What Is Computer Engineering?

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A computer circuit board being testedComputer engineering refers to the integration of computer science with electronic engineering. By combining these disciplines, computer engineers design and develop many of the software programs and technological devices that we use every day at work, school, and in our personal lives.

For those who are curious about pursuing a career in computer engineering, several topics must be considered: the educational requirements, core skills, and expected salaries associated with a computer engineering degree.

This article will offer three primary takeaways:

  • Important differences exist between computer science and computer engineering.
  • Multiple career paths are available for computer engineers.
  • Good computer engineering curricula include some key elements.

Defining Computer Engineering

To begin, explore what computer engineering is and the primary duties of a computer engineer.

Computer Engineering: Overview

The goal of computer engineering is to expand the capability and applicability of computers. For example, computer engineers may seek devices that process information more quickly than in previous iterations; they may seek to make computers smaller and more portable, and they may innovate new functions for computer technology or work to increase accessibility.

Defining computer engineering requires a discussion of computer science and electronic engineering. Indeed, computer engineering is often defined as the integration of these two disciplines.

  • Computer science is the study of computers and computational systems and the use of advanced algorithms to help solve common computing problems.
  • Electronic engineering involves the design and development of circuits, circuit boards, and other electronic elements that allow computers to function.

Because computer engineers combine these fields, they are able to advance the usefulness and potency of computers by enhancing software, systems, and networks as well as by improving computer hardware itself.

Duties of a Computer Engineer

The basic duties of computer engineers involve researching, designing, developing, and testing all aspects of a computer system. Computer engineering entails software development. This may involve:

  • Operating systems
  • Instant messaging and email systems
  • Web browsers
  • Applications of all kinds, from databases to spreadsheets to video games
  • Security components such as firewalls and antivirus software
  • Utilities such as file backups

Computer engineers may address the various components that comprise computer hardware, including:

  • Microprocessors
  • Memory chips, including RAM and ROM
  • Data storage devices such as hard disks and optical drives
  • Input devices (keyboards, joysticks, computer mice) and output devices (scanners, printers, remote controls)
  • Networking components such as routers and modems

Computer engineers may pull together all of these components to address a problem or improve computing efficiency. They are then tasked with carefully testing and refining their solutions as needed. Specific projects that a computer engineer takes on may range from extending the battery life of a new smart device to correcting bugs and glitches in a particular software program. Computer engineers also may simply look for ways to make devices smaller, faster, or more powerful.

Where Do Computer Engineers Work?

Computer engineers work in a wide range of different industries. The most obvious example of where computer engineers work is at computer companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, and Dell. However, computer engineering positions are also crucial in the following fields:

  • Telecommunications (optic cable work, circuit design, and other tasks)
  • Aerospace (developing aviation software, for example)
  • Automotive (designing or improving the computers used in the electrical systems of cars)
  • Health care (developing diagnostic software and data management tools, among other tasks)
  • Software or video game design companies (fixing bugs and innovating new security protocols, for example)

Learn More About Computer Engineering Careers

To find out more about the work done by computer engineers, consider these resources:

An overview of the computer engineering field, including core goal, duties, and industries.

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Computer engineers design innovative hardware and software for various computer systems, making this one of the most dynamic professions in the engineering field. The field’s core goal is to design innovative and efficient computing components. Duties of a computer engineer include the research, design, development, and testing of computer hardware and software. Computer engineering industries include telecommunications, high-tech manufacturing, automotive, health care, and others.

Computer Engineering Careers with an Advanced Engineering Degree

A number of career paths are available for those who have an advanced degree in electrical engineering or a related field. Consider these four examples.

Computer Hardware Engineer

Computer hardware engineers are involved with the design and development of physical computer products; specifically, they research, build, and test computer systems and components. In other words, computer hardware engineers are in charge of making the physical parts that allow computers to work the way they’re supposed to.

For computer hardware engineers, a number of crucial skills are needed, including:

  • Technical skills. Computer hardware engineers must be proficient in programming languages such as C and C++. Engineering skills, such as printed circuit board design, are also required.
  • Analytical thinking. When faced with an obstacle, computer hardware engineers must be ready to find a creative solution, which may involve retooling existing hardware or developing something completely new.
  • Communication skills. Computer hardware engineers may also need to communicate their solutions to team members, supervisors, or clients.

Software Developer

Software developers have a role very similar to computer hardware engineers. Instead of working with the hardware that allows computers to function, however, they deal strictly with software programs. Specifically, the software developer’s job description is to research, design, implement, and manage new software applications.

Some of the core skills required in this position include:

  • Technical skills. Software developers must be well versed in common programming languages, which may include Java, C, and beyond.
  • Training abilities. Communication skills are also essential, as software developers are often responsible for training users on how to use new programs.
  • Business acumen. Software developers must have a good sense of how software programs can help achieve business objectives or meet consumer demands.

Computer Network Architect

Next on the list of computer engineering careers with an advanced engineering degree is the computer network architect. These computer engineering professionals are tasked with designing and building data communication networks, such as wide area networks (WANs) and local area networks (LANs).

Those who pursue careers in this field must exhibit the following skills:

  • Analytical skills. Computer network architects must be ready to develop creative solutions to common networking problems or obstacles.
  • Technical skills. The successful computer network architect will have familiarity with the basic components of a network, including routers, switches, and modems.
  • Project management. Computer network architects should also possess basic project management skills, such as team building and scheduling.

Computer and Information Systems Manager

The role of the computer and information systems manager is to manage and direct all computer-related activities within an organization. This requires a high level of technical competence, including familiarity with software, hardware, and network components.

Additional skills required for this role include:

  • Attention to detail. The computer and information systems manager must be attentive to all aspects of computer activity within an organization.
  • These professionals need to be prepared to communicate strategies to their team members, some of whom may work in areas other than technology.
  • Problem-solving skills. Finally, computer and information systems managers should be ready to consider common problems within the organization and brainstorm technological solutions.

Computer Engineering Salary and Job Outlook

On average, what is the computer engineering technology salary? Although some career trajectories are growing at a faster rate than others, the overall computer engineering field is strong and offers many attractive career options. Salaries for the major career paths generally are above $100,000.

Here’s a brief synopsis of computer engineering salaries and job outlooks.

Computer Hardware Engineering Salary and Job Outlook

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), computer hardware engineers have a median annual salary of $117,220. The number of jobs in this field is projected to grow 2% from 2019 to 2029, which is a bit slower than the 4% average growth projected for all jobs. Companies outside the computer and electronics industries wanting to develop their own devices is one reason for growth in this career.

Software Developer Salary and Job Description

As for software developers, the BLS lists the median annual salary as $107,510. This field is projected to grow 22% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average growth projected for all jobs. This strong growth is powered in part by software needs for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets as well as the ever-increasing number of consumer products that use software.

Computer Network Architect Salary and Job Description

The BLS data notes that for computer network architects the median annual salary is $112,690. The number of jobs is projected to grow 5% from 2019 to 2029, slightly faster than average, because of the continued growth of corporate IT networks.

Computer and Information Systems Manager Salary and Job Outlook

The median annual salary for computer and information systems managers is $146,360. The BLS also projects job growth of 10% from 2019 to 2029, which is faster than the average growth rate projected for all jobs. The increasing need to improve cybersecurity will be a boon for this career, as will corporate expansion onto digital platforms.

Mitigating Factors

For each of these positions, a number of factors may influence a specific computer engineering salary. Some of the most common mitigating factors include:

  • Experience level. Generally speaking, those with more years of experience in their field will command higher salary levels.
  • Education level. Those who have a more advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in electrical engineering, may also draw higher salaries.
  • Geographic location. The locale may also influence salary range. Larger, more metropolitan areas typically have more competitive job markets and thus higher computer engineering starting salary
Four key careers in computer engineering and their salaries

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Individuals with a computer engineering degree have a wealth of lucrative career paths they can explore. These jobs are more than well paying; they are great ways to move technological innovation forward. The median salary for computer and information systems managers is $146,360, while the median salary for computer hardware engineers is $117,220. Computer network architects and software developers have median salaries of $112,690 and $107,510, respectively.

Computer Engineering Requirements and Skills

A number of core competencies are required for success in the computer engineering world. These include both hard skills, such as knowledge of programming languages, as well as soft skills. Niche positions, such as security development or network development, may require an even narrower, more specific set of skills.

The best way to hone computer engineering skills is by pursuing a formal education, which may include an advanced degree in electrical engineering or a related field.

Hard Skills

To succeed in computer engineering, professionals need a robust set of technical skills. While the specific requirements may vary from one position to the next, most effective computer engineers are well versed in at least a few programming languages, which could include anything from Java to C. Knowing these languages allows a computer engineer to communicate more fluently with different software applications.

Some familiarity with hardware is also important. Computer engineers should understand the core functionalities of input and output devices, networking components, and more.

Finally, because computing relies so heavily on databases and algorithms, computer engineering professionals need a strong background in mathematics.

Soft Skills

Typical computer engineering requirements also include several soft skills, among them:

  • Analytical skills. Often computer engineering requires careful analysis of a problem, followed by the development of a creative technological solution. Analytical skills are crucial for this.
  • Critical thinking. Similarly, effectively troubleshooting or debugging a computer application requires advanced critical-thinking abilities.
  • Computer engineers may need to provide insight or instruction to clients or supervisors, and they may be expected to train others on how to use a new program or device. Written communication skills may be required for creating a helpful user’s manual.

Niche Skills

Some computer engineering roles may emphasize more specialized skill sets. Consider two examples:

  • Those who go into network development will need an especially robust knowledge of hardware such as routers, switches, and modems, as well as different network configurations.
  • Those in security development will need advanced knowledge of common cybersecurity vulnerabilities and a keen understanding of firewalls, antivirus programs, and other security mechanisms.

What Does a Computer Engineering Curriculum Look Like?

For aspiring computer scientists seeking to develop skills and position themselves for success in the field of their choosing, pursuing a robust education via a targeted computer engineering curriculum can be crucial.

Here’s what students should know about the typical components of a computer engineering curriculum.

Common Prerequisites

When it comes to enrollment in a computer engineering degree program, students should be aware of a number of prerequisites.

For a master’s-level degree, students usually are required to have an undergraduate degree in computer science, mathematics, or a related field.

It’s worth noting that computer engineering is a math-heavy field of study and most degree programs will expect that students have already completed some basic to midlevel mathematics courses. The specifics vary by institution.

Computer and Systematic Concepts

The typical computer engineering curriculum will cover a number of important concepts, including computing and systematic ones. A few examples include:

  • Operating systems
  • Microprocessors
  • Database management
  • Algorithm design and analysis
  • Computer performance evaluation

Technical Design Concepts

Students in a computer engineering program will also learn a number of valuable technical design concepts. Some examples include:

  • Cryptography
  • Network security
  • Mobile communications optimization

Computer Engineering Courses

As for specific courses included within a computer engineering curriculum, three of the most common ones are:

  • Embedded Systems. Embedded systems are small computer systems with a dedicated function that work within a larger computer system or technological ecosystem. Computer engineering students learn how different embedded systems relate to one another.
  • Computer Architecture. Computer architecture refers to the systems of rules and methods that allow a computer to function. Knowledge of computer architecture is essential for success in the computer engineering field.
  • Information Theory and Coding. Computer engineering students must master the quantification, storage, and conveyance of different kinds of information, specifically through different forms of computer coding.

Examples of Computer Engineering Technology

Computer engineers often play an integral role in developing different technologies. Here are just a few key examples of computer engineering technology.

Microprocessors

A microprocessor is a very small electronic device that contains the arithmetic, logic, and control needed to perform all the core functions of the computer’s central processor. When microprocessors are integrated into a device or appliance, the amount of processing power needed for the device to function is significantly reduced. Microprocessors have countless applications, from cars to household gadgets.

Analog Sensors

Any sensor that sustains a continuous analog output is considered to be an analog sensor. Some common examples include light sensors, sound sensors, pressure sensors, and accelerometers. Even temperature sensors qualify. Again, this technology is used across vehicles, consumer devices, and computers of all kinds. Even simple appliances contain temperature sensors that keep them from overheating, for example.

Circuit Boards

A circuit board is a thin board on which an electrical circuit is printed. They provide the mechanical support and electrical connection required for a computer to carry out its chief functions. Circuit boards can be found everywhere: in microwaves, cellphones, TVs, and beyond.

Operating Systems

The operating system is the software that controls all the basic functions of a computer, from executing applications to scheduling tasks. Common examples include Microsoft Windows, Linux, and the Apple OS or iOS.

The Future of Computer Engineering

Computer engineers have been responsible for many of the technologies that have made our world more productive, connected, efficient, and fun. The field will continue to offer ample opportunity to shape the future for those who are drawn to technology and love solving problems. With technological innovation happening at breakneck speed, the sky’s the limit for the next generation of computer engineers.

Infographic Sources:

Houston Chronicle, “Duties of a Computer Engineer”

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Careers in Computer Science and Computer Engineering

PayScale, Bachelor of Science (BS / BSc), Computer Engineering (CE) Degree

PayScale, Master of Science (MS), Computer Engineering (CE) Degree

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Computer and Information Systems Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Computer Hardware Engineers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Computer Network Architects

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Software Developers