Career Path Options for a Computer Hardware Engineer

Computer Hardware Engineer Careers



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The average value of the Bachelor degree needed to become a Computer hardware engineers is $2,180,947.00.

Points of Interest

  • Computers impact almost every aspect of modern, daily life and will continue to do so in the future as more advanced technologies are developed and implemented.
  • Computer hardware engineers are responsible for designing computer components and electronics that run today’s technologically advanced world.
  • Advancements in computing and computers are made daily by computer hardware engineers.
  • Earning a bachelor’s degree in computer hardware engineering takes 4 years at an accredited engineering school.
  • As more of the developing world becomes more technologically advanced, demand for computer hardware engineering jobs is likely to increase.
  • Competition for computer hardware engineering jobs is intense due to pressure from foreign manufacturing.

Nature of the Work

Computer Engineer

In today’s world, it is practically impossible to find any facet of life that is not influenced by computers in one way or another. Computers form the backbone of the infrastructure of modern civilization, controlling everything including bank accounts, the stock market, medical records, the power grid, utilities, nuclear weapons, and much more. Computers have ushered in a new era of automation that has increased productivity and efficiency. Tasks that used to take hours or days to complete can now be finished in the blink of an eye thanks to the power of modern computers. Computers are marvels of technology that are very simple in theory. A series of silicon circuits, transistors, and capacitors hold and pass electrical charges that correspond to a binary code of numbers. The same silicon circuits manipulate the code and perform small calculations on it very quickly, resulting in new data being outputted. The physical units that make up a computer and other pieces of electronics are referred to as hardware, while software refers to the computer code that instructs the hardware to perform a certain operation in order to achieve a desired result. One can make a comparison between hardware and software to that of a car and its driver. The car is the physical piece of machinery that is responsible for moving the passenger from place to place, while the driver is the source of the information that instructs and controls how the car gets from point A to point B. Computer hardware engineers are the people who design and construct the computer hardware that allows the modern world to function.

Not only do computer hardware engineers design and develop the physical components of a computer, but they can also design computer systems, networks, and other pieces of electronic equipment that depend on computer chips and processors. If electrical engineers design products to make the everyday life of humans more convenient and easier, computer hardware engineers design the tools that they use to achieve these lofty goals.

The work of computer hardware engineers also overlaps somewhat with the fields of electrical engineering, software engineering, and computer science. The computer hardware engineer is responsible for making sure that the physical components of a computer interact as planned with the software and other pieces of hardware. Computer hardware engineers must have intimate knowledge of both hardware and software to perform their jobs well. In fact, many computer hardware engineers are the authors of computer operating systems and hardware drivers, pieces of software that allow a person to use and operate a computer.

Computer hardware engineers typically work for large electronics and computer companies, manufacturing, or for government agencies like the military. Most work in computer hardware engineering is done in teams, so it is essential for the computer hardware engineer to be able to work well and to communicate effectively with other people from a wide range of disciplines. Large projects may draw in experts from a large variety of fields such as physicists, chemists, material scientists, business people, and other engineers.

The daily life of a computer hardware engineer revolves around designing and building computer equipment, computer networks, and electronic devices that can make tasks faster and more efficient. They also work on the interface between hardware and software, determining ways to make them work together to achieve a certain goal. Computer engineers are frequently asked to weigh the benefits and costs of implementing new hardware versus new software in order to maximize profits and to increase efficiency.

Almost all sectors of industry have positions for computer hardware engineers since computer play such a crucial role in today’s world. Most computer engineers work approximately 40 hours per week in laboratories or offices. However, many times, due to the nature of the work, computer hardware engineers may need to work overtime or odd hours to meet a deadline or to diagnose and fix a problem that may develop with a computer or computer network. Fortunately, some of these tasks can be completed from remote locations like home since telecommunication capabilities have increased dramatically over the last several years.

As developing countries become more advanced and more people start to have access to computers, the demand for new and better computers will increase. It is up to the computer hardware engineers of the world to step up and meet this demand to keep technological advancements moving forward.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Educational Requirements

Earning a bachelor’s degree in computer hardware engineering takes between 4 to 5 years at an accredited engineering school. Prospective high school students wishing to study computer hardware engineering should have a strong background in mathematics and physical sciences including physics and chemistry. Having taken a calculus class during high school is also helpful since most physics for engineering majors involves calculus. Hopeful computer hardware engineers should be sure to enroll in a university that has been accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). This ensures that the curriculum of the computer engineering program meets certain standards that will be able to prepare a student to enter the workforce. A program in computer hardware engineering may sometimes fall under the jurisdiction of a department of computer science or with the school of engineering for many universities and colleges. Since there is great overlap between computer engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, students often take classes and interact with other students that are on different, yet similar academic tracks.

Some colleges and universities do not make the distinction between majoring in computer science and majoring in computer hardware engineering. Although students take many of the same classes, programs with ABET accreditation require students to have a completed curriculum that includes a computer engineering design component.

After gaining admission to an engineering program, students will have to take basic core classes in their first two years. During these years, students will take classes in advanced mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, writing, and humanities in order to give them a solid foundation for their later studies and to meet the graduation requirements of the university. In the last two years of an engineering program, students will be asked to choose a specialty like computer hardware engineering. After choosing an area of specialization, students will take the core of their engineering curriculum with an emphasis on their specialty. For example, a person majoring in computer hardware engineering may be required to take classes in hardware design, operating systems, electronic devices, circuits, magnetic fields, digital image and signal processing, micro computing, computer design and organization, and software engineering to name a few. Students of computer hardware engineering may also need to take linear algebra and discrete mathematics as part of their program of study. Finally, many engineering programs require a technical writing class or a writing class that focuses on composition in order to instruct future engineers on how to communicate their ideas effectively to others.

Computer Hardware Engineering

Specialties within Computer Hardware Engineering

Computer hardware engineering is broad in scope, so much so that most engineers concentrate in one of several areas of specialization within the field. Below are some of the specializations on which computer hardware engineers may focus.

  • Coding, Data Transfer, and Cryptography Computer hardware engineers that specialize in coding, transferring data, and cryptography develop hardware and methods of transmitting data from one place to another quickly, efficiently, and securely. Engineers that study coding and data transfer work to improve the way that data is compressed and reassembled during transfer with practical applications in the fields of wireless communication, satellite broadcasts, optical data transmission, and more. Engineers that specialize in cryptography develop methods to ensure that data transmissions are secure from being seen or sent to unwanted third parties. They develop encryption algorithms and hardware encryption methods and work to secure data stored in large networks or databases.
  • Compilers and Operating Systems Engineers that work on compilers and operating systems focus on bridging software with hardware. They are the expert coders that write the very instructions that computer hardware needs to work correctly on the most basic level. Many engineers that specialize in compilers and operating systems are employed by software companies as parts of developmental teams for new operating systems for future releases.
  • Communications and Wireless Networking-One of the main reasons for the technological boom of the late 20th century has been because of advancements in communication and wireless networking. Computer hardware engineers that specialize in this field work on designing advanced communication systems and computer networks (both wired and wireless). They are also experts in information theory and error control coding. These engineers also develop ways to transfer data wirelessly through hardware. For instance, some computer hardware engineers are experts in sending data over newly released frequency bans that had been previously used by analog radio and television signals.
  • Image, Signal, and Speech Processing Computer hardware engineers that specialize in image and speech processing work to make the interaction between computers and humans easier. One area that has garnered widespread attention is speech processing. The goal of these computer hardware engineers is to figure out ways for computers to understand human speech patterns and to respond appropriately to them. Also, some people work on image processing, which refers to how computers can look at visual images and understand their meanings. For example, computer hardware engineers may do research on computer hardware that can be used in facial recognition by a computer to understand emotion. Experts in this field also develop medical diagnostic technologies like MRI and CT scanners. They also work on radars, electron microscopy, and other things that involve scanning or signals.
  • Computational Science-Some computer hardware engineers choose to specialize in computational science, which is a field of mathematics and engineering that deals with using computers and computer hardware to solve complex mathematical problems. Computer hardware engineers may design supercomputers, computer networks, and other hardware devices that can be used to perform these calculations. Complex computer simulations often rely on supercomputers and computer networks to process data. For example, a computer hardware engineer may be tasked with setting up an array of computers that will be used to make climate forecast models based on a tremendous amount of raw data.
  • Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Experts in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence strive to construct robotic devices that can perform certain tasks quicker and more efficiently than humans. They often design robots for sectors of industry like manufacturing, where precision, repeatability, and speed are extremely important. Computer hardware engineers may also work on artificial intelligence, which is a branch of computer engineering that strives to allow computers to take cues from the environment and act intelligently upon them. Artificial intelligence can be used as part of an autopilot program, in stock market trading, and much more.
  • Distributed Systems, Computer Networks, and Mobile Computers Computer hardware engineers that choose this area of focus build the computer infrastructure that powers today’s modern world. They are responsible for designing computer networks and making all of the components and hardware on the network work with one another in harmony. In addition, some are involved in the design of mobile computers. As the world grows more transient, the need for smaller and lighter weight computers becomes more important in order to provide maximum portability. Engineers may also oversee such projects like bank ATM systems, where ATM machines must be linked to a bank’s network of computers. Computer hardware engineers also setup and maintain wireless networks and communication services for major corporations and government entities.
  • Computer System Architecture-One of the most exciting areas on the cutting edge of computer technology is computer system architecture. Computer hardware engineers that work in this discipline design the microprocessors and other hardware that power today’s computers. Activities might include designing a data pipeline for a computer processor, developing a new architecture for a graphical processing unit, designing a computer motherboard, and working on multiple computer cores among other things.
  • Embedded Systems -he field of embedded systems is one in which computer hardware engineers try to maximize the efficiency of previously installed computer systems. Embedded systems are frequently found in manufacturing industries like automotive assembly lines and in factories that make consumer goods. Computer hardware engineers not only work on improving a company’s computer infrastructure, but also optimizing its current computers with software that can help to speed up productivity.
  • Integrated Circuits and VLSI Design-The goal of engineers working in the field of integrated circuits and VLSI design (very large scale integration) is to improve the speed, reliability, efficiency, and power requirements of VLSI circuits. Very large scale integration is a manufacturing and design process in which thousands of transistors are combined into one semiconductor chip, such as in a computer processing unit. The engineers working in this field also work on ways to streamline and automate the manufacturing process, allowing companies to produce more computer chips in a shorter amount of time, reducing overhead expenses.

Advanced Degrees

Having a bachelor’s degree in computer hardware engineering opens the doors to most entry level computer engineering jobs, however, in order to be qualified for higher positions, computer engineers benefit by obtaining a master’s degree or a doctorate in computer engineering.

In the field of computer engineering, starting salaries grow in proportion to the amount of education that a person has.

A master’s degree in computer engineering takes approximately 2 to 3 years to complete at an accredited university. During the course of study, the student will take advanced classes in computer engineering and focus more closely in on their specialty. Students are also required to complete a research project, culminating in a thesis, which will be presented at the end of their master’s program course of study.

After achieving a master’s degree, some students will want to continue their educations and pursue a doctoral degree in computer hardware engineering. Obtaining a doctoral degree in computer engineering is especially important for individuals that want to have an academic career with a teaching and research position at a university. After earning a master’s degree in computer hardware engineering, it takes an additional three to four years to earn a PhD in the field. PhD candidates take even more advanced computer classes and work on research in their various fields of interest. They may also be required to teach some basic computer classes or oversee computer laboratories as part of their programs of study. During this time, PhD candidates are required to complete a doctoral dissertation based on their research interests. At the end of their course of study, PhD candidates in computer hardware engineering present their dissertations to a committee of faculty members who will either accept or reject the dissertation and award the doctoral degree accordingly.

Alternatively, some people with a bachelor’s degree in computer hardware engineering choose to pursue careers in technology management, a division of many corporations that is responsible for creating, maintaining, and improving the computer infrastructure of the company. Often, these individuals decide to earn an MBA so that they are well prepared to work in the corporate world as managers and executives.

Still others may choose to pursue a degree in law after achieving a bachelor’s degree in computer hardware engineering. Having a degree in law is particularly helpful for those wishing to work in patent law. Advancements in computer technology are made every day, each of which requires patent lawyers to protect the intellectual property rights of the company that developed the technology. These individuals research the technology and make sure that it does not violate any existing patents. They then apply for patents on the technology or product and make sure that the interests of the developers are protected.

Continuing Education

Due to the rapid advancements in computer hardware technology, computer hardware engineers are required to keep up with the latest developments. As a result, many companies and employers require their computer hardware engineers to undergo extra training so that they are versed in the latest technological advancements. This may require that engineers attend seminars, take extra classes, or join professional societies that offer one on one training in a specific area.

Employment

According to statistics gathered by the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics, there are approximately 79,000 computer hardware engineers in the country. Out of the 1.5 million engineering jobs in the country, this number represents approximately 5.6% of the total. Many industries, government agencies, private laboratories, educational facilities, consulting firms, and the military hire computer hardware engineers to design technology and to improve and maintain their computer networks. Most computer hardware engineers are employed by computer and electronics companies, designing new products and consumer goods.

Job Outlook and Projections

The United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that over the decade spanning 2008 through 2018, the field of computer hardware engineering will grow at a modest rate of 5% over the decade. This small amount is less than the average growth rate for all other occupations for which it keeps statistics.

Although technological advancements are being made every day and developing counties like China and India are increasing the demand for computers and electronic goods, the job outlook is depressed somewhat because of foreign outsourcing and competition. Corporations are choosing to move their manufacturing and design facilities to other countries where costs of operation are much lower than domestically. Also, many of these countries have a large, highly qualified labor force that costs less to employ than computer hardware engineers in the United States.

One area of faster than average growth in computer hardware engineering is in the field of computer systems design. Also, the number of jobs for private consulting firms is likely to increase more than the average 5.6% rate of growth in then ext decade.

Earnings

Like many engineering related jobs, the amount that a person earns is usually directly correlated with the amount of education that he has and his level of experience within the field. Salaries also depend on the employer, the sector of industry, as well as the location of the job, which makes considerations for cost of living expenses that vary between cities and states.

On the whole, computer hardware engineers with a bachelor’s degree command some of the highest starting salaries among people who hold a university degree. The median salary for a computer hardware engineer that has earned a bachelor’s degree is $88,470, meaning that half of the engineers make more than this number and half make less per year in salary.

For a newly hired computer hardware engineer with a bachelor’s degree, the average starting salary is $56,201. Starting salaries for individuals who have obtained a master’s degree in computer hardware engineer is $60,000. Meanwhile, those that have a doctoral degree in the field commanded over a $30,000 premium over those with a master’s degree, earning $92,500 for a starting salary.

Related Occupations

The field of computer hardware engineering is really an interdisciplinary field, which overlaps several engineering specialties. The following are some occupations that are related to computer hardware engineering.

  • Electrical engineer
  • Computer software engineer
  • Computer scientist
  • Network administrator
  • Robotics specialist
  • Artificial intelligence designer
  • Manufacturing specialist
  • Computer support specialist
  • Electronic drafting
  • Electronic repair
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Mathematician
  • Teaching

Sources of Additional Information

Below are some important professional organizations and sources of information for prospective computer hardware engineers.

  • Association for Computing Machinery Founded in 1947, the Association for Computing Machinery is the oldest professional society for computer engineers in the world. They bring together experts from all fields in an effort to spread knowledge of new discoveries and to advance understanding of computer hardware and electronics design.
  • IEEE Computer Society The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is the largest professional organization in the world for electrical and computer engineers. The goal of the IEEE computer society is to expand human knowledge of computers and to maintain standards of excellence for its professional members.



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