Last Updated: January 28, 2020
Computer hardware engineers design and supervise the manufacture and installation of computer systems and related products. They often spend considerable time solving problems, guiding installation, and conducting computer product testing. The following page provides an overview of the descriptions, salary information, and occupational projections for computer hardware engineering and related careers.
This page also explains the steps necessary to begin this career, and it introduces continuing education resources such as certification programs, online learning sites, and professional organizations for computer hardware engineers.
What Does a Computer Hardware Engineer Do?
Computer hardware engineers create the physical components that make computers run. They design new hardware systems, test their designs, analyze their test results, and manage manufacturing for completed projects. When new software changes users' needs, these professionals redesign hardware to work with the new programs. Candidates typically need at least a bachelor's degree to land hardware computer engineering jobs.
Most hardware engineers work for computer companies and component manufacturers, while others work with research organizations and government employers. These professionals typically work full time with regular office hours. In this era of quick computer advancement, hardware engineers enjoy opportunities to work on exciting emerging technology. For example, some design artificial intelligence and virtual reality machines. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the profession to grow by 6% from 2018-2028.
This field is extremely competitive, so candidates must set themselves apart with excellent academic performance and certifications.
Key Hard Skills
Aspiring computer hardware engineers must develop "hard skills," or concrete skills specific to a given task, role, or industry. They should also build "soft skills," which prove useful in most careers. Hard skills for hardware engineers include programming languages -- such as Verilog, C, and C++ -- and engineering and board design skills. See below for descriptions of these hard skills.
- Verilog: This hardware description language remains the industry standard for electronic systems. Hardware engineers use it to design digital, analog, and mixed-signal circuits. Students usually learn this skill in school. Those who need further training in the language can pursue it through online learning sites and professional organizations.
- C: As one of the first computer programming languages students learn, the C programming language allows engineers to issue commands to their hardware. Computer hardware engineers often use this skill in testing and analyzing during development. Computer engineering programs typically include introductory courses in C.
- C++: This object-oriented programming language builds on the foundations of C. Though more difficult to learn than C, C++ allows computer hardware engineers to design and test a wider variety of systems. Students can learn the language through official college programs or online resources. Some professional organizations offer C++ certifications, as well.
- Field-Programmable Gate Array: Consumers and designers can program these circuits after manufacturing them. Typically, these circuits use hardware description languages such as Verilog. Computer hardware engineers may design FPGA circuits specifically or use them in larger designs. Universities, private companies, professional organizations, and online learning resources offer FPGA training and certifications.
- Engineering Design: Engineering design marks a core difference between computer engineering and computer science. Computer engineers must use design methods, problem-solving, and logic skills to design machinery. Students develop this essential skill during their undergraduate studies. Graduates can use portfolios and projects to demonstrate their engineering design skills.
- Board Design: When employers and universities refer to board design skills, they usually mean printed circuit boards, which connect computers' mechanical and electrical components. Hardware engineers should be proficient in designing, testing, and analyzing these boards. Bachelor's degree candidates often take several classes focused on printed circuit boards.
Key Soft Skills
As designers, hardware engineers require creativity. They also identify and tackle difficult problems, which requires additional advanced soft skills such as analytical thinking, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Most hardware engineers work on specific tasks independently, but they should cultivate the communication skills to efficiently and effectively meet client needs and collaborate with other IT professionals.
- Analytical Thinking: Analysis, the process of understanding a system by examining the functioning of its parts, constitutes much of what hardware engineers do as they design, build, test, and troubleshoot computer hardware.
- Creativity: As designers, hardware engineers must often think creatively, infusing prior knowledge with imagination as they envision new possibilities and methods. Problem-solving, a common activity for hardware engineers, also involves both creative and critical thinking.
- Critical Thinking: Hardware engineers with strong critical thinking skills often have an easier time learning and applying new skills and technologies. Furthermore, because critical thinkers tend to identify faster and better ways of completing tasks, hardware engineers with critical thinking skills often have greater leadership potential and advance further in their careers.
- Communication Skills: Depending on their company, position, and project, hardware engineers may often work alone; however, hardware engineers sometimes work on teams and communicate frequently with software engineers, technicians, and clients. Written and spoken communication skills save time by facilitating effective problem-solving and other services.
- Problem-solving: Hardware engineers should know how to identify and address hardware-related problems. These professionals spend lots of time testing and troubleshooting their work and recommending solutions and updates.
Computer hardware engineers often perform an array of diagnosis, design, and testing tasks, depending on employer needs. They use creativity to design computer equipment and hardware. Computer hardware engineers also employ analytical and problem-solving skills as they diagnose and fix problems with hardware designs, media, and storage devices. Often communicating with software developers, computer hardware engineers work to ensure compatibility between computer hardware and software.
Can Anyone Be a Computer Hardware Engineer?
A computer hardware engineer typically needs scientific aptitude, creativity, and proper education and training.
What Education Do I Need to Be a Computer Hardware Engineer?
Most computer hardware engineers hold a bachelor's degree in computer hardware engineering, computer science, or a related field.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer?
A bachelor's degree in this subject takes about four years; acquiring professional certifications and conducting a job search takes additional time.
How Much Does a Computer Hardware Engineer Make?
Computer hardware engineers' salaries vary based on industry, employer, position, and credentials. The national median salary for this position was $114,600 as of May 2018.
What Do Entry-Level Computer Hardware Engineers Do?
Entry-level computer hardware engineers often work full-time for technology manufacturing companies. These professionals help guide the manufacturing, installation, and testing of computer-related products.
Computer Hardware Engineer Salary Information
Computer hardware engineer salaries vary based on industry, location, and position. The computer systems design and related services industry employs the most computer hardware engineers, but these professionals receive the best salaries from software publishers, scientific research and development services, and information services.
Salaries also vary based on credentials such as education and work experience. Entry-level computer hardware engineers earn $71,007 annually, while professionals with 10-19 years of experience earn $113,337. California is one of the highest-paying states with one of the highest employment rates, making it the best state for computer hardware engineers.
Computer Hardware Engineers by Job Level
|Entry Level (0-12 Months)||$71,007|
|Early Career (1-4 Years)||$78,300|
|Mid-Career (5-9 Years)||$90,748|
|Experienced (10-19 Years)||$113,337|
How to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer
Earn Your Degree
Most employers in the computer hardware engineering field require entry-level applicants to hold bachelor's degrees. Candidates may meet this requirement by obtaining a nominal degree in computer hardware engineering, but many employers also consider graduates with bachelor's degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. Graduates with these degrees may earn certification to demonstrate their mastery of hardware engineering.
Graduate degrees allow professionals to specialize in specific areas, such as microsystems technology or hardware security. These concentrations allow professionals to fill high-demand positions. Some students earn doctorates in subjects like robotics and bioengineering. Such fields rely on computer hardware engineering but take it to the next level with innovation and programming.
Students may pursue both bachelor's and master's degrees in computer engineering online. Some universities offer hybrid programs, in which learners must attend labs on campus. Fully online programs use simulated laboratories for these tasks instead. Online degree candidates may also need to construct projects at home.
While in school, learners can compile portfolios through projects and labs to help build their resumes. For example, circuits labs and classes help degree candidates hone their board engineering skills, and students who complete projects in their labs may outline their accomplishments, methods, and results in their portfolios. These pages may also include pictures and feedback from professors.
Internships also allow learners to gain hands-on experience. Major technology corporations often offer internships to qualified candidates. Interns work side-by-side with experienced professionals to gain insight into their responsibilities and methods. Students may also participate in degree-related competitions, such as for robotics, to further build their portfolios. Certification courses can also round out resumes for entry-level candidates.
New computer hardware engineers can qualify for their first jobs with degrees and experience, but recent graduates often struggle to obtain professional experience. Those who failed to complete internships or need an extra boost can earn specialized credentials to add to their resumes. These professionals most benefit from certifications, which candidates can earn through professional organizations and universities.
Graduates should choose their certifications based on their skill sets and positions of choice. For example, prospective cybersecurity professionals can earn the certified computer security incident handler credential. Learners use their degree knowledge in certification exams or in online courses to develop the skills for their desired career paths. Some manufacturers and tech companies, including Microsoft and Cisco, offer certifications in their products. Employers who work exclusively with technologies from these companies highly value such credentials.
Types of Careers in Computer Hardware Engineering
Many computer hardware engineering graduates end up working in computer hardware or software, while others pursue careers in web or systems development or information technology. Some graduates obtain work in related engineering areas and industries such as aerospace or electronics engineering.
Most professional career paths related to computer hardware engineering require a bachelor's degree, but entry-level computer programmer or software developer positions may mandate only an associate. Higher-level roles such as computer network architect or computer and information systems manager require at least a bachelor's degree. Growing numbers of aerospace engineers may need master's degrees to compete.
Computer hardware engineers tend to make a good living -- BLS data places the mean annual salary at $114,600 -- and they can advance their salaries further through higher education.
Careers for Computer Hardware Engineering Graduates
These professionals design, build, and test spacecraft, satellites, and airborne machines such as planes and missiles. Aerospace engineers may hold bachelor's or master's degrees.
Median Annual Salary: $115,220
Programmers translate software programs into computer code, which enables computers to run program features. Computer programmers usually hold bachelor's degrees.
Median Annual Salary: $84,280
Computer and Information Systems Manager
These managers direct a variety of IT and computer activities, generating technology goals and supervising projects to meet those goals. Computer and information systems managers typically boast a bachelor's degree and five years' experience.
Median Annual Salary: $142,530
Software developers design computer programs, applications, and systems. These professionals typically boast a computer science bachelor's degree.
Median Annual Salary: $105,590
Computer Network Architect
Computer network architects create local, wide, and intranet networks for communicating data. These professionals hold bachelor's degrees and five or more years of work experience.
Median Annual Salary: $109,020
Where Can I Work as a Computer Hardware Engineer?
Computer hardware engineers usually work at large companies within the computer systems design industry or a related sector; however, some computer hardware engineers work for small companies or as freelancers.
Computer hardware engineering positions tend to cluster in major metropolitan areas like Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and San Francisco, because these cities boast large manufacturing and technology companies. These companies typically hire the most advanced engineers and pay them the highest salaries, as well.
According to BLS, California employs a staggering 20,720 computer hardware engineers -- over six times more than any other state. Colorado, Maryland, Texas, and Florida also appear on the list of top five states for employing hardware engineers; only California made it onto the top-paying list, as well. At an annual mean wage of $131,570, California hardware engineers earn considerably more than the national mean salary of $114,600. Other top-paying states include Maryland, Washington, and Massachusetts.
|States With the Highest Employment Level of Computer Hardware Engineers (Applications)||Number of Computer Hardware Engineers (Applications) Employed|
|Top Paying States for Computer Hardware Engineers||Annual Mean Wage|
|District of Columbia||$126,770|
Of the 64,400 computer hardware engineers employed in the United States during 2018, 25% worked in the computer systems design and related services industry. Hardware engineers in this industry must understand both software programming and hardware engineering, and they often make the most money.
An additional 10% of hardware engineers work in computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing, where they often manage projects, and another 10% work as research and development professionals for scientific companies. This latter group usually holds master's degrees and earns an average annual salary of $130,800, according to the BLS.
|Industries With the Highest Level of Employment for Computer Hardware Engineers||Number of Computer Hardware Engineers (Applications) Employed|
|Computer Systems Design and Related Services||16,090|
|Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing||6,320|
|Scientific Research and Development Services||6,190|
|Semiconductor and Other Electronic Component Manufacturing||5,780|
|Federal Executive Branch||4,710|
|Top Paying Industries||Annual Mean Wage|
|Scientific Research and Development Services||$130,800|
|Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing||$125,210|
|Management of Companies and Enterprises||$123,340|
Continuing Education for Computer Hardware Engineers
As they earn their degrees, aspiring computer hardware engineers usually put together portfolios of their work. Most good computer hardware engineering and related degrees include portfolio-building, and as engineers progress through their careers, they can continue building this portfolio.
Computer hardware engineers are lifetime learners by necessity because the technology world changes so rapidly. Sites like Code Academy and Khan Academy offer online courses on coding languages and other relevant topics for computer hardware engineers. Professionals seeking upper-level positions working with a specific type of hardware may pursue certifications particular to that hardware, such as the Cisco certifications or IBM certifications described below.
Many professional organizations also offer continuing education opportunities. For example, the National Society of Professional Engineers offers an excellent array of education opportunities, including live educational events, exam preparation, and 15 free courses.
- Microsoft Certifications Microsoft boasts online certification programs related to key areas such as productivity, data management and analytics, core infrastructure, and applications.
- EC-Council This specialist-level program prepares information security professionals to prevent and handle cybersecurity breaches at their organizations. It includes hands-on learning and takes students through all incident-handling stages.
- Cisco Certifications Cisco provides six certification levels in topics such as network development, security, infrastructure, and data management.
- IBM Certifications IBM offers 140 certification programs focused on topics and roles such as system administration, application development, solution design, and database administration.
How Do I Find a Job in Computer Hardware Engineering?
Recent computer hardware engineering graduates often face steep competition for entry-level jobs, but job-finding tools and strategies can help. Existing mentors and professional connections may offer a good first step. Many professional organizations offer mentorship opportunities, plus networking events, conferences, and other career-building resources, such as job boards. The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) job board and Engineering Jobs are good places to start searching for computer hardware engineering jobs.
These organizations also feature useful certification programs and other continuing education opportunities involving specific skills training or industry preparation, which can help qualify new graduates for entry-level positions.
Khan Academy offers online learning in web development, data management, and other relevant professional skill sets for computer science and IT professionals.
This online academy offers free coding courses geared toward computer programming, data management, and web development.
A general site featuring courses in many subjects, Study.com includes lessons on digital systems, computer architecture, circuits, and other topics directly related to computer engineering.
Professional Resources for Computer Hardware Engineers
Busy students and working professionals alike can turn to professional organizations for help with career advancement opportunities such as continuing education courses and programs, conferences, mentoring, and job-seeking resources. These organizations also keep professionals current on relevant news, innovations, and market trends, and the online communities available often enable networking and problem-solving help.
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers A global organization boasting over 400,000 members, the IEEE offers continuing education, professional development opportunities, conferences, technology publications, and several kinds of community groups. Meanwhile, IEEE also plays a role in setting industry technology standards.
- International Association of Computer Science and Information Technology A scientific association encouraging collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and experimentation, IACST supports CS and IT scholars and scholarship by organizing conferences, providing technical support, and publishing relevant academic journals.
- Computing Research Association Seeking to unify academic, governmental, and industrial sectors in an effort to improve the world through innovative computing research, the CRA gathers and publishes data, news, and other resources. It also boasts active committees, conferences, graduate student cohorts, and job-finding resources.
- National Society of Professional Engineers In addition to its continuing education offerings and advocacy work, the NSPE creates community by offering interest groups, state societies, and other communities. Membership comes with 15 free online courses through NSPE's professional engineering institute.
- Association for Women in Computing Founded in 1978, the AWC supports women's advancement in computing-related careers such as system analysis, programming, technical writing, and consultants. With chapters at schools across the country, the AWC provides continuing education, mentoring, and networking opportunities for women in computing.