If you’re looking for a great career that will combine your love of computers with the challenge of creative design and problem-solving, you might make a good computer engineer. To get started in this field, you need a college degree in a subject that includes a great deal of coursework in computers and in the math and science theory and applications used in computer technology.

Hardware and Software Engineering

One factor you need to consider when planning your education is whether you want to work in the hardware or software side of computer engineering. A computer hardware engineer is the one who designs the components that make up computers, devices, systems and processes. In this career, you might spend your days developing new, more efficient routers, processors, memory devices, circuit boards and other parts and physical devices, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Your core engineering education will include a great deal of coursework in electrical engineering subjects, such as electronics and electromagnets, as well as studies in computer science.

Degree Options for Computer Engineers

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Software refers to the programs used for computer functions. Systems software includes operating systems and other programs needed for the computer run, while applications are the software used to accomplish specific tasks, according to the BLS. Though the field – and the degree that leads to it – is called software engineering, professionals working in this career are known as software developers. A software engineering program will focus on learning to design, build and test computer software.

Both hardware and software engineering must include enough programming courses to develop familiarity with the process, though programming isn’t a primary responsibility for either job.

Computer Engineering vs. Computer Science

Though the degree program doesn’t include the word “engineering” in its title, computer science is an acceptable major for aspiring computer engineers, regardless of whether they want to work in hardware or software, the BLS reported. If an aspiring computer engineer chooses to start with a degree in computer science rather than engineering, he or she should be sure to take as many courses as possible in the subject of building software and computer systems.

The biggest differences between computer science and computer hardware or software engineering is the strong focus on computer programming and how to get computers to complete tasks such as managing databases and creative graphics through programming. However, computer science degree programs are broad in nature, the BLS reported. Students in these programs also study the math used in computer algorithms, the science of how and why computers work and problems in the field of computer science as well as ways to solve them. What these programs don’t include is the heavy emphasis on engineering theory and computer systems design that is found in a typical computer hardware engineering or software engineering program.

There’s a lot of overlap between computer engineering, software engineering and computer science. Students choosing between these majors should decide if they find programming or product design more appealing.

Computer Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees and Beyond

An ABET-accredited computer engineering program includes coursework such as discrete mathematics, differential and integral calculus, probability and statistics and basic science courses. The core engineering classes include computer science topics specific to analyzing and designing hardware systems and components and various kinds of devices.

Software engineering programs include similar math and science coursework, with ABET requiring these programs to cover discrete mathematics and probability and statistics as it relates to software engineering. Students in accredited software engineering programs also study software construction, computing fundamentals, security and the tools and processes used to develop software.

Regardless of which major an aspiring computer engineer chooses, it’s important to gain hands-on experience in the field. Often, students do this by completing an internship during their education. Engineering students must complete a capstone project that applies the skills they have learned through their studies to the real-world challenges of computer engineering.

A bachelor’s degree in one of these fields is sufficient to get started in an entry-level job. However, there are benefits to pursuing a master’s degree in the field. Some employers, particularly large firms, may prefer or require a graduate degree. You might also need to advance your education if you want to work in a highly specialized technical role. If you aspire to move into a leadership role, you may benefit from going back to school to earn your Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. Whether or not you decide to pursue an advanced degree, you should be prepared to keep learning throughout your career as technology continues to evolve, the BLS reported. 

Types of computer engineers include computer hardware engineers, computer software engineers and computer systems engineers.