Dr. Jeffrey S. Ray, professor with UMBC’s graduate programs in systems engineering, chatted with us about his career path, the courses he teaches, where he feels the industry is heading and how best students can succeed in the ever-changing landscape of technology.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Rather listen to the full version on the UMBC Mic’d Up podcast?
Can you talk about your career path?
Interesting question, because I have a very diverse background. I have a degree in law and I’m a licensed attorney in three states. I’m also a professional engineer in several states. I got into systems engineering early in my career and became a subject matter expert over time.
I learned most of my engineering skills in the trenches by actually doing them. And I think that gives me a practical advantage. I ran a software integration test lab for twelve years, as well as spent twenty nine years working for a large defense contractor.
Today, I mentor doctoral candidates through the dissertation process. Along with one of my doctoral mentees who has graduated, I co-founded the Institute of Digital Business Strategies (IDBS) which is a future driven organization which facilitates strategically channeled digital approaches to business challenges. We also wrote a book together, The Definitive Guide to Digital Business Strategy.
In addition to this, I’m the chief technical officer for a company that I started up with my brother, and I also work as a project manager and senior systems engineer. My actual job title is Principles Aerospace Systems Engineer, and I’m on assignment to a government contract. I go around to these different contracts and recommend ways to improve the system engineering development, the design process, and also the project management approaches that are taken to the projects.
And, of course, I teach! I teach students how to do things. I teach them how to roll up their sleeves, start turning down a project, laying down the life cycle acquisition phases. I’m someone who learned their trade in the trenches doing it, and I like to bring that to the classroom.
What would you say is the most exciting part of being in your field?
The ability to take something that’s never been done before and do it. And that’s what systems engineering does. When you look at a development project and you’re defining a capability that’s never been done before, you get to create what you want. Usually you obtain an acquisition of some system and you have a project around that goal. Then you look at the system and what ultimately you want this thing to do.
You look at the system as a whole. You define the functional capabilities that you want to design into that system. And then you have to materialize and visualize in your brain what subsystems are going to accomplish those functional capabilities. Then, as you get farther done, architecture becomes more concrete and black letter laws and principles apply. But initially, it’s really an exercise in visualization and materializing that vision. So it makes it really, really interesting to watch these subsystems evolve into pieces of equipment that can actually do things.
So there’s a creative, artistic side to the work you do?
If you knew my background, you’d know how amazing it is that I came to realize this artistic side. I started out as a structural engineer, where everything is very specific —- you meet your flexible stress criteria or you don’t. So, you make the designs. Everything’s cut and dry. But then when I went to law school and passed the bar, I discovered the opposite. You don’t want a single conclusion. You want to make everything gray, make everything an issue, bring in the facts and manipulate them. And so I had that kind of contrasting experience.
When I started looking at some of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) historical best projects in the new product development area, I realized that ninety five percent of these projects fail. And if you look at your typical IT projects, depending on what source you get, between 60 to 70 percent of them fail.
Why do these things fail? Well, because we’re not looking at the future and trying to sense and imagine what these problems are going to be that we’re going to hit. And that’s what we need to do. We need to look for and identify the problems.
And so the artistic stuff comes from looking at the 5% of products that didn’t fail. It isn’t any of the hardcore stuff that you would think it would be. It’s all soft factors like do you take care of your suppliers? Do you have areas of competencies in your company that relate to the project?
So there’s a lot of soft factors that really shocked me when I was doing research in those areas. This research and realization is something that led me to having a little bit more creativity.
What advice would you give to a new systems engineer entering the field?
I think you can’t come into an IT or evolving marketplace with the idea that “I got my bachelor’s degree, that’s it, I’m good until I retire 40 years from now.” It’s going to be constant effort to stay on top of things. My advice, get into the right field, roll up your sleeves,and get ready to work. Just slowly but surely every day, get a little smarter, get another credential, and get another goal. And don’t ever stop. And eventually you’ll be like me with a bunch of white hair and a bunch of certifications and a bunch of degrees. But it doesn’t happen overnight. You just gotta keep working.
Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you that that you feel would add value to this conversation?
Back when I started out at TRW, it was a very mentoring-rich environment. You could stop any senior manager or any senior engineer at any level in the hallway, ask them a question and they would sit down with you and go over the principles until you understood.
You don’t really see that in companies anymore. Even if I wanted to go out there and impose myself on some young employee to explain things to them, they’re a little hesitant to want to have that discussion. They’re scared that you might recognize that they have some gaps in their knowledge. And so somehow we have to overcome that and get people into a mentoring environment where it’s understood that people have to learn and learn continuously.
Ready to Claim Your Future in Systems Engineering?
If you’d like to learn more about the systems engineering graduate programs at UMBC, please visit us!
About Dr. Jeffrey Ray
Dr. Jeffrey S. Ray received his B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Maryland, a M.S. in Engineering Management from George Washington University, his J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law, and his D.Mgt. from SMC University, Zurg, Switzerland.. Additionally, Dr. Ray is a PMI certified Program Management Professional (PMP), INCOSE Certified Systems Engineering Professional (CSEP), licensed Attorney at Law, certified six sigma black belt, registered Professional Engineer, and instrument rated private pilot with detailed knowledge of the national airspace system.