Computer Engineer Career Overview


Updated April 30, 2024

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Computer engineers build the future by creating the mobile applications, programs, routers, and circuit boards that keep modern civilization running. Hardware engineers develop the blueprints for processors, networks, and memory devices, while software engineers write the code that builds programs for end users.

Computer engineering offers a lucrative, fast-growing field for people who enjoy solving complex technical problems by devising creative new solutions. Most computer engineers work for technology manufacturing firms, but some serve federal agencies, financial organizations, and higher education institutions.

To get started as a hardware engineer, you need a bachelor's degree. Aspiring software engineers may possess degrees or have completed nontraditional education in the field, like a bootcamp. Some companies may expect professional certifications, experience, and/or graduate degrees for senior engineers.

Discover more about this exciting career and why it might be right for you in the following guide.

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What is a Computer Engineer?

Computer engineering started as a specialization of electrical engineering before developing into a new discipline. As initially defined, computer engineering applied aspects of digital logic design from computer science to the creation of microprocessors and technological systems.

As the field grew, computer engineering continued to adopt design fundamentals and theories from computer science. Computer engineering is distinct from computer science because it focuses on hardware and computer design.

Case Western Reserve University offered the first accredited computer engineering program in the U.S. in 1971. As of 2024, more than 4,600 computer engineering programs in the country hold accreditation from ABET.

What Does a Computer Engineer Do?

Computer engineers research, design, develop, and test computer systems. Some engineers specialize in hardware or software engineering. By creating and improving devices and programs, these technology professionals help keep the world working safer, smarter, and faster.

Computer engineers work in many industries, including healthcare, robotics, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence. In their daily work, they may create information security tools, design new power grids, develop faster processors, or build biomedical devices.

Companies and government agencies need more computer engineers as the world grows dependent on technology, straining existing infrastructure and database capacities. In addition to knowing how to build a program or device, certain key skills can influence an engineer's success.

Key Hard Skills for Computer Engineers

  • Operating System Shell Scripts: A shell script contains a series of operating commands for a UNIX-based system in a single script. Using a shell script automates the code and removes the need for an engineer to perform repetitive tasks.
  • Field Programmable Gate Arrays: An FPGA is an integrated circuit that can be reprogrammed after use. Engineers use these arrays to improve their efficiency and provision in timing.
  • Data Modeling: This skill helps computer engineers identify information, know its location, and identify its application. Using effective data models, engineers can improve their databases, reduce errors, and provide better products.
  • Kubernetes: Kubernetes deploys, scales, and analyzes container information. This application management service can simplify an engineer's job.

Key Soft Skills for Computer Engineers

  • Problem-Solving: Computer engineers need to be able to solve various issues, including finding bugs in prototypes and identifying delays in the design process. Problem-solving involves rigorous analysis, critical thinking, curiosity, and persistence.
  • Critical Thinking: Critical thinking is the process of forming a judgment using data. Typical critical thinking skills include observation, analysis, inference, and communication.
  • Creativity: Creativity is a critical part of engineering's logical processes. This skill includes brainstorming new ideas, designing novel applications, and developing innovative collaborations among computer science professionals.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Engineers work on teams within a larger technology ecosystem. Consequently, they need to get along with others, motivate junior engineers, and keep customers satisfied.
  • Curiosity: Engineers should be inquisitive people who motivate other professionals on the team to learn new things.

A Day in the Life of a Computer Engineer

In their day-to-day work, a computer engineer may take on the following tasks:

  • Drawing schematics for new computer equipment
  • Testing newly designed computer hardware
  • Modifying their design based on analysis
  • Reviewing prototypes to ensure regulatory compliance
  • Updating existing software or hardware
  • Overseeing junior engineers
  • Completing necessary documentation

How Much Does a Computer Engineer Make?

The continued growth of the technology sector may indicate job security for computer engineering professionals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a faster-than-average increase in employment for computer and information technology from 2022-2032.

The potential growth during the same period for computer hardware engineers is lower but still above average at a 5% projected employment increase.

The BLS reports computer hardware engineers earn an annual median pay of $138,080, exceeding the national median for all occupations by about $90,000. Pay for these positions varies depending on the sector; individuals working in computer systems design make an median annual salary of $140,670, while engineers in research and development earn an median wage of $169,260 per year.

Annual Median Salary

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2023

How to Become a Computer Engineer

Becoming a computer engineer typically requires a four-year bachelor's degree from an ABET-accredited school. Employers usually seek candidates with two-year master's degrees or doctorates for advanced engineering roles. You may major in computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, or computer programming.

If school is not an option for you, a coding bootcamp can prepare you to pursue junior software engineering roles. If you want to advance in the field, you will likely need to earn professional certifications and a graduate degree in computer engineering.

Learn more about how to become a computer engineer by clicking on the links below.

Specializations and Career Paths for Computer Engineers

  • Network Architects: Also known as enterprise or IT architects, these professionals emphasize communication networks such as cloud computing, local area networks, and company-wide networks. Their daily tasks may involve upgrading hardware, designing networks, and analyzing data traffic. They also troubleshoot network-related security issues.
  • Software Developers: Software developers design, create, and maintain applications and systems software. Their work requires them to analyze and test programs to provide better user experiences. They may work for manufacturers, software publishers, computer systems design companies, and financial institutions.
  • Computer Hardware Engineers: Hardware engineers design and reconfigure computer hardware. Depending on their expertise, they may test robots, design circuits, build operating systems, create new tools, and manage teams of junior engineers. These professionals often work for technology companies.
  • Computer and Information Research Scientists: Computer information researchers study user needs and existing tools to create new, more accessible, or more affordable products. These professionals may work for universities, research centers, the federal government, or computer design companies.
  • Computer Systems Analysts: Sometimes called systems architects, these computer professionals gauge the effectiveness of database programs and other network systems. Their daily tasks may include consulting with users, testing software or hardware, coordinating computer installations, and troubleshooting issues.
Possible Specializations and Career Paths for Computer Engineers
Career Required Education Required Experience Median Annual Salary (2023) Projected Growth Rate 2022-2023
Network Architects Bachelor's Degree 5 years or more $129,840 +4%
Software Developers Bachelor's Degree 2 years or more $132,270 +26%
Computer Hardware Engineers Bachelor's Degree None $138,080 +5%
Computer and Information Research Scientists Master's Degree None $145,080 +23%
Computer Systems Analysts Bachelor's Degree None $103,800 +10%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Professional Organizations for Computer Engineers

  • Association for Computing Machinery: Established in 1947, ACM forms the largest education and science society in the world, with more than 100,000 members across the globe. Members can access thousands of online educational materials and stay ahead of industry trends with various newsletters.
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: The IEEE forms a global community dedicated to improving people's lives through technology. Members can advertise and collaborate on projects or pursue other opportunities through its extensive network and job board.
  • Association for Women in Computing: AWC promotes diversity by supporting women in computer science. This organization provides networking, recognition, education, and mentoring opportunities through its many local chapters. AWC also bestows the Ada Lovelace Award to women who have made outstanding achievements in the field.
  • Association for Information Science and Technology: Originating in 1937, ASIS&T provides a platform for computer engineering professionals to discuss relevant issues and policies. Membership provides access to the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, a highly regarded scholastic publication.
  • Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence: Founded in 1979, the AAAI promotes research into the responsible use of AI through workshops, symposiums, scholarships, and advocacy initiatives. Anyone interested in AI research can pay the membership fees and join the organization.

Frequently Asked Questions About Computer Engineers

What does a computer engineer do?

Computer engineers design, build, and test hardware components and systems. A computer engineer works with software developers to ensure the hardware and software work in tandem while balancing factors such as performance and material cost.

Is computer engineering a desk job?

Most computer engineers work in offices, so if you're considering this career, you should feel comfortable spending most of your time at your desk.

How much does a computer engineer make?

According to 2023 BLS data, computer engineers make a median annual salary of $138,080. The pay may vary depending on the sector and experience level.

What skills do you need as a computer engineer?

You need hard skills like knowledge of computer languages, networking, coding, and electrical engineering to work as a computer engineer. You should also have soft skills in creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration.

Are computer engineering jobs in high demand?

The BLS projects a modest employment increase of 5% for computer hardware engineering positions from 2022-2032. However, the BLS also projects a significant increase in tech industry jobs overall. Computer engineering jobs remain essential to creating new technology.

Page last reviewed April 16, 2024.

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