What is a Hardware Engineer?
Computer Hardware Engineers are professionals who design and build hardware components for computer systems. They might work on new processors, circuit boards, input/output ports, and storage devices, among many other items necessary to our digital lives. Thus, they need to understand how to integrate the demands of software in conjunction with the limits and abilities of the hardware that runs it.
Steps to Becoming a Hardware Engineer
What you really need to become a computer hardware engineer is a set of tools, diagnostic devices, and a great idea. However, the field of computer hardware engineering is moving so rapidly that it will serve you well to seek the formal training that will put you on a road to success. You should first work towards a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. Since the field is somewhat of a hybrid of electrical engineering and computer science, you will need a strong aptitude for physical and software design. After that, you might pursue professional certification and then a master's degree.
Step 1: Is Computer Engineering for me?
Step 2: Attend an accredited Engineering program
Step 3: Earn industry certifications
Step 4: Enroll in graduate school
Step 1: Is Computer Engineering for Me?
You will first want to ascertain whether or not computer or hardware engineering is for you. Some are attracted to the high salaries that computer hardware engineers take home, but that is not a solid foundation for such a demanding career. Most computer hardware engineers find that they have a natural proclivity for the basic skills computer hardware engineers employ every day. As children, for instance, many computer hardware engineers spend endless hours creating with building toys, gradually integrating motors, circuit boards, and even computer programming. Lego brand toy sets are a favorite among budding computer hardware engineers.
Consider whether you enjoy working with your hands, soldering small items to a circuit board for hours on end. You should also have an aptitude for writing computer code and finding new solutions for old problems. Computer hardware engineers also have a strong mathematical aptitude and complete at least one year of Calculus before they graduate from high school. In fact, strong mathematical ability is not optional, and you will need deep scientific aptitude as well.
Step 2: Attend an Accredited Engineering Program
Once you know that you must be a computer hardware engineer, you will need to find an accredited engineering program that supports your long-term goals. For computer hardware engineers, the gold standard for education is certification from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Though you can find an undergraduate program that is regionally accredited, employers will look most kindly on those with ABET credentials. There are ABET programs in every state and they have accredited 776 academic institutions in over 31 countries.
You should also seek out the programs that are best suited to your career goals. For instance, some programs might put more emphasis on software integration to hardware rather than the hardware itself. You will also want to see that your program has the facilities necessary to carry out the research you're most interested in. Thus, if you have a keen interest in robotics, seek the schools who are supporting those sorts of projects. Other students might be more interested in nanotechnology and how to create super small computers that will one day be virtually invisible in our daily lives.
Step 3: Earn Industry Certifications
While you will not need a state licensure to practice your profession, unlike your civil engineering friends, you will likely want to continue your education. In fact, since the field for computer hardware engineers is evolving at such a rapid pace, ongoing education is imperative if you wish to remain competitive and productive.
Since you will be constantly learning, you should consider a professional certification. When a nationally recognized computer engineering association certifies your skills and knowledge, you instantly raise your status in the field. You can often add letters to the end of your name, and verifiable credentials will always set you apart when it comes time to look for a job, or even when applying to graduate school.
One option to consider is the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying's PE Electrical and Computer exam. You can sit for that 8-hour examination after you accrue at least four years of experience in the field.
Step 4: Enroll in Graduate School
Though you can likely have a very successful career as a computer hardware engineer with a Bachelor's degree and industry certifications, at some point you should consider graduate school. You could take one of two routes. You could pursue a Master of Science in Engineering with a focus on Computer Engineering or a Master of Business Administration. An MBA can be particularly useful if you would like to move up into management with your firm, or if you wish to branch out and start an entrepreneurial enterprise of your own.
Many computer hardware engineers feel that pursuing an MBA can help them round out their skills. That is, the non-analytical aspects of a business degree can be a fantastic counterbalance to the quantitative analytical approach that is typical of an computer hardware engineer. Not only will you learn how to better integrate and motivate a team, but you might also gain insights into your end-users and thus generate even better electronic devices.
What Does a Hardware Engineer Do?
A computer hardware engineer, often called a computer engineer, is a scientist who works in a laboratory where they spend their days creating, testing, and refining new computing devices for a wide range of applications. Some might spend endless hours using microscopes to create nanotechnology that strives for microscopic computing and storage devices, while others may work on larger items such as circuit boards or handheld gaming devices.
You might start a project by first working with a client or colleague to determine the specific problem you wish to solve and then the best approach for that solution. Through this process you will begin to design devices that suit the project's specific restrictions. For instance, you could seek to create the next great wristwatch sized computer, or a touchscreen that can operate underwater. You'll not only need to fit the electronics into very small or very waterproof spaces, but you'll also test whether the software can work effectively in that environment.
As you work on a project, you will need to record all of your findings along the way. In fact, you will likely take measurements constantly. For instance, you might devise a gyroscope for your watch project and thus spend days putting it through various tests that will ensure that it provides consistent feedback in response to a set of movements. This data can be later aggregated and presented to your team or client.
Hardware Engineer Skills to Acquire
To be a top computer and hardware engineer you will need a bevy of high-tech skills under your belt. Most fundamentally, you must have a deep background in mathematics that includes high level Calculus. You should also have experience writing computer code and computer science. It will be helpful to be proficient in multiple languages, operating systems, and network types.
Depending on what specialty you wish to pursue, you might also take several classes in physics. After all, your hardware must be able to run specific software under certain conditions. Thus, issues such as heat transfer and mechanics might dramatically impact your projects. It will also be helpful to have a background in statistics so that you can assess the probabilities and data sets involved with your work.
Computer hardware engineers also need to have deep patience and the ability to be self-critical without sabotaging. That is because you will constantly test your assumptions and results. In fact, every step you take along the path of creation will be questioned, tested, and questioned again. This process takes a lot of time, so the best computer hardware engineers must be capable of working through it until you achieve optimal results and account for all the variables.
To become a computer hardware engineer, you don't necessarily need any degree whatsoever. It may be useful to have a solid foundation in mathematics when you graduate from high school, but many aspects of the profession can be acquired without setting foot on a university campus. Keep in mind that, if you take a non-academic route, you will probably limit your job prospects, at least at first.
After all, many of the industry's top computer coders learned their discipline by simply picking up a book and studying on their own. These days, you can find low-cost instruction to help you surmount specific problems in coding, and there are many message boards where programmers discuss code and even share bits of code to help others.
You could also work on Open Source code projects. Absolutely anyone with the requisite skills and desire can become a part of creating newer versions of Linux operating systems or applications that run on a range of platforms. This sort of coding credit will be rewarded. However, you may still need a degree to help further your career.
In fact, you can find two-year computer hardware engineers programs that boast accreditation from ABET. With an associate degree and significant personal projects under your belt you might be able to land a position with a firm. If you wish to work with cutting edge hardware, you will need access to the sorts of resources only possible at a well-funded facility.
Hardware Engineer Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
Computer hardware engineers can find work for a range of organizations. Since the field is still in a state of rapid evolution, you might work in a university lab, testing out new methods and materials to generate tomorrow's breakthrough technology. You could also find work for major corporations who need to design the next generation of processors.
Small startups are still popping up all over, each with significant Venture Capital investors who can support a full laboratory. These companies carry a lot of risk, but once you are able to bring the first successful product to market, your position will be assured. In fact, if you find the right backer you might be able to create your own small firm that might only be comprised of yourself and perhaps one other engineer. When you back your cutting-edge vision with solid computer engineering skill, the sky is the limit.
The government is also hiring hardware engineers. You could be the one to push space exploration to the next level. Cutting edge hardware and software is also needed to help us understand climate change and its impacts to our land, air, and water.
Potential Career Paths
There are many career paths for computer hardware engineers. In fact, you might start a program that focuses on creating new computing systems and end up specializing in a field directly adjacent. That is, you might discover that you prefer writing code to soldering chips to wafers and then transition to a career dedicated to perfecting that particular art form.
Electrical or Electronics Engineer:
You will design and test electrical or electronic devices. Electronics engineers can spend their careers working on telecommunications systems. In fact, electronics engineers have built, and still maintain, the cellphone networks.
For this field, you will need to learn and master at least one highly sought computer language, such as Python. You should stay up to date with how your language is evolving and seek out ancillary languages that work in concert with the primary code.
If it has moving parts, there's a chance a mechanical engineer worked on it. You might design and build motors and sensors for a variety of purposes. For instance, you could create new wind turbines that improve efficiency or the next, improved diesel motor.
As a software developer you will need to work with the computer hardware engineers to make sure that your application can run on a specific platform or make the most of that hardware's specific features and abilities.
Computer Research Scientist:
You will need a master's degree for this field, and you will constantly be at the vanguard of the coming wave of technology. The hardware and software solutions you develop will help a wide range of fields, from medicine to business to science itself.
Hardware Engineer Career Salaries
|Occupation||Entry Level||Mid-Career||Late Career|
|Computer Systems Engineer||$72,000||$89,000||$122,000|
|Computer Software Engineer||$73,000||$92,000||$82,000|
Jobs for computer hardware engineers continue to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the field will expand by 5% through 2026, adding a total of 4,000 new jobs. This rate is average across all occupations, but the pay is well above average. With median national salaries of $115,100 for professionals with a bachelor’s degree, there is a lot of growth potential available.
Keep in mind that the average starting salary for computer hardware engineers who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering is around $73,000. Thus, it might take a few years to start earning a six-figure salary. If you go all the way for a graduate degree, the average starting salary is over $80,000. Your bonus and other benefits should all be calculated, however.
Advancing From Here
Once you have gained significant tenure as a computer hardware engineer, you can certainly start to move up. You might first gain more status in your lab and move into a supervisory position there. There may be further opportunities in the administration of your firm, as well.
However, you can always branch out in any number of ways. For instance, you could work as a technical writer, computer programmer, or software developer. Another route is to study for an MBA and develop yourself in the business world. That might mean a C-suite job with a major corporation or perhaps you have an entrepreneurial bent and wish to steer your own ship to success.
With a strong engineering skill set, you are likely to find success nearly anywhere you seek it.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is electrical engineering?
Electrical engineering is the design and application of devices, electromagnetism, electronics, equipment, and systems that use electricity.
What do computer hardware engineers research?
Computer hardware engineers research, test, and design computer systems and computer components.
Where do computer hardware engineers work?
Computer hardware engineers work in manufacturing, computer systems design services, and in research laboratories.
What does an accredited computer engineering program teach?
An accredited computer engineering program teaches broad knowledge in computer science and engineering. An accredited computer engineering program teaches basic engineering mechanics, applied algorithms, and mathematics. An accredited computer engineering program will teach about computer software systems and how to test computer systems.
What are the most commonly used programming tools?
The most commonly used programming tools include:
- VS Code
- Visual Studio
- IntelliJ IDEA
- Sublime Text
Computer Career Paths