So You Want to Become a Computer Engineer? Here‘s My Advice

As someone who has worked in technology for over 15 years, I often get asked by mentees and aspiring engineers about what a career in computer engineering entails. As both a dynamic field poised on the cutting-edge of innovation and a challenging yet rewarding profession, computer engineering occupies a unique place at the intersection of creativity and analytical rigor. In this post, I‘ll give you an insider‘s overview of everything from what computer engineers do day-to-day to average salaries and how to break into the industry yourself.

What is Computer Engineering?

Computer engineering integrates principles from electrical engineering and computer science to research, design, develop, and test computer components, equipment, and systems. Unlike computer scientists who focus almost exclusively on software, computer engineers work across both hardware and software, marrying deep coding expertise with electronic fundamentals.

This gives them incredible breadth to tackle problems across the computing spectrum – from circuit layouts and power systems to operating code and embedded firmware. Computer engineers apply their multifaceted skillsets to ensure devices and platforms ranging from IoT smart sensors to supercomputers run efficiently, reliably, and securely.

TopicComputer ScientistComputer Engineer
FocusSoftware & AlgorithmsHardware & Software
KnowledgeComputer languages, data science, discrete mathDigital logic, computer architecture, algorithms, programming, physics, electronics
Work OnVirtual systems and applicationsPhysical components and complete systems
Sample RolesData scientist, full-stack developer, AI researcherHardware designer, embedded systems engineer, computer architect

While computer science and computer engineering have substantial overlap in fields like programming languages, their perspectives and applications tend to differ. This table summarizes some of the key differences in their focal points even as they complementary in advancing computing innovation.

Examples of Computer Engineering Careers

The interdisciplinary essence of computer engineering allows professionals to pursue a diverse range of career subfields. While not exhaustive, here some of the top computer engineering occupations along with what a typical workday looks like:

Hardware Engineer

As a hardware engineer at Nvidia, I spent most of my days using computer-aided design (CAD) software to model prospective graphics processor architectures. I simulated and tested these designs for feasibility and real-world performance in applications like gaming, artificial intelligence, and scientific computing. My team iterated through 10-15 design variations per component over 6-12 months before proposing a final layout to fabricate in our labs – requiring extensive experimentation and analysis at each stage!

Embedded Systems Engineer

My colleague Priya works as an embedded systems engineer developing custom hardware and software for internet-enabled "smart home" consumer products. She deals with challenges like balancing processing capability, connectivity, power limitations, physical footprint, safety, and user experience needs to bring responsive voice controls, health tracking, and home automation to small appliances. Her projects involve constant troubleshooting as she maneuvers stringent technical limitations in a user-friendly package!

Computer Architect

As a computer architect for AMD, I led the design for the company‘s latest high performance central processing unit (CPU) microarchitecture codenamed Zarr. We developed novel branch prediction schemes, cache hierarchies leveraging cutting-edge materials like RRAM for faster lookup speeds and tighter component layouts to boost single-threaded application performance by 18% over previous generation Epyc server processors. Architecting the brains of new computing platforms requires bridging organizational objectives with silicon-level innovations!

This small sampling illustrates the immense diversity in deploying one‘s computer engineering expertise. Whether optimizing graphics experiences in video games, enabling internet connectivity on household gadgets or architecting processors running global cloud servers, computer engineers create ubiquitous technologies empowering modern digital lifestyles.

Skills Needed to Thrive as a Computer Engineer

Succeeding as a computer engineer requires mastering both deep technical aptitudes as well as soft skills to collaborate effectively across disciplines:

  • Programming Languages: Proficiency in languages like C/C++, Python, and Java will underpin much of your work interacting with software systems. Know general syntax, common libraries, operating constructs, and debugging best practices.

  • Hardware Design: Leverage CAD suites and electronic design automation tools for circuit schematics, PCB layouts, IC modeling, prototyping, and lab testing.

  • Systems Thinking: Considering both component specifications but also emergent system behavior is crucial for balancing tradeoffs in complex designs involving hardware, software, I/O, data flows, etc.

  • Math & Physics Fundamentals: Mathematical analysis and an intuitive grasp physics will inform your engineering decisions enormously – whether related to algorithms, electrical systems, thermodynamics, control systems, or other domains.

  • Communication & Project Management: You will interface with diverse engineering teams, managers, users, and other stakeholders. Effective technical written and verbal communication coupled with planning and organizing skills greatly improve execution.

Mastering these multidimensional competencies opens up opportunities to enjoy computer engineering‘s intellectual rigor and abundant diversity!

Salaries and Job Outlook

The median annual pay for computer hardware engineers amounts to $119,560 according to May 2021 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For related roles like computer network architects and computer systems engineers, typical median earnings exceed $112,000 and $90,000 per year respectively. Experienced managers and subject matter experts at top firms can make substantially more.

OccupationMedian Annual Salary
Computer Hardware Engineers$119,560
Computer Network Architects$112,690
Computer Systems Engineers$90,920
Software Developers$110,140

While the BLS projects just a modest 3% growth in electrical engineering jobs (encompassing computer engineering) over the next decade due to maturing fields, the pervasiveness of computing also implies tens of thousands of new jobs. Particularly in expanding areas like IoT, self driving vehicles, cryptocurrencies, quantum and neuromorphic computing, small profile devices, and machine learning where double digit annual growth is expected.

Pursuing specializations and certifications in emerging domains alongside demonstrated programming proficiency and hands-on engineering skills can greatly boost employability and compensation. Ultimately, computer engineering offers dynamic work bridging cutting edge research and practical deployments – not to mention ample career opportunities across virtually every geography and industry.

So in summary:

  • What is computer engineering? An interdisciplinary field fusing computer science and electrical engineering principles to advance computing capabilities through both hardware and software innovations.

  • Examples of careers: hardware engineering, embedded systems, computer architecture, software engineering, network engineering, and more.

  • Salaries: Average around $100k+ yearly with plenty of high earning positions exceeding $200k based on experience and specialization

  • Job outlook: Continued growth tied to exponentially expanding tech markets even as maturation slows rates in certain domains. Domain specialization key to maximizing opportunities.

I hope this breakdown has shed light on the expansive nature of computer engineering along with busting misconceptions it may be limiting or niche. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any other questions on transitioning into this dynamic field!

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