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Fred Preston


Fred. L. Preston

BA Mathematics
Depauw University

MS Operations Research
Case Western Reserve University

PhD Industrial and Operations Engineering
University of Michigan

Systems Engineer
AT&T Bell Laboratories

It is the job of systems engineers to formulate the requirements for new products to meet the evolving needs of customers. These requirements are then followed by hardware designers or software developers in producing the hardware and software. We are also involved in field trials at the end of the development process to ensure that the new product satisfies the customer's needs and is economically viable for the company.

Systems engineering skills can be learned through the study of operations research. Operations researchers use mathematics to help understand and solve real-world decision problems. We need to be good listeners to determine the essence of what the customer wants. We also need to be able to separate out the unimportant details and focus on the critical issues. Often these critical issues can be described and modeled mathematically. Then the whole power of mathematics can be brought to bear to derive solutions. A good systems engineer must be able to see connections between ill-posed problems and potential solution techniques. Sometimes the systems engineer must make design decisions involving the proper setting of parameters that must be "traded off" one for another. These trade-off decisions can be made by mathematically deriving the best sort of parameter settings or by simulating the system in the computer when the model is complex. Finally, a knowledge of statistics is useful when conducting the field trials of the finished product, testing whether it has met its goals.

My jobs in this field have been interesting and varied. I started working with telephone testing equipment, using mathematics to help determine where companies should place these devices and how many they should purchase. Then I moved to military work. One of the problems I solved was the allocation of anti-missile weapons to attack incoming missiles. Now I am in cellular communications (a field that did not even exist when I went to school). Among my many tasks I use queueing and forecasting models to help cellular service providers predict how much call blocking their customers will experience and when more cellular radios and equipment should be ordered.

Systems engineering is interesting to me because it allows me to be creative. Artists describe their ideas using paint and canvas; musicians use their instruments; I use mathematics. My creations must serve to solve a customer's problem or satisfy an unmet need with a salable product. So I am also a problem solver, and I achieve satisfaction from seeing the results of my creative process helping others.

Systems engineering is a blend of logic and creativity. It is an exciting profession, and it is open to anyone with a logical, creative mind who wishes to use it to solve real problems.