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Industry News The Software Engineer of Tomorrow - Simultaneously Specialist and Interdisciplinary Generalist

Author / Editor: Andreas Fiedler / Florian Richert

In the process of digitalization, the profession of engineer is transforming. To accelerate industry 4.0, it is necessary to constantly expand one's knowledge and interconnect specialist disciplines. A qualified workforce is a decisive factor.

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Digitally supported and networked products, technologies and services - specialists with the broadest possible expertise are needed.
Digitally supported and networked products, technologies and services - specialists with the broadest possible expertise are needed.
(Source: H&D)

Even if digitization is progressing more and more, change is by no means a self-runner in companies. A skilled workforce is a critical factor in developing new, innovative products or services. In 2019, the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) pointed out in its statement Digitalisation of the world of work: Changes and consequences for the labor market, training, and qualification to the fact that digital technologies are changing work processes in all professions and sectors. New careers are emerging, while other professions are disappearing or changing. German engineers are also feeling the effects of this change: to provide digitally supported and networked products and technologies, skilled workers are needed who are as broadly qualified as possible.

Digital transformation is changing the working world

The transition to industry 4.0 will pick up speed again in the upcoming years. According to the 2018 company survey (in German) of the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), more than half of all companies surveyed plan to invest in digitization in the next two years. However, many highly qualified engineers are lagging behind this trend. The knowledge taught at universities is often one-sided and hardly satisfies the demands of today's working world. This is also noticed by German companies, who are desperately looking for qualified specialists. Employees are therefore challenged to look beyond their horizons. The individual disciplines are becoming increasingly interconnected: The classical engineer must acquire skills that were not required in his environment in the past. This is particularly important for IT skills, as professional practice is increasingly digitalized and software-driven. As a result, the classical engineer is transformed into a specialized software engineer who combines competencies in engineering and software development.

Product development is a particularly dynamic area. Here the complexity of software and systems is growing rapidly. Companies, therefore, rely on model-based system engineering (MBSE) to build the necessary bridge between the various disciplines. Digital models accompany the entire development process. The continuous work with them makes it possible to network the results of different production stages. Already in the early concept phases, MBSE helps engineers to keep track of complex systems and to understand interrelationships.

Increasing complexity challenges companies

The example of MBSE shows that operational processes change with new ways of working. Increasing complexity often confronts companies with new challenges that can only be solved with a qualified workforce. If the competencies of their employees are not sufficient to implement projects, however, employers will change over to training their employees independently. A survey of HR managers conducted by the ifo Institute in 2019 showed that companies are increasingly developing their solutions to withstand the growing pressure of progress. By qualifying their employees, companies are also counteracting the cross-sector shortage of skilled workers.

Besides, companies are also focusing on new types of cooperation. In cross-functional teams, employees from different functional areas combine their knowledge. Each team member has his or her special area, but ideally at the same time has as broad a basic knowledge as possible of related specialist areas. This enables them to take on tasks in other areas and develop new products with innovative ideas. A broadly qualified team absorbs personnel and technical bottlenecks in the best possible way and prevents delays in operations as well as the complete loss of orders.
Competences such as agility and flexibility also come into the focus of the engineers. New forms of interaction between machine-machine as well as man-machine require corresponding qualifications and competencies. It is becoming apparent that the classical methodological foundations, such as simulation and modeling, are increasingly supplementing the methodological capabilities of process and system thinking. In its study engineers for industry 4.0 conducted in 2019, the Impuls Foundation of the German Engineering Federation (VDMA) found that prospective engineers increasingly know the fields of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and information technology. The combination of these disciplines forms a software engineer whose professional, methodical and ideally social skills complement those of traditional engineers and IT specialists. Universities are therefore called upon to train their students accordingly.

Universities are adapting to the needs

The curriculum at universities has altered in recent years. Traditional engineering courses are increasingly being supplemented by new courses of study. In many cases, however, the institutes are still at the beginning of a necessary development, in which the integration of new technical content represents a major hurdle. Their integration often fails because of the administrative hurdles of the cross-faculty and cross-departmental study organization. The dominant silo thinking of the departments and faculties prevents the topics from networking more effectively for the requirements of industry 4.0. As a consequence, universities and colleges of applied sciences train engineers without having to deal with everyday working life. They are therefore often unable to cope with the demands of technology transformation.

Occasionally, universities have produced successful courses of study in recent years that more strongly interlink content in an interdisciplinary manner. The TU Ilmenau offers "Computer and Systems Engineering", the University of Magdeburg "Engineering Informatics" and the University of Potsdam "IT-Systems Engineering". Seminars, modules and Master's programs on topics such as "Integrated Engineering" or "Digital Engineering" prepare future engineers with a new perspective on everyday working life. In these curricula, which have been revised in engineering science, topics such as artificial intelligence, object-oriented programming, and distributed systems are firmly integrated.

A few universities also recognize that they cannot find the solution to the engineering dilemma on their own and are increasingly cooperating with companies. The Industry 4.0 Curriculum project, initiated by the software manufacturer SAP 2016 together with several German universities, is a successful example of this. Over the two-year project period, representatives from science, industry, and politics contributed to the further development of the curricula of existing study programs and the adoption of new study contents. The aim was to adapt forms of study and learning to the digitalized way of working. The Association of German Engineers (VDI) emphasized in its study Engineering Education for Digital Transformation 2019 that the interfaces between universities and companies are a key to the success of future engineering education. It is however often up to the universities to what extent they provide access for companies and partnerships through internships and cooperative final theses.


Digitally supported and networked products, technologies, and services - all of this requires specialists with the broadest possible expertise. Whereas in the past the disciplines were strictly separated, today experts with equal qualifications and competencies in the fields of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and information technology are in demand. The merger of these disciplines calls for a new type of engineer whose technical, methodological and social skills complement those of traditional engineers and IT specialists. But companies hardly find these interdisciplinary networked specialists on the job market. In recent years, the qualification of their employees has proven its worth for companies. New forms of cooperation, such as cross-functional teams, also promise a way out of the engineering plight. In the end, however, the universities are obliged to provide classical engineering education and to form new courses of study that focus on industry 4.0. The hurdle remains to combine interdisciplinary content in a way that makes sense and is practice-oriented. Universities as well as companies are often still at the beginning of a path whose goal is the software engineer of tomorrow.

This article was previously published in German on Industry of Things.