The role of a Systems Engineer is somewhat of a mystery, even for some people in tech. To shed more light on their responsibilities, we asked Wiktor Kwarciak and Michał Lubieniecki to tell us more about their career path and the scope of their team’s work.
How did you start your adventure with automotive and system engineering? What was your career path?
Wiktor: My career path as a systems engineer started a bit by accident: I replied to a job offer without fully knowing too many details. It also sounded really good, after the interview with the potential employer. I am interested in embedded systems, although at the time I was not working as an engineer, but as a manager. So I decided it was time to go back to engineering – where I belong. After I made that decision, everything happened really quickly. In the beginning, I was, of course, only part of the team, but after a fairly short time, I got my first projects, and then my own team. It all happened in just three years.
Michał: I became associated with the industry shortly after graduation. My adventure began at the Fiat Research Centre in Turin, where I worked on improving the acoustic comfort of vehicles. Later, for a long period of time, I worked in broadly understood R&D, unrelated to the automotive industry. This work allowed me to gain extensive knowledge, but I didn’t have a narrow specialisation that would allow me to think about a career as a programmer or embedded system electronics engineer.
As soon as I realised that I’d like to make a change in my career, I responded to a job offer, which seemed to fit my experience. After all, the job of a systems engineer is interdisciplinary – it’s related to technical project management, but it’s still an engineering position. This decision turned out to be a bullseye.
How has your career developed since then?
Michał: A systems engineer learns continuously throughout their life. This is more or less where we are in our career development. The industry is changing, and so are we. Working with new technologies forces us to constantly expand our knowledge as systems engineers broaden their knowledge rather than deepen it. There are two reasons for that.
First of all, there are still few systems engineers in the market compared to, for example, programmers, so we don’t work with only one group of products, we don’t specialise in any particular area. Secondly, due to the evolution of car systems, their electrical architecture, data processing capabilities and its purpose, a systems engineer job is very different to 10 years ago.
Wiktor: I agree with Michał. The role of the systems engineer is to connect the work of other specialists in the team – we coordinate the activities of electronics specialists, software specialists, and mechanical engineers; we turn their separate activities into one coherent whole, even though we don’t have to be specialists in any of these areas. We understand a lot– how to read electrical diagrams, construction diagrams of devices, we know the basic information about building and operating software, and this allows us to understand the broader sense of the team’s activities. We know which actions make sense and where to find the right people to carry them out.
The work of the systems team looks similar – some of us are better at specific tasks, so they can deal with the implementation of more precise, detailed parts of a project. So your development path may lead you one of two ways: either you get your own small projects (or parts of projects) to implement on your own, or a team to lead and manage during the realisation of a bigger project.
Michał: It’s worth mentioning that we don’t mean managing very big teams when we talk about team management. There are rarely any big projects – my biggest team consisted of 12 people. Therefore, in smaller projects, team leaders also engage in technical and substantive tasks, which, however, can be difficult to reconcile. System teams in most of the projects that I implemented consisted of about 5 people.
How did you get to Spyrosoft?
Wiktor: I was working on an exhausting project when I heard from a friend that the company he worked at was recruiting for an engineer position that, in his opinion, could fit my experience and needs. When he told me about the great work atmosphere, I had no doubts – I applied and… I became the first systems engineer at Spyrosoft.
Michał: Before joining Spyrosoft, I was already working as a systems engineer. I started looking for a new job not because I wanted to switch my career path (I really like what I’m doing), but because I was looking for a work environment that is flexible, allows me to define my role according to my ideas, and even allows me to get a glimpse behind-the-scenes of other industries. The automotive industry is just one of many to which we provide our services. Wiktor persuaded me to change my job. I trusted him and here I am.
And what is your “typical” working day like, if there is such a thing? What projects do you work on? What problems do you face on a daily basis?
Wiktor: *laughs* I can show you my calendar, it will say more than a thousand words. It is filled with meetings with either the client or the team – setting a plan, determining the functions of the system that we are working on, etc. My current position is Function Owner, but it is still a similar scope of tasks – it basically requires constant contact with the client and the team. I once heard that a systems engineer is a project manager’s ‘technical right hand’ – it’s hard to disagree with that. My typical day consists of numerous meetings, both technical and non-technical, but always very interesting.
Michał: There is one factor that is crucial for our work: we must be able to react to sudden changes. My “typical” day at work can only be about 60% planned. There is always something that needs an immediate reaction on our side, and that forces us to adapt our own plans and the plans of our teams.
It may seem that we do a simple job: we provide the specification that is intended to describe complicated things in an uncomplicated and understandable way. The person writing the specification must first have a good understanding of aspects such as: the hardware layer, how the software works, what architecture the software has, how verification and validation are carried out, what the release for production looks like, and in what environment the final product will work. Then you combine all that and ‘bam’, you just wrote 10 requirements!
Wiktor: It is true that we are the first filter between our clients and the team. We pass on new ideas, we discuss potential problems and only then will we share it with the team. The fact that we don’t know what will happen on a given day is, however, both the most interesting and the most irritating part of our work. We can’t really plan anything. You need to be very good at improvising and easily adapt to sudden changes to handle it.
This is the biggest challenge for me. Currently, most electronic components in cars have much more computing power than PCs 10 or even 5 years ago. More and more often, multi-core processors are used to running several operating systems at once. Designing, building and maintaining systems of this complexity is a really difficult task.
Michał: For me, the challenge is the growing complexity of cars, their electronic architecture, individual systems and subsystems as well as the number of interfaces and the amount of information exchanged between the onboard devices and between the car and environment. Additionally, note the progressing standardisation. In 2021, ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers Association) published a list of legal regulations in the automotive industry, which has over 140 pages… and this is just a list of referred documents.
Other challenges are related to work methods. Today, the classic waterfall approach is often replaced with agile methodologies. The way it affects systems engineering and the entire industry is a topic for a separate interview.
What are the current trends in the industry and how, in your opinion, will the role of a systems engineer change in 2-3 years?
Wiktor: The automotive industry is increasingly moving towards creating “connected” cars. The first cars were entirely mechanical machines, now they are basically data centres on wheels, which are connected to the Internet and equipped with sophisticated, advanced driver assistance technology.
The line between a car as a powerful machine for moving people and a car as a powerful computer slowly gets blurred. The car and its functions depend less and less on its design or equipment, and more and more on the software that controls it.
Michał: The industry trends are very clear. Any layman would mention electromobility or autonomous cars as the main trends that have dominated the industry in recent years. Additionally, there are also telematics functions, cybersecurity, car as a service, cloud solutions, etc. These are just general concepts, and behind each of them, there is a lot of work for engineers of various specialisations.
I will only add one more thing: if someone wants to work with innovations and technologies that car manufacturers are proud of today, they do not have to work at Toyota, Porsche or BMW. Note that due to the cooperation model, the (sub) suppliers actually have a greater chance of having knowledge about new products in the industry than producers who have been on the market for half a century. If a product has been on the market for 6 years, then the entire accumulated experience of designing it is two or three generations. Also, the suppliers – small companies that are flexible and adapt quickly – have such knowledge. Big players are integration specialists. It’s not necessarily the rule, but this is what I observe.
Who would you recommend considers becoming a Systems Engineer? What types of people do you think are best for this position?
Wiktor: It depends. I would divide people who might be interested in becoming a Systems Engineer into two groups. The first one is people who already work on embedded systems projects, e.g. as a test engineer, validation engineer, electronics engineer or software engineer, who feel that they have achieved everything (or almost everything) they could in their current position and who want to develop further. It is a way to move to a higher level of abstraction, but also to a higher level of tasks to be responsible for.
The second group are people who work on embedded systems projects, but who do not have one specific type of tasks they want to realise. The role of a systems engineer is very much interdisciplinary, so you may learn something new in all areas – at a fairly basic level, of course, but the scope of tasks that are carried out here is very wide, so if you want to, you will have a chance to explore some topics in more detail. That’s why I would invite everyone for whom it sounds interesting – especially women, because we don’t have enough women in systems. They aren’t particularly interested in a systems engineer position, which is a pity because the ones I know are doing a great job.
Michał: I would say that this is a job for anyone who likes to solve problems because we face them. These are not only problems hidden deeply in software or hardware, but also those at the process or organisation level. If you enjoy negotiations or team coordination, this position may also be a good match for you.
But I would like to point out that it’s not like every system engineer runs around the office in a creative frenzy and has a thousand ideas per minute. There is also time for deep focus, so if someone is not a volcano of energy every day from the moment they wake up – I, for example, am not – they may also do great as a systems engineer.
How do you acquire the necessary knowledge for everyday work as a systems engineer?
Michał: If you wonder if they are qualified enough to work as a systems engineer, you should know that there are no studies for systems engineers, no courses or schools dedicated to this position that will make you become a system engineer, get a diploma and shake the hand of the rector, wearing a toga.
First, you need to understand what this role entails and get a feel for if it might be for you. Many system engineers have never thought about a career in this position until they came across someone already in this role or, like Wiktor and me, simply trusted their gut. As a result, systems engineers can have really different professional experiences. We are a very diverse group and this is a great advantage because day to day work in this position requires a lot of creativity, so this diversity helps us a lot, and each of us brings a new perspective, ideas and solutions.
Wiktor: I can only add that there are courses that allow you to master the elements of knowledge or some of the skills that are useful in the work of a systems engineer, such as courses in various modelling languages. They are helpful, but the essence of knowledge in this position is acquired during the work on projects and through your own experience.
Michał: I know a person who was an electronics engineer, but through having great soft skills and technical knowledge, though not in systems engineering, they became a successful systems engineer in just a month. On the other hand, I have never heard of anyone who became a systems engineer because they completed a course or obtained a certificate confirming their knowledge or skills in this field. In my opinion, you have to have a certain mindset to become a systems engineer, and all the knowledge you need will come to you through practice and actual work.