Computer engineering is a driving force behind innovation and technologies that are changing the world, pushing computing power and capabilities to the edge. Bridging hardware (e.g. microprocessors, tablets) and software, computer engineering has implications across many industries, ranging from technology to healthcare, green energy to aeronautics. The following guide serves as a high-level overview of the computer engineering profession, including insight into various career paths, emerging industries, employment opportunities, companies that are hiring computer engineers, skills and knowledge categories, as well as tips for preparing for computer engineering careers.
Career hardware engineers research, design and develop computing components (e.g. microprocessors, networks, routers) to create faster, better and more powerful computing systems
Create design blueprints for component manufacturing; testing and analyzing computer equipment; troubleshooting hardware architecture
Telecommunications, manufacturing, product development, robotics, cybersecurity, healthcare, technology
Computer engineering is an interdisciplinary field of study, one that combines electrical engineering and computer science disciplines into a specialized professional area of practice. Smaller; fastest; cheaper. Smarter; flexible; powerful. In short, computer engineers make computers and computing systems better.
Consider, for example, the history of the Intel processor. Introduced in 1971, the Intel 4004 processor had 2,300 transistors and produced clock speed of 108 KHz (108,000 cycles per second). Compare the performance of the 4004 microprocessor to Penryn, the microprocessor Intel introduced in 2007: with 820,000 transistors and a clock speed greater than 3 GHz, Penryn operates at approximately 3 billion cycles per second. That’s an improvement of 27,777% – in 36 years. This type of computing power and performance improvement has spearheaded the information revolution – driving transformative developments in computers, video, imaging, 3D content, power management, animation, home automation, auto manufacturing, mobile devices and phones, communication, and more.
Broadly, computer engineers design hardware for computing systems, network and computer architecture, design software for applications, analyze and design microprocessors, build interface systems, and work with microcontrollers and circuit designs. In turn, computer engineering has wide applications, impacting areas such as cybersecurity, wireless networking, design automation, computer networks, mobile computing, robotics, embedded systems and machine intelligence. At the career level, computer engineering offers two central paths – hardware and software engineering – and multiple sub-specialty or areas of concentration, such as the following:
Designing computer systems that simulate human thinking, learning, and reasoning abilities.
Designing and developing new, more powerful computing systems.
Research, design, and development of electronic computer components, such as microchips, microprocessors, circuit boards, etc.
Designing and developing software and network systems.
Designing and developing robotic systems used in a variety of industries (e.g. industrial production).
Designing and developing computer software to research and solve problems outside of the computer engineering field (e.g. medicine).
Computer science is one of the country’s hottest and most in-demand professional fields, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting 18 percent growth nationally for all computer occupations between 2012 and 2022. CompTIA’s annual industry outlook report revealed nearly 5 million individuals work in technical IT occupations, and computer engineering-related fields comprise 38 percent of the industry, with hardware at 27 percent and software at 11.
Also known as network engineers, computer network architects identify the business requirements for corporate data and voice networks, including making recommendations for improving and maintaining network performance (both local area networks and wide-area networks). Responsible for network installations, system backup, security and network enhancements.Overall occupation growth Best opportunities by industry
Network administrators have experience with the protocols and fundamental principles of LAN and WAN operations. In their role, network administrators are responsible for administering corporate network services, coordinating network upgrades (both software and hardware), analyzing network performance and managing network security.Overall occupation growth Best opportunities by industry
Familiar with a host of programming languages and frameworks, such as Microsoft .NET, C++ and Java, software developers are responsible for coding and testing computer programs, designing and developing new software for applications, updating existing applications and documenting processes.Overall occupation growth Best opportunities by industry
Although computer engineering exists at the intersection of electrical engineering and computer science, its impact stretches well beyond those two areas. It has become part of a larger interdisciplinary field, integrating with areas ranging from biology to medicine, environmental engineering to physics. Indeed, computer engineering is part of numerous emerging industries, industries that may not be apparent to the first-year computer engineering student. Below is a list of five emerging industries creating new opportunities for computer engineers.
According to the International Data Corporation, big data will be a $125 billion dollar industry in 2015. Indeed, big data has become a commodity. Harnessing and transforming data into useable, actionable insights has launched a computer science and engineering revolution, projected to create nearly 200,000 new jobs by 2018.
Nanotechnology crosses scientific borders, merging computer science with mechanical engineering, materials science, electrical engineering, biology and applied physics. The modern world’s dependence on computing technologies demands increasingly smaller, faster and more reliant computing systems. Nanotechnology explores new techniques to design and manufacture those electronic component and achieve those goals.
Nearly a $60 billion dollar industry, cybersecurity has gained attention – and additional momentum – from the increasing strains on network and information security. Developing and building the next generation of computing technologies that will lead to secure and sustainable data storage, communication and networking is a vital component of this growing field.
Computers use heat – lots of heat. The push for energy-efficient computing, where researchers are developing ways to reduce energy consumption in computation, could lead to smaller, lighter and faster computers, laptops and mobile devices.
Also known as “Green Computing” and “Green IT,” green information and communications technology is concerned with sustainable computing. Those in Green IT focus on designing, using and disposing of computing systems and their components (networks, printers, monitors, etc.), in a way that decreases environmental impact.
The thought behind IoT is that everyday things can connect to and exist within the existing Internet infrastructure, thereby becoming “smart.” This include items ranging from the automobile with tire pressure sensors to the home thermostat, or a biochip transponder in a farm animal to a person with a heart implant.
Within the computer science and engineering field is occurring another renaissance: college enrollments in technology are exploding as every industry becomes a “tech industry.” An insatiable appetite for educated graduates on the employer-side continues to skyrocket as well. This current surge, as noted in a recent Geekwire article on the increasing demand for computer science education, is being driven by the desire for new technologies, particularly mobile devices. Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Code.org, related evidence of the need and desire for computer science and engineering professionals: in 2014, there were 27 times more open positions than there were college graduates. A review of hiring reports from Forbes, Indeed.com and Bloomberg show the tech sector is awash with job openings for computer engineers. Although figures specific to computer engineers are not available, some of the top employers in computer engineering include the following (in alphabetical order):
The current market outlook is shaped by the need for technological solutions to a host of growing problems (e.g. climate change, sustainability) and the overall need for faster and smarter computing. With the National Science Foundation reporting only 4.5 percent of all undergraduates earning engineering degrees, the marketplace is primed with career opportunities for individuals with degrees and backgrounds in computer engineering. Along with the emerging markets mentioned above, other major industries seeking to hire trained computer engineers include robotics, remote sensing, automobile manufacturing, aeronautics, healthcare, ecology and biology and – perhaps unsurprisingly – video gaming.
Computer engineering professionals are skilled engineers with a specialized background in a range of technical areas. However, employers seek those with a combination of technical and soft, employability skills – the skills that are necessary for the employee to apply technical knowledge effectively. According to the National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies, some of the top soft skills for computer engineers include project management, critical thinking, time management and organization, interpersonal, and communication skills.
Secondary to employability skills, computer engineers should possess industry-specific technical skills for their area of practice (whether network or hardware design). Major areas of knowledge include the following:
Knowledge of engineering science and technology, including practical applications, theory, procedures and production design.
Knowledge of computing systems, electronic equipment, processors, software, circuit boards and computer software.
Knowledge of various mathematical concepts (geometry, statistics, algebra, etc.) and the ability to apply these to real-world situations.
Knowledge of the fundamentals of design techniques and production, including schematics, blueprints and technical plans.
Knowledge of production processes, distribution, manufacturing, quality control and other major elements of the creation and distribution of products.
Knowledge of tools and machinery, including their use and maintenance.
Knowledge of the foundations of networking and networking technologies (e.g. Cisco, Juniper, Microsoft), networking functions, protocols and standards.
Knowledge of software and computer architecture, as well as operating systems concepts.
Knowledge of project planning, management and organization, as well as risk and cost assessment.
Knowledge of testing techniques, process control, user documentation and product packaging.
As noted in the Robert Half salary report, developing professional skills can lead to an increase in earning potential—in some cases, as high as a 9% increase.Skills that affect NETWORKING/TELECOMMUNICATIONS Salaries
Talented computer engineering professionals are in great demand throughout the country, especially in Silicon Valley. Both job opportunities and salaries are exploding in the region for numerous factors, with many entry-level engineers drawing six figure salaries directly out of college. Consider employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for computer engineering professionals in San Francisco and San Jose, California. In 2014, the average salary for computer hardware engineers, network architects and systems administrators was more than $122,000. For every 1,000 jobs in the region, these three computer engineering positions comprised more than 14 percent of the workforce.
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Nationally, salary figures for computer engineers fall below what individuals are making in the technology epicenter of Silicon Valley, with median salaries typically falling in the $90,000 range. Below is a chart of 2014 salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
|Career Field||Lowest 10%||Median||Top 10%|
|Software Developers, Applications||$56,310||$95,510||$149,480|
|Software Developers, Systems Software||$63,250||$102,880||$154,800|
|Network & Computer Systems Administrators||$46,220||$75,790||$120,000|
|Computer Network Architects||$55,160||$98,430||$150,460|
|Computer Network Support Specialists||$35,870||$61,830||$104,010|
|Computer Hardware Engineers||$66,070||$108,430||$160,610|
In its annual survey of tech professionals, Robert Half provides starting salary ranges for careers across technology industries. Below is a snapshot of reported salaries for computer engineering professionals in 2015:
The increasing pressures to attract technology professionals has actually led to companies reporting about difficulties retaining candidates as well. Robert Half reports that surveyed companies and recruiters note that engineers are attracting more than one job offer at a time and are willing to switch jobs in a competitive market because of increasing salaries. One component of better offers to computer engineering professionals are employee benefits; outside of potential bonuses, benefits are highly valued to job candidates. The most common benefits are traditional in nature, such as medical, life, and dental insurance, paid time off, and retirement benefits. In addition, many companies are starting to sweeten their benefits packages by offering perks like work-from-home options, flexible schedules, additional vacation time, subsidized education, on-site meals and commuter discounts.
For computer engineering majors or individuals seeking a job in computer engineering, landing a job is not as simple as sending in a resume, however. With increased need comes increased competition as recruiters are trying to land the best talent for their organizations. This means that job candidates must be prepared – from submitting a resume to participating in an interview. Through the entire process, computer engineering candidates should work to demonstrate their intelligence and professional experience, ability to solve problems and how they would fit into a company’s culture. Experience is a bankable commodity and outside of actual career experience, both internships and certifications are two other routes to demonstrating a potential employee’s capacity for on-the-job performance.
Preparation means researching the company and position before sending out a resume. Tailoring the resume to the specific company and position requirements can make that resume stand out from the crowd. Secondly, when selected for an interview, prepare once, and then prepare again. Whether a first-time job seeker or an engineering veteran who hasn’t interviewed in a few years, be prepared to invest time and effort prior to the interview. Tech interviews are essentially tests, so it takes work to be ready. There are three major steps to being prepared for the tech interview process:
Prospective candidates should research the company’s history, current market position and its objectives.
Do not walk blindly in the interview pretending to know everything. Instead, study the position and its listed requirements.
Every interview is a test and the interviewer is probing for strengths, weaknesses and overall intelligence. That means brushing up on everything from coding to network structures, depending on the area of practice.
The tech interview process typically asks computer engineering candidates to demonstrate their professional skills through examinations, in-person interviews and other assignments. They may be asked about programming languages and frameworks or even asked to complete a puzzle or solve a problem. For example, Google is notorious for difficult interview questions posed to engineers, ranging from asking a candidate about the number of balloons that could fit inside of San Francisco to solving Sodoku puzzles. In short, be prepared and be ready.
Outside of Silicon Valley, computer engineering jobs are also in increasing demand. As noted above, some engineering positions are expected to grow by 20 percent or more between 2012 and 2022. For example, computer hardware engineers are only expected to experience 7 percent growth nationally, but those figures become more revealing when examined at the state level. In fact, 16 states are expected to see gains between 13 and 29 percent.
Below is a list of the 10 states (including District of Columbia) projected to see the biggest employment change for computer hardware engineers between 2012 and 2022:
By total employment, California, Texas and Maryland are the top three states employing computer hardware engineers. Below shows the top 10 states employing the most computer hardware engineers in 2014, according to the BLS.