WiSE Feature Interview- Holly Handley

How did you get started in the field of systems engineering?

Back in 1999, I was a military spouse with three children ages 3, 5 & 7. We moved to Northern Virginia when my husband was stationed at the Pentagon. I decided it was a good time to go back to school to get a PhD - I have bachelor and master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering. George Mason University, the nearby state university, only had an umbrella PhD program called Engineering and Technology. I applied to the program and was accepted - but I needed to find a graduate assistantship to cover the cost of childcare while I was in class. I went to campus and knocked on the doors of both the Electrical Engineering Department and the Systems Engineering Department. Only the System Engineering chair answered the door. He had an assistantship available earmarked for a US woman student – he offered it to me immediately with the caveat that my dissertation had to have something to do with Systems Engineering. 20 years later I am an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Systems Engineering Department at Old Dominion University. My research program investigates the intersection of System Engineering and Human System Integration, with a focus on System Architectures and Model Based System Engineering.

What do you find interesting or exciting about working in the field of systems science and systems engineering?

Everything is a system! The system boundary is where you as the engineer define it. I always define the boundary with the human operator inside the box – this forces me to think through how the human is part of the system and how that influences the system design. Now I am expanding my vision to have automation and artificial intelligence replace the operator; this increases the design space even further as I seek new ways to define how this impacts our understanding of the system and its relationship to humans “outside” the loop.

What advice do you have for those just starting out in the field of systems engineering?

Engineering is all about details, but it's important not to lose sight of the big picture. It is an exciting time to work in the field of systems engineering.

Old Dominion University
IEEE Region
Region 2 (Eastern U.S.)
Holly Handley is a Systems Council Distinguished Lecturer

"The Human Viewpoint: Including the Human Component in System Architectures"