What Is a Computer Engineer?
Computer engineers, also known as computer hardware engineers or computer software engineers, develop and evaluate the software essential for computers to work. Those in this field are in the vanguard of new computer technology. Computer hardware engineers design, develop, and test the components of computer systems, such as circuit boards, networks, routers, memory boards, and processors. They work on research and development of the newest computer technology. Computer software engineers create software products, and design and develop operating systems, networking systems, games, web, and mobile applications. They also create tests for new and existing code to make sure it is compatible. Computer hardware and software engineers often engage in collaborative work, such as smart phone design.
Engineering Career Paths
Steps to Becoming a Computer Engineer
Steps to Take:
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Step 2: Internship
Step 3: Earn a Master’s
Step 4: Certification
Step 5: Keeping Up with Technology
Step 6: Find A Job
Becoming a computer engineer generally involves earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science. However, the work starts before then, by taking relevant math and science courses in high school. Learning to code while still in high school is an excellent idea. If possible, look into interning at a computer company during high school or while on summer vacation. The field itself is very broad, so there are various career paths available. The flexibility of a computer engineering career is another attractive aspect. Whether a computer hardware or software engineer, it is vital to stay abreast of the latest developments in technology and the newest trends.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
The first step to take in becoming a computer engineer is earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering or computer science, computer programming or electrical engineering. Coursework typically includes classes on computer programming, mathematics, calculus, computer architecture and hardware, and software mathematical structures. The student has the choice of attending a brick-and-mortar school or enrolling in an online course of study. Look for schools accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which evaluates both standard and online schools. Because so much computer work is done online, distance learning is a natural for this major. With distance learning, you can work at your own pace and on your own schedule. While it generally takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, taking classes during the summer and winter breaks can enable a student to earn their degree in less time, perhaps as little as three years. For students with work and/or family obligations, earning a degree either on campus or online may take somewhat longer.
Step 2: Internship
Many colleges offer internships for computer majors, and this is an opportunity of which an aspiring computer engineer should take advantage. Not only does an internship introduce a student to the real world applications of computer engineering, but it offers the candidate job experience. When it comes time to look for a job, the applicant with on-the-job experience is more likely to be considered by potential employers. If your college does not offer such an internship program, try to find computer-related work during summer vacation, or work part-time in the field while pursuing your education. Internships and summer/part-time jobs can often lead to full-time employment offers once you receive your degree.
Step 3: Earn A Master’s
While a computer software engineer may find good job prospects with a bachelor’s degree, many companies prefer hiring computer hardware engineers who have earned master’s degrees. Expect completion of a master’s degree to take approximately two years. Some schools offer five year combination bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and this is a good choice if you know you want to pursue a master’s degree in the computer field. As noted, many technology firms will pay for an employee’s higher education, so a computer hardware engineer may want to take an entry-level position with a company that will reimburse expenses for a master’s degree. While a master’s degree is not as necessary for a computer software engineer, these individuals may also aim for a company that will pay for a graduate degree. If a company agrees to fund a Ph.D., a computer engineer can earn a degree opening the door toward advanced research and development or teaching at the university level.
Step 4: Certification
Computer engineers should receive certification in various aspects of their field. The Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) offers certification for computer engineers, along with continuing education credits and professional development opportunities. Once at a professional level, you can join the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the largest organization for those engaged in scientific computing. Computer engineers with ABET accreditation are sought after by employers as this organization has very high standards. If you wish to oversee computer design projects, consider obtaining project management credentials from the top professional organization for such managers, the Project Management Institute (PMI). Two of the most common types of project management credential offered by PMI are the Project Management Professional (PMP) and the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). The latter is a lower certification than PMP, but is a good starting point for new computer engineers who do not yet have PMP qualifications. Once these are obtained during the course of your career, you can advance to PMP certification.
Step 5: Keeping Up with Technology
Along with receiving certification, it is imperative that computer engineers stay up-to-date with the rapid changes in technology. Continuing education is an essential part of a career in the computer industry. Many companies pay for their computer engineers’ continuing education, as this is a necessary investment in their workforce. If you decide to make computer engineering your career, updating your skills by taking classes or adding seminars is critical. Many of these classes are available online. Tech firms often send employees to courses offered by vendors, which include major hardware and software companies such as Microsoft, Cisco, or Oracle.
Step 6: Find A Job
Your college will likely have affiliations with employers searching for computer engineer candidates. Take advantage of your school’s career services department and any tech job fairs it may hold.
What Does a Computer Engineer Do?
Computer hardware engineers may work in research laboratories in which they design and test computer models. They may also work in manufacturing. Computer hardware engineers may have to travel to a client’s site to install hardware on their premises. Computer software engineers usually work for computer systems design firms, or for software publishing companies. Applications software engineers develop the applications people use on their computers and devices, while systems software engineers develop the systems that actually run the computers and devices.
Computer Engineer Skills to Acquire
Every computer professional needs a firm mathematical foundation. While some computer engineers work by themselves, most work in teams, so good communication and interpersonal skills are necessary. In short, candidates must work well with others. Because troubleshooting is part of computer engineering, a candidate should have good problem-solving skills. Communication skills are also important, since computer engineers must explain their work to customers, company executives, and others who may not have an extensive technical background. Computer professionals may also have to deliver oral presentations about their work, so the ability to speak about their endeavors and explain clearly what is involved is essential.
In some cases, an individual earning an associate’s degree in computer technology, electronics or pre-engineering may find a company willing to hire them and possibly pay for further education. Earning an associate’s degree from a community college or online generally takes about two years. Another alternative is attending a web programming bootcamp online. Some firms may offer on-the-job training to talented computer engineers lacking a bachelor’s degree.
Computer Engineer Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2017 median pay for computer hardware engineers is $115,120, making it a very lucrative field. As of 2017, the median pay for applications software developers was $101,790, while the median pay for systems software developers was $107,600. The more experience a computer hard or software engineer has, the higher their compensation.
Those in the computer or information technology field may work virtually anywhere – and “virtual” is the key word. Some computer specialists may work remotely, never or rarely leaving their home office. Others work for private companies, both large and small; municipal, state, and the federal government; non-profit organizations, and in varying industries. Some of the most common industries employing computer engineers include computer and electronic manufacturers, research laboratories, computer consulting firms, and various types of tech companies, large and small – including tech giants that are household names.
Potential Career Paths
Tech runs the world, and those with strong computer skills can follow a variety of potential career paths. Not only are these jobs in great demand, with a high projected growth rate, but many of them pay quite well. Here are just a few of the career paths a person with a degree in computer science may follow:
Computer Hardware Engineer
These engineers design a computer’s physical components, or hardware. The work involves not only creating new hardware systems, but also testing them. Some engineers may oversee the manufacture of the hardware they were involved in designing. The median pay for computer hardware engineers is $115,120.
Computer Software Engineer
Software engineers must know various programming languages, as well as have in-depth knowledge of computer operating systems. Types of software that the engineer may develop include computer games, business applications, operating systems, and network control systems. The median pay for computer software engineers is $101,790.
Computer Network Architect
This role involves designing and building data communication networks. Such networks run the gamut from connections within the same office to designing a cloud infrastructure servicing many clients. The median pay for a computer network architect is $105,000.
Computer Systems Analyst
A systems analyst studies a company’s current computer systems and designs systems making the business operate more efficiently. New systems are developed by choosing the proper hardware and software. Systems analysts oversee the installation and testing of such systems. They also train the systems users. The average annual salary for a systems analyst is $64,000.
Information Technology Manager
Also known as IT project management, this position involves coordinating and planning a company’s computer activities. Part of their responsibilities includes implementing computer systems to meet a company’s IT goals. The manager is the leader of a team that includes systems analysts, software developers, and programmers. The median pay for an IT manager is $139,000 annually.
This job involves the use of specialized software for data organization and storage. Database administrators must ensure the data is safe from unauthorized use, while available to those who should have access to it. They may design the database, perform regular maintenance and troubleshooting, and monitor and optimize database use. The average salary for a database administrator is $72,000 a year.
This position involves creating code for software and operating systems. Programs are written in various computer languages, such as Java or C++. Programmers also fix errors by debugging programs, and update existing programs. The average pay is $61,000 annually.
Computer Support Specialist
This job involves providing help to computer users, whether in the form of direct technical assistance or computer network support. Because computer problems arise 24/7, many computer support specialists work unconventional hours, including nights and weekends. Continuing upgrades in technology means there is a strong demand for professionals in this field. The median annual pay for computer network support specialists is $62,000, while the median annual pay for computer user support specialists is $50,000.
This position relates to technical skills involved with cloud computing. This includes actual design of cloud systems and software, or the implementation and maintenance of such systems. The average pay for a cloud engineer is $93,000.
User Interface Designer
Computer software engineers may specialize in designing custom user interfaces (those used by the end customer), both for mobile devices and the Internet of Things. They are also known as UX designers. The idea behind such user interfaces is making the technological experience as easy and seamless as possible. The average annual pay for a user interface designer is $64,000.
Computer Engineer Salaries
|Computer Hardware Engineer||$74,000||$89,000||$114,900|
**Salary info provided by PayScale
The number of jobs for computer hardware engineers is estimated to grow by 5% by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is about average for overall job growth for all occupations. The demand for computer software developers is much greater, with the BLS estimating the demand for such workers to grow by a whopping 24% by 2026. This demand is fueled by the increasing need for computer software.
Overall, the demand for computer professionals in general is expected to increase over the next decade. Since computer technology continues evolving, those in the field need to take continuing education classes to keep abreast of the latest developments.
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Advancing from Here
When it comes to the world of technology, the sky is the limit. With further education and experience, a computer engineer can advance to the level of senior computer engineer, a position involving more responsibility and more pay. Since tech is involved in virtually every aspect of the modern world, some computer engineers may decide to follow more specialized career paths. This may include designing devices used in medical equipment, motor vehicles, phones, and other items.