What do computer hardware engineers do?
Computer hardware engineers, or hardware engineers, design, implement and test the hardware and systems that optimize a computer’s performance. Through their vision and work, they influence the direction of computer technology development.
Hardware engineers steer design processes from start to finish. They begin by assessing their client’s needs and recommendations, and finish with quality control checks on implemented systems. Engineers often work closely with software developers during the design and testing phases of their work to ensure that hardware components are compatible with software programs.
The architects of the computer technology field, hardware engineers pay close attention to the complete design process. They are responsible for creating blueprints, adhering to cost estimates and following logistical recommendations. Hardware engineers come from various industries and backgrounds, but all of them share a few critical abilities:
- Solid math and science background
- Experience with circuit testing, measurement (logic probes), network analysis and signal generation
- Familiarity with analytical software (Cadence, Dracula, SAS software), computer-aided design software (Allegro, Cadence Concept), development environment software (Microsoft Visual Basic, C, SystemVerilog) and operating system software (Linux, UNIX)
- Creativity in designing new products and systems
- Ability to integrate implemented hardware and systems with new technology
From aerospace to healthcare, most industries need computer hardware engineers, which affords them plenty of flexibility in determining their career path. Many work full-time in research labs or high-tech manufacturing firms; others find employment as consultants or in academia.
Areas of Hardware Engineering
Hardware engineers find work in a number of technology-based industries. Integral to companies that depend on computing, hardware engineers find work in a variety of fields, including:
Robotics engineers program machines to execute tasks that are difficult or undesirable for humans. Engineers either build new robots or enhance existing machinery. Common professional responsibilities include:
- Executing technical tasks, including installing pre-configured servers and workstations.
- Performing on-site hardware and software support during system deployments.
- Leading large teams through software, hardware and robotics systems setup and configuration.
- Communicating detailed system requirements between non-technical and technical personnel.
- Ensuring that every aspect of a robotic system meets the highest standards of solution requirements.
Quality assurance testers
Quality assurance hardware engineers research and test computer systems and their accessory components. They creatively test hardware programs to ensure their functionality and compatibility with existing software programs. Duties include:
- Contributing to product design to assure testability.
- Designing and creating specialized testing fixtures to support testing and delivery requirements.
- Developing test and verification simulators and processes to accurately and effectively test existing hardware.
- Build programs to accurately monitor test results when necessary.
- Train production test technicians to execute tests.
How much do computer hardware engineers make?
Computer engineering requires an expansive skill set and extensive technical knowledge. Accordingly, professional computer engineers are well compensated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that engineers earned an average national salary of $110,650 in 2014, and top earners make upwards of $135,000 annually. The field offers a wide range of career opportunities, from robotics to telecommunications to automobile manufacturing. A growing demand for technological innovations in green computing and nanotechnology has opened up an even broader range of competitive job opportunities.
Average Salaries, 2004-2012
- $110,650 2014
- $103,980 2012
- $101,600 2010
- $100,180 2008
- $91,280 2006
- $84,010 2004
States with the Highest Concentrations of Hardware Engineers
|State||Employment||Employment per 1,000 people||Avg. Annual Salary|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics - OES
Top-Paying Industries for Hardware Engineers
|Industry||Employment||Avg. Annual Salary|
|Other Information Services||1,000||$145,760|
|Other Electrical Equipment and Component Manufacturing||80||$129,080|
|Other Financial Investment Activities||130||$120,970|
|Communications Equipment Manufacturing||1,050||$120,460|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics - OES
Pay by Experience
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics - OES
How do I become a computer hardware engineer?
Computer hardware engineers usually have a bachelor’s in computer engineering, though a degree in electrical engineering or computer science may suffice. Most employers expect prospective employees to earn their degree through an ABET-accredited program. A strong foundation in math and science is required, as is familiarity with computer programming.
Regardless of your educational background, positions in the field require self-discipline. Technology develops and changes quickly in this dynamic field, and computer engineers must constantly enhance their skills and stay abreast of industry trends.
Below, we’ve compiled a few sample questions both degree holders and prospective engineering students should ask themselves when entering the field:
I Have Completed my Undergraduate Degree
Consider a post-graduate degree. High-paying positions and systems management jobs often require an advanced degree. Consider the following goal-based directions:
- Leadership and management roles – Masters of Business Administration (MBA) with technology focus
- Research and academia – doctorate in computer engineering
- IT Strategist, Chief Technology Officer or Chief Information Officer – doctorate in information technology
Look into Certification Exams. Not looking to go back to school just yet? Earn benchmark skills for a prospective or current employer with additional certification.
- These can help you specialize in an industry subfield
- Popular categories include Microsoft Systems Administration (MCSA), Cisco Network (Wireless and Voice), and Project Management (VMware)
Form a Wider Professional Network. It’s never too late to expand your professional circle. You never know who you’ll meet or what you might learn.
- Find and join professional organizations such as IEEE or IACSIT, or expand your virtual network through networking sites, including LinkedIn. Get involved by attending events, participating in online discussion forums and more.
- Consider a more informal networking option, such as finding a local meetup group that shares your passion for computer science and engineering.
- Join an open source site; consider creating and sharing a project and collaborating with other professionals in your field on a local or global scale
I Do Not Have a Degree
Consider an Associate Degree at a community college. For those who can’t attend a four-year school, consider completing general coursework in a two-year Associate Degree program.
- General coursework will give you a feel for the work required in a computer engineering program. As an added benefit, tuition fees are often considerably lower at two-year schools.
- Ensure that completed coursework is transferable to a four-year bachelor’s degree program.
Develop an area of expertise. If you’re enrolled in a four-year bachelor’s program, it may help to specialize in an area of interest. It’s never too early to consider where your degree might lead or where you want to work.
- Find a summer or semester internship and build connections with industry professionals in a field that interests you. Your school’s career office can help make initial connections.
- Exploring a passion in class and on your own can lead to a rewarding career. Share your interests with classmates and teachers.
- Start investigating and learning how to use emerging technology. Think about current engineering problems, and how you can solve them.
Strengthen communication and leadership skills.
- Join a professional organization (such as IEEE) or an on-campus group; network, and consider taking a leadership role.
- Internships allow you to enhance your communication and teamwork skills. They can also build confidence.
- Develop relationships with experts and other like-minded people around you, such as peers and professors (both in and out of your major).
At large companies, management positions may require an MBA or other advanced certification. In many smaller organizations, however, your career advancement will depend on your interpersonal skills and your strengths as an engineer. If you want to work in academia, you will probably need to earn your PhD in computer engineering.
For those who don’t want a graduate degree, professional certification and credentialing programs can give you the right training and skills to begin a career in the field. Earning a particular certification hones technical expertise and increases your professional value. Some popular certification programs include:
If hardware engineering sounds enticing, you might be interested in browsing a few additional resources. Below you can learn more about the field, sharpen your coding abilities and connect with other people interested in computer hardware.