestly makes it seem all the more ridiculous.
I wonder now what I was thinking when I thought of the term systems engineering. All throughout my childhood, I was the type of child who would probably today be considered fairly introverted if not mildly autistic. I didn’t connect well with people. But it was not due to autistic. I was concentrating in a very age-inappropriate way on figuring out what was going on. Thinking back on that, I shudder to think what my fate would be if that same trait played out in modern schools.
For this essay, I would divide my growing-up years into two phases of figuring it all out for myself. The first phase was a child growing up in the 1960s trying to figure out what was going on with the world. The second phase was the youth concentrating on studies to figure out what he is going to do about it.
What was going in the 1960s from a child’s eye view? I recall being spellbound by the current events of the cold war, viet nam, the space program, the social unrest in cities, and the counter-culture movement. I didn’t think of them as separate things but a single overall narrative best summed up by Walter Cronkite’s “and that’s the way it is” — words I can still hear as they were originally spoken. Sometimes I watched the news solely to get to the end when he would say those words.
I think I really was trying to figure out exactly that. I built a picture of the world based on what I saw on TV. It seemed a little odd to me that my neighborhood seemed to be isolated with the world. I guess I figured we lived in some kind of satellite world orbiting this larger real world and somehow largely shielded from it.
Out of this childhood, I picked up on the fascination on systems engineering as it meant back then. Today I mention systems engineering and the default assumption is about planning information technology equipment racks. In the 1960s and 1970s, the term as I understood it came out of the mathematical innovations of the world war. They built on earlier work by industrial engineering to build mathematical models to optimize and adapt the practices of the war at the largest scales. By the 1960s, systems engineers had a large influence throughout government. There was a systems engineering angle in all of the hot topics of the day.
The second phase was figuring out what I was going to do about the world. This was the pre-teen and teenage years. Typically a very confusing time for growing up and I like to think even more confusing to me. At the time I had no coherent idea of what I wanted but in hindsight I can see that I managed to resettle on the idea of concentrating on getting into a college and preparing for a technical degree. I grew up in a rural school and at a time where college prep suffered a lack of interest by both teachers and students. I suppose it took a little courage or disregard to popular opinion to even pursue it. Again it was a confusing time. My figuring out of what I wanted to be was probably largely due to accident of not being drawn into something else.
I entered my electrical engineering program and enjoyed the first semester, probably mostly because of the novelty of college and being away from home and all that. Things fell apart in the second semester when I began to realize this is not what I wanted. I stuck it out, though.
I got my first job and it was still at a time when electrical engineering meant working with individual electrical components. Today probably the closest that still exists is in the electrical power field. It was ok but I was bored with it. In hindsight, I would have been better off recognizing the boredom had more to do with the fact that I was in my 20s than it did with the actual work. I would have done well to stick it out. Of course, I didn’t.
My second job came accidentally. I’ll skip the back story but basically I was in the DC area and randomly mailed out my resume until some random company had a urgent need to fill a position for their contract. The resume puffed up the communications and control systems angle and they felt that it just what they wanted. The job had to do with the large scale conceptualization of how a global missile defense system would work. Quite by accident, I got into a job where people were doing systems engineering in the way I imagined the term.
The job didn’t last long due to contract circumstances and my own stupidity. But during that time I worked with some people who had been around during the heyday of systems engineering in the 1960s. To keep the story short, I was introduced to a book that I really ought to own. It was called the systems engineering handbook. It was thick and jam packed with all things systems engineering.
It was long out of print. I never got my own copy.
Something fundamental happened in the time when I was observing the miracle work of systems engineers in the 1960s and the dusty remains of the field in the 1980s. Systems engineering had fallen out of favor.
Sure it survives to this day. But it is a very narrow field with very limited employment opportunities. Large enterprises and government agencies still employ systems engineering or operations researchers. But generally these employees work in very small teams, with relatively low funding, and very little visibility. They are not likely to show up on the evening news.
There remains a value to operations research or systems engineering but this residual value is probably the value it always had. During the 1950s and 1960s it experienced a boom for promises it could not deliver. It failed to deliver. In some cases, I assume, they must have failed spectacularly. Even in the 1980s, I sensed a defensiveness in the systems engineers trying to put distance between themselves and the more embarrassing results.
I think the same kind of boom concerning the grand promises of Big Data and its associated data mining. There seems to be nothing it can’t solve. It will be interesting to see if this time it really is different and it will reinvent entire enterprises and government.
I think it more likely to burst soon with some big embarrassments and some retrenchment to scale back expectations. We see this today with the NSA scandals. I don’t mean the scandals about what data they have. I mean the scandals of what little good they can do with what they have.
It looks like the 1960s all over again.