This article was edited by SPRITE+ Research Associate Dmitry Dereshev, with responses and edits from Senior Lecturer in Systems Engineering for Defence Capability Tim Ferris.
The spotlight today is on Tim Ferris – Senior Lecturer in Systems Engineering for Defence Capability at Cranfield University, Deputy Head of the Centre for Systems and Technology Management, and a SPRITE+ member. Some of Tim’s latest publications include:
How would you describe your job to a 12-year-old?
I am a lecturer in Systems Engineering at Cranfield University. Our field is about discovering what the customer really needs so that the solution we make through engineering provides good results for all interested people.
Could you describe what you do during a typical workday?
My work day varies. Sometimes the day is filled with teaching, other times with preparation for teaching or marking. But many days are filled with doing research work, or administration and planning. I like the mix of activities.
Could you describe a challenging project that you’ve recently worked on?
I have been working on a new way to understand resilience of engineered systems which builds on the idea that systems are built to provide useful services to people and therefore resilience should be evaluated by the ability of the system to respond desirably when it faces challenges, and the evaluation of the overall resilience of the system should be through its capacity to provide service through its whole life.
What training/experience did you have at the start of your career?
I began with a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering (University of Adelaide) immediately after I left school, followed by some experience in the electricity supply industry. This taught me a somewhat closed view of knowledge. Following that I studied Theology (Flinders University) which opened my mind to studying a field in which the subject matter was taught as theories and something to be debated. This has a profound influence on my ability to approach my academic work in engineering from the point of view of exploring how the engineered systems would provide value to the people who use them, and the importance of focusing on making things useful for people.
How did you get into your current role?
I worked at the University of South Australia for 24 years and I looked for new opportunities to do interesting work. I looked at a number of positions in several countries and found my present position at Cranfield University which brought together many things from my past and provided me with opportunities to do interesting creative work.
What do you wish you'd known when you started your career?
I wish I had understood that academia is unlike other fields of work where being generally useful and contributing across the board to lots of things is the way to promotion. In contrast, academia rewards single-minded focus on research, measured by a combination of research funds obtained and papers written, even to the extent of allowing uncooperative behaviour from those scoring well on the preferred key performance indicators (KPIs).
What would you recommend to people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Decide at the beginning what matters to you. Do you want to work by educating people and focus your research on what matters in society? Or do you want to pursue a career focused on the classical academic KPIs, regardless of the practical value of your work?
What troubles did you have progressing through your career?
The first university I worked at was focused on its mission, embodied in its establishing Act of Parliament, to work for equity of opportunity for the disadvantaged, which led to a lot of busy work dealing with frequent course revisions and the problems of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering into higher education. But now many of the things I learned through that work are recognized and valued through roles of course leadership and recognition by Higher Education Academy (HEA).
What one stereotype would like to dispel about your job or industry?
There is a public perception, probably because university lecturers only teach a small proportion of the working week, that academia is a kind of holiday club. The tightening of university budgets over the past 40 years, and the competitive environment within and between universities, have combined to make academic work challenging but also personally rewarding. To succeed one must genuinely be a “self-starter”, to use the words of recruiters.
How would you describe your research or business interest in relation to SPRITE+?
I am an academic in systems engineering, and a member of a systems engineering group, looking for opportunities to do research in systems engineering or to apply systems engineering in novel fields of practice. As a practice-based discipline, systems engineering needs to address real problems of other fields in order to advance, because it is only in addressing the system-level issues related to the coherence of the whole solution, and the development methods to provide stakeholders with true value, that systems engineering can advance through finding means to address the real challenges.
How do you hope to benefit from working with SPRITE+ network?
I hope to be able to engage my group with projects dealing with the technical whole of system analysis and organizational and human interfaces of systems that enable the achievement of a safe, yet innovative, digital economy.
Which of the SPRITE+ Challenge Themes can you relate to from the job that you do? How does it impact your role?
In our role as systems engineers we relate to project development across the life cycle, ranging from the discovery of the needs, concerns and interests of the stakeholders, and the transformation of those discovered needs into requirements that determine systems, and in the means to do analysis during development and after development the verification and validation to determine that appropriate systems have been offered to stakeholders. The systems of interest could be both systems intended for end users and also systems intended to enable research into particular methods, technology or scenarios. We are a service and enabling discipline that cuts across all the fields of interest.
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