‘There Is No Typical Day’: Why Being a Systems Engineer Is Always Interesting

by Brendan Meyer
March 8, 2021

Every engineer is a systems engineer at Relativity Space

Well, not literally. 

It’s just a philosophy at the Long Beach robotics company that’s meant to create a more well-rounded, distributed systems engineering model. 

“It means each individual is expected to know how their product interfaces with other products and how it impacts the entire system,” Eric Chumbley, a senior systems engineer at Relativity Space, said. 

Chumbley’s days can include everything from producing regulatory documents to creating tools that add value and efficiency to a project. That’s the interesting part about being a systems engineer. They’ve got their hands in everything.

Over at Thrive Market, Yash Kamothi, a senior software engineer, spends some days delivering a new feature, while others entail trying to find the root cause of a bug or issue. At The Aerospace Corporation, Donald Yang, a principal director of the electronics engineering subdivision, collaborates with technical staff to evaluate the flow of requirements one day, and tests and launches satellites the next. 

Perhaps that’s the most exciting part about being a systems engineer, Chumbley explained.

“There is no typical day,” he said.

We spoke to each of these engineers to learn more about some of their recent projects and asked what attributes make for a great systems engineer.

 

Yash Kamothi
Senior Software Engineer • Thrive Market

Adapt

One trait that makes Kamothi successful is adaptability. At Thrive Market, an e-commerce company that delivers healthy sustainable products, the senior software engineer is frequently balancing two or three completely different tasks at once. “That’s why it’s critical to adapt your approach to work well with the technology and tools that are in place today,” he said.

 

Walk us through a typical day for you as a systems engineer at your company.

Some days my head is down, and I am focused on delivering a new feature to improve our members’ shopping experience. Other days I’m trying to find the root cause of a bug or issue, and trying to prevent it from happening again. I regularly review pull requests that my team proposes so that whatever query, API, cron job or system being created can be flexible, robust and performant. Among other things, I also review our monitoring and alerting platforms to identify any bottlenecks in our systems and investigate to address the root causes.

 

Whats a current or recent project youve worked on that was really interesting or challenging?

I recently overhauled our existing system for exporting customers’ orders across our e-commerce platform to meet the scalability needs of our business. Our platform and customer base continues to quickly grow. I was tasked with making a new system that will scale and handle the load that the business is receiving, while keeping it efficient, robust and cost-effective.

If you are adaptable and resilient, the systems and applications that you create will likely show that same sense of resiliency.’’

The aspect that I enjoyed the most while working on this project was utilizing Golang and microservices to help solve a lot of our engineering problems. I leveraged my past experience with Go, along with the ease of concurrency that Go provides, to ensure that our platform scales efficiently and meets the guarantees and service-level agreements of our customers.

 

In your experience, whats one of the most important skills a systems engineer needs to be successful?

Good judgment and adaptability. You will frequently be required to balance delivering features and capabilities while also working to modernize the platform, eliminate tech debt and improve performance and scalability. That’s why it’s critical to adapt your approach to work well with the technology and tools that are in place today.

You also must be thoughtful and pragmatic and know when to leverage off-the-shelf systems and when to build a custom solution. If you are adaptable and resilient, the systems and applications that you create will likely show that same sense of resiliency, and you’ll enjoy solving all sorts of problems in different environments.

 

Eric Chumbley
Senior Systems Engineer • Relativity Space

Communicate

A tech background is important to be a successful systems engineer, Chumbley explained. But you’ll get nowhere without good communication. That’s what he’s learned at Relativity Space, a company that fuses 3D printing, artificial intelligence and autonomous robotics. “If you don’t know how or when to listen, or if you can’t explain details or concepts to all team members, a deep technical skillset won’t get you far.”

 

Walk us through a typical day for you as a systems engineer at your company.

At Relativity Space, we’re redefining the traditional role of a systems engineer. We believe in a distributed system engineering model where every engineer is a systems engineer, meaning each individual is expected to know how their product interfaces with other products and how it impacts the entire system. Additionally, each engineer is responsible for knowing what requirements they need to meet and how those requirements will be verified.  

On any given day, a systems engineer at Relativity could be updating or creating tools to make sure they add value and efficiency, managing and reviewing requirements to ensure that the system as a whole will work as intended or helping to produce required regulatory documents. That’s the thing l like most about my role — there is no typical day. But the ultimate goal is always the same.

 

Whats a current or recent project youve worked on that was really interesting or challenging?

My involvement with hardware-in-the-loop (HITL) testing has been really interesting. Currently, I’m defining high-level testing as well as working with responsible engineers on how that testing will occur. What’s not to love about this project? The convergence of actual hardware with software is always a great milestone to see, and being a part of it is even better. While there is still a lot of work to get to launch, getting to this point of testing is a testament to how far the avionics group has come and it shines a light on our talented team.

I’ve seen brilliant system engineers with degrees in nuclear physics, mechanical engineering or computer science excel in this field.’’

 

In your experience, whats one of the most important skills a systems engineer needs to be successful?

The skill of communication. That’s not to say a strong technical background isn’t important, because it is, but that technical background can be in pretty much any field. I’ve seen brilliant system engineers with degrees in nuclear physics, mechanical engineering or computer science excel in this field. Being able to understand technical information, dive deep when needed and see the picture are all important. But if you don’t know how or when to listen, or if you can’t explain details or concepts to all team members, a deep technical skillset won’t get you far.

 

Donald Yang
Principal director of the electronics engineering subdivision • The Aerospace Corporation

Work Together

Want to be a great systems engineer? Just roll up your sleeves and work with everyone. That’s Yang’s advice. The principal director of the electronics engineering subdivision at The Aerospace Corporation, an aerospace company in El Segundo, believes that the key to being a standout systems engineer is having the ability to solve problems that satisfy all stakeholders.

 

Walk us through a typical day for you as a systems engineer at your company.

A typical day includes collaborating with technical staff to evaluate the flow of requirements from the satellite-level down to sub-system/box-level hardware. I have learned that improper requirement flow down will bite you later when hardware does not perform as expected, especially when it is on the path to the integration and test stage. 

I’ve had many opportunities to take on a variety of engineering responsibilities throughout my career at Aerospace. Some of those responsibilities include space architecture development, integration, test and the launch of satellites.

 

Whats a current or recent project youve worked on that was really interesting or challenging?

I supported the integration and test campaign for a first-of-its-kind satellite. Of the many problems that occurred during the first two years of the integration and test campaign, none were in my area of expertise. Thus, I learned so much about other technical areas, with the biggest lesson being that compromises at earlier stages of satellite design will have unintended consequences when the hardware is built.

A standout systems engineer has the ability to solve problems that satisfy all stakeholders, from the customer to the contractor to the user.’’

In your experience, whats one of the most important skills a systems engineer needs to be successful?

I have worked with many engineers across the space industry. The most important skill I see as a systems engineer is an ability to roll up your sleeves and work with the hardware engineers, program managers and customers to deliver hardware that works. 

Each stakeholder in a project will propose options that most benefit their bottom line. Program managers want to make sure that projects are on schedule, hardware engineers want the hardware to work and customers want the project to stay on budget. A standout systems engineer has the ability to solve problems that satisfy all stakeholders, from the customer to the contractor to the user.

 

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