How to Become a Computer Engineer
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Computer engineers combine engineering principles with computer systems technologies to create the devices that organizations and individuals alike rely on.
What is computer engineering? The term implies the combination of computers and engineering, but does little to help explain what computer engineers do.
Simply put, computer engineers create the computer software and hardware we use in our daily lives. These professionals design, develop, and maintain computer systems and information technologies. They also make sure technologies work together efficiently and effectively.
Computer engineers accomplish these goals by uniting — in research and practice — computer science, electrical engineering, and information technology. A degree in computer engineering, hands-on experience, and continued exploration of technology's potential lead to exciting careers in the field. Read this guide to discover what you need to know about becoming one of these innovators in the ever-expanding field of information technology.
What Is Computer Engineering?
Computer engineering integrates knowledge and skills from the fields of computer science, electrical engineering, and information technology. With a comprehensive understanding of programming languages, computer systems, networks and utilities, computer engineers serve as the backbone of the information technology industry.
Hardware components involved in computer engineering include monitors, printers, switch boxes, and network testers — each of which engineers test, modify, and update as needed.
What Do Computer Engineers Do?
Computer engineers design and manage computer hardware, software, and network systems. They conduct tests, resolve problems, and ensure technologies meet the needs of clients and organizations.
As technology expands, so does computer engineering. Computer engineers often specialize in software, hardware, or network engineering. Additional areas of specialization include robotics, virtual reality, mobile applications and systems, and artificial intelligence.
Software engineers apply engineering principles and practices to software development and systems. Hardware engineers do the same thing, only they focus on hardware like circuit boards and processors. Network engineers construct and maintain computer networks.
Where Do Computer Engineers Work?
Computer engineers typically work full time in business and organizational settings. They work independently, researching and developing computer systems and components to optimize a client's needs. Computer engineers also operate as part of a team, collaborating with software developers and other information technology professionals to implement and manage computer systems and components.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the largest employers of computer hardware engineers in 2019 were computer systems design firms. Computer engineers also find employment in electrical component manufacturing, computer equipment manufacturing, and research and development.
Computer Engineer Skills
Computer engineers acquire hard skills needed for the role by earning a degree, enrolling in technology-related bootcamps, and acquiring experience in the field. Computer engineers benefit from having a strong grasp of programming languages, secure coding, and software and hardware technologies.
Computer engineers also need solid knowledge of software development, network protocols, and internet connectivity. They should also understand how computer components work and connect and how to test computer devices.
Soft skills enable computer engineers to use technologies efficiently and effectively. Computer engineers ought to think critically and analytically to determine how to create technologies for their clients' needs. Computer engineers should also generally possess interpersonal communication and time management skills, and they should enjoy working both independently and with a team.
Steps to Become a Computer Engineer
The path to becoming a computer engineer starts with an undergraduate degree in a computer-related field. A bachelor's degree in computer engineering best equips individuals to enter the profession, where experience and continued education facilitate advancement and career success.
1. Earn Degree(s)
Most computer engineering positions require at least a bachelor's degree. Some schools offer undergraduate degrees in computer engineering, but numerous other majors prepare students to become computer engineers.
Individuals can earn a bachelor's degree in computer science, computer information systems, or engineering as a starting point. Undergraduate computer engineering programs include both lecture and lab coursework, allowing students to apply their knowledge in anticipation of an internship. Bachelor's degrees typically take four years to complete.
A master's degree in computer engineering benefits learners who have already earned a bachelor's degree in a computer-related discipline or another subject. Depending on the program, a master's degree may include fundamental content alongside advanced coursework needed to work as a computer engineer. Most master's degrees require two years of coursework.
Students interested in the research side of computer engineering can pursue a doctorate. During a doctoral program in computer engineering, learners explore theoretical and empirical aspects of a subset of the field, allowing them to serve as innovators and leaders in academic settings and across economic sectors.
2. Pursue Internship(s) or Work Experience
As students enter the computer engineering profession, practical experience can set them apart from other job-seekers. A bachelor's degree in computer engineering may include an internship as part of the curriculum.
Many schools have partnerships with businesses and organizations, placing learners into internships at companies like Microsoft and Apple. Students may also have the opportunity to choose their own internship. Either way, an internship can lead to a full-time position after graduation.
Work experience in a computer-related field also benefits learners entering the competitive job market. Individuals who demonstrate a knowledge of software, hardware, and networking appeal to employers seeking new talent. Experience also helps students who want to enter a graduate degree in computer engineering, especially those with an undergraduate degree in something other than computers.
3. Earn Certification(s)
To work as a computer engineer, individuals do not need professional certifications. That said, certifications do enhance knowledge and skills, propelling learners into exciting roles in the field. Many certifications emphasize knowledge about specific technologies.
CompTIA offers certifications for individuals at all stages of their careers. Programs include CompTIA Network+ for entry-level workers and CompTIA Project+ for project managers at any level. Cisco certifications in enterprise infrastructure, collaboration, and cyber operations similarly meet the needs of computer engineers at junior, professional, and expert levels.
An additional option includes certifications offered by the IEEE Computer Society. Students can earn certifications as associate or professional software developers or as professional software engineering masters. A professional engineering (PE) license serves as an additional credential for computer engineers. To become a PE, individuals must meet the standards established by the National Society of Professional Engineers.
4. Create Your Resume
With a degree, professional experience, and applicable certifications, future and current computer engineers possess much of what they need to create a resume. Resumes must be clear and concise, yet informative and thorough. Students should emphasize their hard and soft skills, demonstrating to employers the breadth of their abilities.
When writing a resume, individuals should highlight abilities and skills as they apply to specific jobs. Coursework, experience, and certifications in software development and software engineering — such as those offered by the IEEE Computer Society — make it clear to employers what an applicant brings to the fold.
What to Look for in a Computer Engineering Degree Program
While many schools lack a degree specifically titled computer engineering, other options exist. Students can major in computer science and minor in engineering, major in engineering and minor in computer science, or find some combination of majors and minors that can lead to a career in computer engineering.
Cost, length, and degree requirements should also factor into your choice of a computer engineering degree. Individuals who work full time benefit from convenient and flexible online options, while learners with a bachelor's degree in another discipline might have the opportunity to transfer in previous coursework toward a degree in computer engineering.
When choosing a computer engineering degree, always research the accreditation status of the conferring institution. Colleges and universities can hold either national or regional accreditation, designations that indicate the types of programs offered at the institution.
The best computer engineering programs also maintain accreditation through the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), the premier organization for setting educational and professional standards in the discipline.
Computer Engineering Salary Information
Salaries for computer engineers vary by education level, experience, industry, and location. Top-paying computer engineering positions for individuals with bachelor's degrees include computer hardware engineers and computer network architects. These roles require specific skills, serving as guides to what certificates and work experience can give students a competitive edge on the job market.
|Career||Median Annual Salary (2020)|
|Computer and Information Research Scientists||$126,830|
|Computer Hardware Engineers||$119,560|
|Computer Network Architects||$116,780|
|Electrical and Electronics Engineer||$103,390|
|Network and Computer Systems Administrators||$84,810|
The comprehensive nature of computer engineering opens career opportunities in roles across economic sectors. Many positions require similar knowledge and skills, while others allow learners to embrace their personal interests and demonstrate their expert abilities.
Software developers possess the creative and technical abilities to design, test, and develop software to meet the needs of clients. They work closely with software programmers and information technology professionals. In contrast to computer engineers, software developers rarely work with hardware.
Web developers are software developers who focus on building web applications. Much like general software developers, web developers use coding languages, albeit different ones. Web developers integrate code to create user-facing software, often specializing in either client-side or server-side aspects of web development.
Web designers focus on the look of a website. They design layout, create artwork, and implement effective design elements. Unlike web and software developers and computer engineers, web developers generally do not code or work with hardware
Computer Engineering Professional Organizations
Interview: How to Become a Computer Engineer
Perry Zheng is a founder and CEO of Cash Flow Portal, a real-estate syndication software. It is a robust investment operations software and a powerful tool for raising capital that has already helped syndicators raise $100MM+. Perry is also a full-time engineering manager at Lyft. Before that, he worked at Twitter and Amazon.
Why Become a Computer Engineer?
What are some challenges and high points in this role?
Some of the biggest challenges in this role include maintaining the technical aptitude of logical thinking and constantly updating your skills and knowledge in the field because of a swiftly changing environment.
What type of person does well in this role?
Anyone who has a knack for logical thinking and a passion for programming, robotics, and electrical circuits can do very well as a computer engineer. Along with these skills, an individual who has a great attention span and the ability to stay focused despite strong mental challenges can thrive in this role.
Why did you choose to pursue a computer engineering degree specifically, instead of another computer science degree?
I found other computing degrees to be a little too monotonous in terms of the nature of work. Computer engineering diversifies your skillset and takes you away from the repetitive phase of development and into the management of electrical circuits, and getting creative with robotics and hardware devices. This combination of fields is what excites me and convinced me to pursue the degree.
How to Get Hired
What skills do employers look for when hiring computer engineers?
There are a lot of different skills that employers expect from a potential employee who is applying for the position of a computer engineer. The technical side of required skills includes:
- Electrical engineering
- Computer science
- Industry skills
- Structural analysis
Additionally, the general skills that most employers look for include:
- Teamwork capabilities
- Critical thinking
As you further grow into the field, you can look for specialized skills in one or more of the following areas:
- Network security
- Integrated circuits
- Embedded systems
- Quantum computing
How did you make the most of your computer engineering degree program so that it prepared you for post-grad jobs?
I used my degree to gain experience and learn skills in relevant areas. I worked whatever relevant jobs I got, and completed different projects and courses to increase my knowledge and improve my resume. As things progressed, I completed four years of work experience, and decided to become a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE). All of this piled up to make me a recognized professional in the field and help me grow throughout my career.
What would you recommend that students do to stand out to employers, in addition to earning their computer engineering degree?
The easiest way to further grow your skills is to get your hands on any courses or training opportunities you get. This will reflect a student's desire to work and grow in the field. Furthermore, they need to take any opportunity they get, even if it is in the smallest of startups with low salaries. It is unlikely that you will land yourself a top job immediately, so focus on industry experience. After a year or two, you will have developed enough to jump up to a high-paying job in a bigger organization.
What's a Typical Day Like for a Computer Engineer?
What tasks do you typically work on?
As a computer engineer, I typically work on designing and implementing new computer hardware devices and updating existing ones. This includes identifying specifications, deciding which hardware components will go along, and helping a colleague complete a digital 3D model of the product. This is followed by moving towards the physical design and implementation of the product.
Who do you communicate with?
My communication is usually with my team members, with whom I have divided tasks. For example, a 3D modeling professional for design specification, a hardware engineer for hardware specifications, and other relevant specialists depending on the project. A manager is also involved for updates and progress, to whom I report from time to time to inform about the work that's been done and what's next in the project.
How many hours do you work?
I work 40 hours a week, just like any other professional in any other job. However, sometimes I put in extra hours to meet certain deadlines, or when something about a project is bugging me and I want to fix it. But this happens very rarely.
Who are your coworkers?
My coworkers include a handful of other computer engineers and some other industry specialists who go hand-in-hand for different projects. This includes hardware and software engineers, product designers, and developers. Every individual in the team has a different specialization so they bring a unique aspect to the table.
What knowledge do you utilize in your work?
Knowledge of hardware design is essential for my role. I have to overlook the 3D model for its capability to be transformed into a physical product. I also overlook the manufacturing of the product. Industry knowledge is also essential to update existing products and make them efficient to work with new softwares.
Frequently Asked Questions
Computer engineering integrates computer science with electrical engineering knowledge and skills to work with software and hardware alike, while computer science emphasizes programming, computing theory, and architecture design.
Computer engineers need technical skills such as programming, coding, and network architecture. Computer engineers also use analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills in their work.
Computer engineering is challenging, but individuals with an interest in computer technologies and engineering fundamentals thrive in the field. Computer engineering requires mathematical, technical, and critical thinking skills.
Algorithms, computational theory, and operating systems are among the most challenging courses, but the hardest class in computer engineering depends on the student and university.
Melissa Sartore holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her BA and MA in history are from Western Illinois University. A medievalist by training, she has published on outlawry in medieval England with additional publications on outlaws in popular culture and across geographic and historical boundaries.
Header Image Credit: Timbicus | Getty Images
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