How to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer
Essential Education, Skills, and Job Interview Prep
If you’ve ever taken a computer apart and put it back together, you’re a good candidate for a career in computer engineering. By learning how to become a computer hardware engineer, you can make your hobby your career. In this guide, we’ll explore the education, skills, and other essential experience you’ll need for a career in this field.
What Is a Computer Hardware Engineer?
A computer hardware engineer works to construct the physical components of computer technology. They make circuit boards, processors, routers, smartphone parts, devices that connect to the Internet of things (IoT), and much more.
As with most fields, the profession is broken up into a number of specializations. Some computer engineers do research, others participate in the design process, others develop the parts themselves, and others test computer systems, peripherals, and components. Working as part of a team, you’ll be on the frontlines building and testing the latest technologies.
Computer Hardware Engineer Salary and Job Outlook
According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for computer hardware engineers is $119,560. BLS also projects that the field will expand by two percent from 2019 to 2029. This works out to about 1,100 new jobs.
While this projected growth rate is slower than average, continued innovation in the Internet of things (IoT) is one reason to believe that the demand for computer hardware engineers will outpace the BLS projection. As suppliers of embedded chips for IoT appliances ramp up production, the manufacturing sector will need more hardware engineers.
Entry-Level Computer Hardware Engineer Job Requirements
Most entry-level computer hardware engineers have a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering or Electrical Engineering from an accredited program. Those who attend the best computer engineering schools will be the most competitive candidates for jobs right out of college, but there are also high-quality online bachelor’s programs in computer engineering.
According to PayScale, an entry-level computer hardware engineer stands to make about $75,376 per year. Your starting salary will depend on a number of factors, including the location of the job and the company you go to work for.
How to Ace Your Computer Hardware Engineer Job Interview
To ace your interview, make sure to research the company and the specific role you’re applying for. Be confident in your skills, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek clarification if you don’t understand something. Although you could be asked any number of things, you can prepare for your technical interview by studying the following list of common questions.
Common Computer Hardware Engineer Job Interview Questions
- Which factors can affect microprocessor speed?
- Can you explain fault tolerance?
- What are the best ways to address scalability concerns?
- How can you minimize architectural risk?
- Do you have a plan of how you would optimize an existing product on the market?
What Degree Should I Get to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer?
The most straightforward way to become a computer hardware engineer is by getting a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering. You could also major in computer science or another related discipline. Whatever program you choose, make sure it has been accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
The most common path is not necessarily the only path. Read below for more information on the educational avenues open to an aspiring computer engineer.
Associate Degree in Computer Science or Information Technology
If you cannot attend a four-year program right away, you can make some progress toward a computer engineering career with an in-person or online Associate Degree in Computer Science or Information Technology. In just two years at a community college or at home on your computer, you will study core topics and get your pre-engineering credits out of the way.
Many students transfer their associate degree credits to a bachelor’s program, but you can also supplement your associate degree with professional certifications in the subject areas you’re lacking. Some possible certifications are Microsoft Systems Administrator (MCSA), ARM Accredited Engineer (AAE), and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP).
Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Engineering or Electrical Engineering
A Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering is the minimum degree most employers expect. In this program, you will learn how to develop, build, and test hardware components, as well as how to make sure the hardware works cohesively with software. Standard coursework includes classes on microprocessors and circuitry, data and algorithms, and computer programming.
At many universities, computer engineering is a subdiscipline of electrical engineering, so you can also get a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering. This degree is essentially the same, but it places greater emphasis on underlying physics concepts, such as electromagnetism and thermodynamics. For either degree, a strong foundation in math is required.
Master’s Degree in Computer Engineering or Business Administration
Large firms hiring for specialized roles may require a Master’s Degree in Computer Engineering. In this two-year program, students learn advanced techniques of software and hardware production and testing. Coursework may revolve around integrated circuits, advanced computer architecture, or digital circuit fault detection. You can get your master’s degree online.
Engineers looking to advance into managerial roles may pursue a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA). As a computer and information systems manager with a background in computer engineering, for example, you will be qualified to oversee the hardware side of an organization’s computer infrastructure.
Computer Engineering Doctoral Degree
To enroll in a PhD program, you should already have a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering or Computer Engineering, though some students can get in with only a bachelor’s. The doctorate focuses on the advanced design of compilers, operating systems, and computers. Graduation requirements will depend on your research focus.
A PhD should be sufficient to qualify you for an advanced-level position in academia or other research-oriented roles. Your dissertation research and published papers will determine where in the tech industry you end up.
What Does a Computer Hardware Engineer Do?
Computer engineers design hardware, conduct research, improve existing devices, and conduct tests. The specific work you will do depends on the industry and role you choose to go into. Below is a rundown of the most common duties.
Develops New Computer Technology
As a computer hardware engineer, you will be in charge of researching, creating schematics, developing models, and testing any new technology. Keep in mind that software and hardware are often developed concurrently, so you will be expected to collaborate with software developers to make sure that the hardware and the software work well together.
Designs Networking Hardware and Internet of Things (IoT) Devices
Not everything computer hardware engineers do is directly related to computers. Some may work on networking components or IoT devices. If you become an IoT engineer, you will design, build, test, and optimize car parts, medical devices, and smart home appliances that function with the help of embedded hardware systems.
Optimizes Existing Devices
Computer hardware engineers also test older computer equipment to ensure that it will run smoothly with each system update and that it will be compatible with new software products. You will use analytical thinking to look for ways to improve on existing devices.
Tests Computer Hardware
For every new device design or hardware upgrade, testing has to be done. Testing tells you whether or not a given product is working out. If it isn’t, your organization may have to go in another direction or reallocate expenses. Catching flaws and fixing them early can save a lot of time and resources down the line.
Essential Computer Hardware Engineer Skills
Regardless of their actual job title, all computer engineers should be equipped with problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, and communication skills. While having a mix of hard and soft skills is essential, the most important technical skills are listed below.
A vast amount of technical knowledge is required to build computers, peripherals, semiconductors, and other electronic components. You need to understand how these components work so that you can safely build and accurately test them.
You also have to be able to analyze the viability of a given hardware design. If you’re working in circuitry, for example, you’ll want to look at materials, costs, and the state of emerging technology to evaluate whether your circuit design is scalable and will work with emerging software.
Software engineers aren’t the only ones who need to learn programming languages. Hardware engineers work with software systems too, and many of the devices and systems that they build also need to be programmed. To establish a solid foundation for your computer engineering career, make sure you learn C++ and C at the very least.
Project Management Skills
With so much technical wisdom at your beck, you may want to branch out into the project management side of things. If so, you will need a master’s degree in addition to skills related to end-to-end project workflows. Good project management skills could land you a job as a senior hardware engineer, a senior computer engineer, or a hardware development manager.
How to Become a Computer
Hardware Engineer: A Step-by-Step Guide
In general terms, you will want to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree and get some experience. If you know which type of role you want or which industry you want to work in, check out the following steps and tailor them to your goals accordingly.
Study STEM Subjects and Apply to Colleges
You can’t have success in computer engineering without a foundation in math and science. Brush up on your chemistry and physics, and try to learn as much calculus, linear algebra, and probability theory as you can before attending college. While the best schools for computer science will teach you these subjects, it’s always a good idea to get a head start.
Choose a Bachelor of Science (BS) Degree Program
You can enter the field with a BS in Computer Engineering or Electrical Engineering. Some schools even combine the two disciplines, in which case you will get a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). A computer engineering major is slightly preferable because it will ensure that you get specific training in hardware and software systems.
Get Real-Life Experience
To set yourself apart from candidates with similar educational backgrounds, you may want to look into apprenticeships and work-study opportunities. Attend career fairs while in college, and keep your eyes peeled for summer internships. Many companies love to hire hard-working college students, and an internship could pave the way for a full-time job after graduation.
Prepare for the Interview
Interviewing is an important skill unto itself, so make sure to prepare. If you are not great at public speaking, practice by recording and watching yourself. Practice with friends and ask them for feedback. You can also take classes in public speaking, creativity, storytelling, or any soft skill you need to master.
Continue to Grow
If you have any gaps in your knowledge, try to supplement your education with extra courses or relevant certifications. You can also tailor your skillset and resume to the specific job you’re applying for. Remember that most computer engineering jobs require continuous learning. Stay up to date with any training you need, and continue to grow in your learning.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer?
Becoming a computer hardware engineer can take anywhere from four to seven years. A bachelor’s degree takes around four years, and a master’s degree would require an additional two years. If you participate in internships during semester breaks or concurrently with courses, your period of training could be slightly longer.
Should You Become a Computer Hardware Engineer in 2021?
Yes. Although many industries have been hurt by the pandemic, the electronics industry is still flourishing. This is because consumers are excited to try out new smart devices and appliances, and the shift to a working-from-home culture is leading many people to upgrade their devices. As a computer hardware engineer, you will be an integral part of these advances.
Computer Hardware Engineer FAQ
What are some things computer hardware engineers have to know about circuitry?
To become a computer hardware engineer, you will need to know a lot about how circuits work. Topics in a typical course on circuits include electrical resistivity and conductivity, transistors, Boolean logic, and Ohm’s Law.
Do all computer hardware engineers work in tech companies?
Computer hardware engineers do not necessarily work for component manufacturing companies or tech companies. They can also work in research organizations or for the government.
What are some professional resources to use for career advancement, education, mentoring, and conferences in the hardware engineering field?
Some of the best resources for computer hardware engineers are professional organizations. These include the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the International Association of Computer Science and Information Technology (IACST).
What are some careers related to computer hardware engineering?
People who study computer engineering can also become computer and information research scientists, electrical engineers, aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, mathematicians, computer programmers, or computer network architects.