Careers in computer engineering
In the 21st century, nearly everyone uses a computer. From accountancy to zookeeping, most jobs require the use of a computer at least part of the time. As a computer engineer, you could be the one designing and improving computer software and hardware for a range of uses, from industry to private life.
If you’re considering a career in computers but are unsure whether engineering is the right branch to pursue, keep reading. We have put together this comprehensive primer to answer your most commonly asked questions.
What is computer engineering?
Computer engineers research, develop, design, and test computer hardware or software for commercial, industrial, military, or scientific use. They may also supervise the manufacturing and installation of computers in complex commercial or government environments.
Why pursue a career in computer engineering?
The most obvious answer to this question is simply that you enjoy working with computers. If you have tweaked your computer by installing your own add-ons and accessories, you’ve already dipped your toes in the engineering pool.
The second reason is the benefits you can reap. Unlike many other careers, computer engineering is a field that can be accessed with only a bachelor’s degree. It is also in solid demand, which means you can earn a quick return on your investment.
It typically takes 4.5 years for the average bachelor’s degree to begin paying for itself. A bachelor’s in computer engineering shaves several years off this figure. You may be able to recoup the cost of your degree in as little as 2.08 years.
In terms of job outlook and salary, there were 66,200 jobs for computer hardware engineers in 2020. Our own research shows computer engineering graduates earning an average of $69,087 just 2 years after graduation. This figure is unusual for a bachelor’s, considering holders of generic bachelor’s degrees earn an average of $46,471.
Some of the richest people in the world have computer-related backgrounds, including Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Larry Page (Co-founder of Google).
How difficult is it to become a computer engineer?
It is not necessarily difficult to become a computer engineer, but it does take serious effort. A solid background in programming languages and math is key. Taking the following classes at college is also helpful:
- artificial intelligence
- data analytics
Upon graduation, you have the option of taking several different exams to help you solidify your role in the workplace. While these tests aren’t mandatory, they can help you gain acceptance as a licensed computer engineer.
How long does it take to get started in computer engineering?
Including your bachelor’s degree, you can expect it to take 4-5 years to get started in this field. Many graduates find work not long after graduation. Becoming a licensed Professional Engineer takes an additional 4 years of work experience. Among recent graduates, employers look for a minimum of 1 year of work experience, or engineering internships, in lieu of an established work history.
Where do computer engineers work?
Computer engineers work in many different industries and are responsible for achieving a wide array of objectives. Those who work in entertainment may help design video games by writing the code for in-game worlds. Those who work in aerospace may handle satellite information or design security protocols to protect data. In the defense industry, computer engineers may specialize in encryption or decryption.
Once you can program equipment, develop software, or build networks, there are many industries where your skills are likely to be highly valued, including:
- research and development
- local, state, or federal government
What’s the difference between hardware and software engineers?
Hardware engineers design, research, test, improve, and oversee the assembly of the physical components of computers and computer-related devices. Software engineers work on the programs that run on hardware.
Recent engineering graduates can expect to start small and gain career momentum with work experience. The good news is that starting small in engineering comes with more perks than it does in other fields, including your starting salary.
According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, there are a total of 9 levels through which computer engineers may advance. Levels 4-9 apply to teaching careers. Each level comes with more responsibility and requires more experience.
Right out of college, you begin as an Engineer 1. At this stage, you are advancing your skills and getting real-world experience as a computer engineer. You work under the close supervision of a more experienced engineer who monitors your growth and progress. Tasks at this level are designed to increase your knowledge and mastery.
Usually, after 2 or more years of working as an Engineer 1, you can advance to Engineer 2. You are still closely supervised, but have more responsibility. You may offer guidance and support to lower-level technicians, but a supervisor monitors your progress. At this stage, you may be tasked with duties such as troubleshooting problem code, basic programming, or testing systems.
Within 2 to 3 years, you may advance to Engineer 3. At this point, you are considered a mid-level engineer and may be writing code or developing systems of your own. You have more responsibility and less supervision. Most mid-level engineers come with 3-6 years of work experience, a graduate-level education, or both. At this stage, you can oversee the work of others, such as drafters or technicians.
What types of computer engineering jobs are there?
There are many different positions you are qualified to fill at each level, such as the following:
Computer hardware engineerMedian salary: 86K US$
Computer hardware engineers design, manufacture, or install computer equipment in a variety of industries, including military, government, scientific, and commercial.
A bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement.
Computer network architectMedian salary: 121K US$
Network architects are responsible for designing and installing computer networks. Examples include Local Area Networks (LANs) and Wide Area Networks (WANs). They may also design intranet communications for companies to use when talking to their own employees.
Network architects may develop firewalls, design data recovery plans, and analyze the performance of existing networks to identify strengths and weaknesses. They pull from knowledge of computer hardware and systems, telecommunications, and engineering to perform their daily duties.
Computer network architect typically require a bachelor’s degree and some work experience in a computer-related field such as systems administration.See more
Computer systems analystMedian salary: 72K US$
Computer systems analysts spend audit computer networks, searching for ways to improve their security, efficiency, and overall performance. This position requires a lot of testing and troubleshooting of existing networks or systems to identify errors and decide where improvements can be made. Strong skills in technology and customer service are helpful.
Earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering or computer science is usually required to become a computer systems analyst.See more
Software developerMedian salary: 74K US$
Software developers are the professionals who research and develop new types of computer software. They work in conjunction with hardware engineers to ensure seamless transitions between hardware and the program it is running.
Software developers need at least a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field.
Computer programmerMedian salary: 66K US$
Programmers create the code that runs your favorite software programs. They design and develop new programs, test and modify existing code, and repair programs that aren’t working. Programmers need a solid foundation in coding, mathematics, and engineering.
Usually, a bachelor’s degree and a strong knowledge of programming languages is enough to get you started as a programmer.See more
Network and computer systems administratorMedian salary: 81K US$
Network and computer systems administrators are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of computer systems. This includes troubleshooting difficulties, updating software and programs, and performing backups of data. They are responsible for ensuring computers work properly and data stored on them is secure.
Network administrators typically earn a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field. Strong customer service skills are also important.See more
How do you become a computer engineer?
Everyone’s computer engineering career progression looks different. Some focus on furthering their education, while others prefer to advance through work experience and on-the-job training. Both strategies can work well.
A typical career plan looks something like this:
Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering
Earning your bachelor’s degree usually takes 4 years. Your studies help you develop a firm foundation in programming languages, circuit theory, software programs, and computer design, among other subjects.
Step 2: Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
You can sit for this exam before or immediately after earning your degree. The exam fee is $175 and the test is 6 hours long. Results are available within 7 to 10 days. The test is optional but constitutes the first step toward obtaining your engineering license.
Step 3: Earn work experience as a computer engineer
After graduating, find your first job as a computer engineer. This builds your work history while helping you learn valuable, real-world skills to help you advance through the engineer levels. After 4 years of working as an engineer, you are qualified to sit for the PE exam.
Step 4: Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam
The PE exam takes 9.5 hours to complete and costs $375. Again, it is optional to sit, but doing so is mandatory if you wish to become licensed.
Step 5: Become a licensed Professional Engineer
Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree, passed both the FE and the PE, have worked for a minimum of 4 years as an engineer, you can apply for your license. Licenses are granted at the state level but you must be able to prove you’ve met these federal requirements before your license can be granted.
Step 6: Complete a master’s degree in computer engineering
Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s in computer engineering, you may choose to continue your education by pursuing your master’s degree. With this degree, you can qualify for managerial positions. It is also a good path if you wish to become a teacher or instructor.
Step 7: Complete a Ph.D. in computer engineering
While it may take between 10 and 15 years of college total to earn your Ph.D., you may find the rewards worth it. This degree can immediately open doors that usually require years of work history. The most common routes for Ph.D. holders are teaching or advanced research and development roles.
Qualities of a good computer engineer
A computer engineer needs a variety of skills to be competitive in the workplace. Aside from having a solid working knowledge of programming languages such as Oracle Java, Python, and C++, the following traits and skills are also beneficial:
- active listening
- clear communication and writing
- processing and systematizing information
Additionally, the ability to forge positive work relationships is vital. Many computer engineers work as part of teams, so being able to get along well with others is important.
Frequently asked questions
How hard is a degree in computer engineering?
Computer engineering isn’t necessarily hard, but it does require a solid foundation in math and science. If you have a knack for these courses, earning this degree should be quite achievable.
Can I get a computer engineering degree online?
Be careful when choosing an online computer engineering program. Roughly 93% or computer engineering programs are conducted exclusively in person because of the hands-on requirements.
Can I become a software engineer with a degree in computer engineering?
Yes, you can. Choose courses more relevant to software design, such as coding and programming. Software engineering internships can also help you along this path.
Can I become a software engineer for a big tech company such as Google with a bachelor’s in computer engineering?
Yes. In fact, Google calls itself an “engineering company”. Becoming a software engineer at Google or a similar company requires all the academic and professional assets described here, as well as the tenacity to keep applying for positions until you reach your goal. Attending career fairs can be helpful, as is getting referred by a friend that already works at your desired company.
Are computer engineering and computer science the same?
They are not the same but are closely related. Both are tech-intensive fields that may work with computer software. Only engineers work with hardware. Computer scientists primarily focus on solving problems related to the virtual aspects of computing.
ACET is a non-profit professional organization established in 2004 to promote professional standards within the IT industry. It has over 14,000 members worldwide. They offer a credentials that allows members to append ACE or ACET after their personal name.
ACM is a scientific and educational organization dedicated to advancing computing. It promotes professional and ethical standards and offers education, resources, networking, publications, and professional membership.
The NCEES provides information on the FE and PE exams and engineering licensure.