8SUCCESSFUL CAREERS

I came to systems engineering in an unusual way.

– Anonymous Helix participant

Interviews with systems engineers usually began with the question “How did you become a systems engineer?” Many of the more seasoned systems engineers explained that they came to systems engineering in an “unusual way” or through a “circuitous path.” Few senior or mid‐level systems engineers started out intending to become systems engineers. They were going to be electrical, mechanical, or other classic engineers; program or organizational managers; or perhaps analysts. Over the course of their careers, however, something happened: someone noticed they had the ability to think systemically as well as systematically. They might have realized this themselves – “I always found myself asking ‘Why?’, asking what was the next thing this problem connected to,” or “I was always drawn to the bigger picture” – or a mentor or leader recognized this trait and helped to develop it. This led to a shift to positions focused more on systems‐level issues and less on technical or programmatic detail.

In her interview, Courtney Wright offered the following explanation of how she became a systems engineer, which was more direct than many:

I went to undergraduate straight after high school. As a high school student, I was good at and interested in math and science, so I was told I should study engineering. … Going to [the University of Virginia] and studying mechanical engineering, they had a ...

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