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How to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer

By Lace Brunsden

Published:

If you’re captivated by the inner workings of computer systems and aspire to design and optimize hardware components, this comprehensive guide is your roadmap to a rewarding career in hardware engineering. From education and skills to hands-on experience and job prospects, explore the steps to embark on this dynamic path and contribute to the development of cutting-edge technologies shaping our digital world.

Career Summary

Computer Hardware Engineer Salary

How much money you may make as a Computer Hardware Engineer can depend on a variety of factors, such as your experience and the company that you work for. Here is the common salary range:

  • Entry Salary (US$58k)
  • Median Salary (US$72k)
  • Executive Salary (US$89k)

In 2022, the average annual wage for all occupations in the US was US$61,900 meaning that a Computer Hardware Engineer’s wage is higher than the national average.

What does a Computer Hardware Engineer do?

As a computer hardware engineer, you might be responsible for designing, developing, and testing computer hardware components and systems. You will mostly work on the physical aspects of computers, including the design of circuit boards, processors, memory devices, storage devices, and other computer peripherals. You may also be involved in researching and implementing new hardware technologies, conducting tests and evaluations, troubleshooting hardware problems, and participating in the manufacturing and production processes.

Computer Hardware Engineer Career Progression

  • Junior Hardware Engineer/Associate Hardware Engineer: This is an entry-level position where you will work under the guidance of senior engineers. As a junior hardware engineer, you will assist in designing, testing, and troubleshooting hardware components and systems, while gaining hands-on experience and learning from experienced professionals.
  • Hardware Design Engineer: As you gain experience in the field, you may progress to a design engineer role. Here, you will be involved in the design and development of hardware systems, components, and circuitry. You will work on schematic design, and component selection, and collaborate with cross-functional teams to ensure the successful implementation of hardware designs.
  • Senior Hardware Engineer: To become a senior hardware engineer you need to have several years of experience. You will take on more complex design and development projects. In this position, you may lead hardware design teams, oversee the implementation of hardware solutions, and provide technical guidance and mentorship to junior engineers.
  • Hardware Project Manager/Engineering Manager: With a strong technical background and leadership skills, you can move from being a hardware engineer into project management or engineering management roles. In these positions, you are responsible for overseeing hardware projects, managing resources, coordinating with cross-functional teams, and ensuring the successful execution of hardware development initiatives.
  • Hardware Architect: As a hardware architect you are responsible for designing high-level hardware architectures and systems. You will analyze requirements, define system specifications, and make strategic decisions on hardware components, interfaces, and performance optimization.
  • Director of Hardware Engineering: In executive roles, such as Director of Hardware Engineering, you will be responsible for managing entire hardware engineering departments. You will oversee the design, development, and testing of hardware products, set strategic goals, allocate resources, and collaborate with other executives to align hardware engineering efforts with business objectives.
  • Chief Technology Officer (CTO)/Vice President of Hardware Engineering: This is the top executive position, the highest level of responsibility. In these roles, you will set the technical vision and strategy for the organization, drive innovation, manage R&D initiatives, and make crucial decisions regarding hardware technologies, partnerships, and investments.
Computer Hardware Engineer Career Progression

Pros:

  • Innovation and Technological Advancement:
  • Problem Solving and Creativity
  • Hands-on Design and Development
  • Impact and Contribution
  • Competitive Compensation and Job Stability

Cons:

  • Long Hours and Intense Workloads
  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Continuous Learning and Upgrading Skills
  • Limited Margin for Error

Useful Skills to Have as a Computer Hardware Engineer

  • Knowledge of Computer Architecture
  • Electrical Engineering Fundamentals
  • Testing and Validation
  • Programming and Scripting
  • Knowledge of Industry Standards and Protocols

Popular Computer Hardware Engineer Specialties

  • FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) Design
  • Memory Systems
  • Power Management
  • Hardware Security
  • System Integration and Validation

How to become a Computer Hardware Engineer

Computer Hardware Engineer 5 Steps to Career

Becoming a computer hardware engineer typically involves several common steps. Here’s an overview of the typical path you can expect:

Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

The first thing you need to do is earn a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, electrical engineering, or a related field. These programs provide a strong foundation in mathematics, physics, computer science, and electrical engineering principles. Some universities may offer specialized programs in computer hardware engineering.

Do I need a Degree to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer?

While a bachelor’s degree is typically the standard requirement for most computer hardware engineering positions, it is not always mandatory.

It is definitely recommended to get a bachelor’s degree, but if you can’t,  you may enter the field without a degree through alternative pathways. If there is no way for you to get a degree, participate in personal projects to build and showcase your skills in computer hardware engineering. This could include designing and building your own computer systems, creating electronic circuits, or working on hardware-related projects. Building a strong portfolio can help compensate for the lack of a formal degree.

Why is it Important to Get a Degree in Computer Hardware Engineering?

Obtaining a degree in computer hardware engineering is important for several reasons:

  • Comprehensive knowledge: A degree program will give you a structured curriculum that covers a wide range of topics relevant to computer hardware engineering. You’ll gain a deep understanding of computer architecture, digital logic design, integrated circuit design, electronics, computer networks, and other essential subjects. This comprehensive knowledge base forms a strong foundation for your career as a computer hardware engineer.
  • Technical skills development: Degree programs will offer you hands-on experience and practical training opportunities. You’ll have access to well-equipped laboratories, specialized hardware and software tools, and guidance from experienced faculty members. All of this will help you develop practical skills in hardware design, circuit analysis, testing, and troubleshooting.
  • Industry-relevant curriculum: University programs often align their curriculum with the current industry standards and practices. They incorporate the latest advancements in computer hardware technology, emerging trends, and industry-specific tools and methodologies.
  • Networking and collaboration opportunities: Studying in a degree program allows you to connect and collaborate with fellow students, faculty members, and industry professionals. This may give you access to opportunities that you would not have had otherwise.

How Long Does It Take To Get a Degree in Computer Hardware Engineering?

The time required to obtain a degree in computer engineering can vary depending on several factors, including the educational institution, program structure, and whether you are studying full-time or part-time.

In general, a bachelor’s degree in computer hardware engineering typically takes around four years of full-time study to complete. This duration is based on the assumption that you are pursuing the degree on a traditional academic schedule.

However, it’s worth noting that some universities offer accelerated programs or cooperative education (co-op) programs that may allow you to graduate earlier or gain practical work experience alongside your studies.

How Much Does It Cost to Study Computer Hardware Engineering at University?

The cost of studying computer hardware engineering at a university can vary significantly depending on several factors, including the country and region where the university is located, the specific institution, whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student, and whether you are attending a public or private university.

In the United States, for example, the average annual tuition for a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering can range from around US$ 10,000 to more than US$ 30,000.

Can I Become a Computer Hardware Engineer through Online Education?

Yes, it is possible to pursue a career as a computer hardware engineer through online education. 

Online education has become increasingly popular and accessible, providing flexible learning options for individuals who may not be able to attend traditional on-campus programs. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Accredited online programs: Make sure that you look for accredited universities or institutions that offer online programs in computer engineering or electrical engineering. Accreditation ensures that the program meets certain quality standards and is recognized by employers and educational institutions.
  • Course content and delivery: Online programs typically deliver course content through virtual classrooms, video lectures, interactive modules, and online discussion forums. Ensure that the program you choose covers the essential topics in computer hardware engineering, such as computer architecture, digital logic design, integrated circuit design, and electronics.
  • Hands-on experience: Practical experience is crucial for computer hardware engineering. Some online programs may offer virtual labs or simulation tools to provide hands-on experience with hardware design and testing. Additionally, you may need to seek out opportunities for internships or cooperative education (co-op) programs to gain practical experience in a physical lab or industry setting.
  • Faculty support and interaction: Online programs should provide opportunities for you to interact with faculty members and peers. This can be through virtual office hours, discussion boards, or video conferences. Ensure that the program offers adequate support and opportunities for collaboration and networking.

What Are Some Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer?

There are several web resources available that can help you learn skills to become a computer hardware engineer. Here are some notable ones:

  • Online Courses and Platforms: Autodesk Tinkercad offers a web-based platform for designing and simulating circuits and electronics. CircuitLab provides an online circuit simulator for designing and analyzing electronic circuits. EasyEDA is a web-based tool for designing printed circuit boards (PCBs) and schematics.
  • YouTube Channels and Video Tutorials: Some channels, like Ben Eater, focus on hands-on projects and tutorials related to computer hardware, including building your own computer.
  • Online Forums and Communities: There are many forums and communities such as Electrical Engineering Stack Exchange which act as question-and-answer platforms specifically focused on electronics and electrical engineering and other fields related to computer hardware engineers.

Gain Relevant Experience

While pursuing your degree, it is a good idea for you to seek out opportunities to gain practical experience in computer hardware engineering. You can look for internships, co-op programs, or research projects related to computer hardware design and development. This hands-on experience will enhance your understanding and skills in the field.

What Are Internship Opportunities for a Computer Hardware Engineer?

You can find internship opportunities for computer hardware engineers in a variety of industries and organizations. Here are some common internship opportunities:

  • Technology Companies: Many technology companies offer internships for computer hardware engineers. These companies design and manufacture computer systems, components, and peripherals. As an intern in one of these companies, you may work on hardware testing, quality assurance, product development, or research and development projects.
  • Hardware Manufacturers: Hardware manufacturers, such as semiconductor companies, consumer electronics companies, or computer manufacturers, often provide internship programs. Being an intern at a hardware manufacturer may mean you are involved in designing, testing, or assembling hardware components, troubleshooting, or working on specific projects related to hardware development.
  • Research and Development: Research institutions, universities, and government organizations interns may contribute to cutting-edge hardware research, assist in designing and prototyping new hardware technologies, or participate in research projects related to computer architecture or emerging hardware technologies. This is a particularly good choice if you are interested in development.
  • Aerospace and Defense: Aerospace and defense industries may give you an internship as a computer hardware engineer for designing and developing hardware systems used in spacecraft, aircraft, or defense applications. Internship opportunities may involve working on avionics systems, embedded systems, or developing hardware for defense technologies.
  • Startups: Joining a hardware-focused startup can give you hands-on experience and exposure to various aspects of hardware engineering. Startups are a great choice for most as they often have smaller teams, which allows you to work closely with experienced professionals and contribute to different stages of hardware development.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Computer Hardware Engineer?

The work-life balance that you might experience as a computer hardware engineer can vary depending on several factors, including the specific job role, industry, company culture, and personal preferences. Here are some things you need to consider regarding work-life balance for computer hardware engineers:

  • Standard Work Hours: As a computer hardware engineer you will typically work standard full-time hours, which generally range from 35 to 40 hours per week. However, during project deadlines or when troubleshooting hardware issues, additional hours may be required from you.
  • Flexibility: Depending on your employer and the nature of your work, there can be some flexibility in your work hours and arrangements. Some companies offer flexible work schedules, remote work options, or the ability to work from home on certain days, which can contribute to a better work-life balance.
  • Project-Based Work: Hardware engineering projects often have specific timelines and deadlines. During critical project phases, you may need to dedicate more time and effort to meet deadlines. However, once the project is complete, there may be periods of relative downtime or a more manageable workload.

Build Technical Skills

It is important that you develop a strong understanding of computer architecture, digital logic design, integrated circuit design, and electronics. Familiarize yourself with programming languages, such as C, C++, and Verilog/VHDL. Stay updated with the latest advancements and trends in computer hardware technology.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Computer Hardware Engineer?

As a computer hardware engineer, you will develop a range of technical skills and knowledge that are essential for designing, developing, and maintaining computer hardware systems. Here are some key skills you can expect to learn:

  • Computer Architecture: Understanding computer architecture is fundamental for your work as a computer hardware engineer. This includes knowledge of central processing units (CPUs), memory systems, storage devices, input/output (I/O) systems, and system buses.
  • Digital Logic Design: Digital logic design involves designing and analyzing circuits and systems using logic gates, flip-flops, registers, and other digital components. You’ll learn how to design and optimize digital circuits to perform specific functions.
  • Integrated Circuit (IC) Design: IC design involves creating and optimizing integrated circuits, which are essential components of computer hardware. You’ll learn about the design and fabrication of ICs, including techniques such as transistor-level design, layout design, and testing.
  • Electronics: Electronics knowledge is crucial for you to understand and work with electronic components used in computer hardware. You’ll learn about analog and digital electronics, circuit analysis, amplifiers, power supplies, and signal processing.
  • Circuit Design and Analysis: You’ll gain skills in designing and analyzing circuits, including schematic capture, circuit simulation, and signal integrity analysis. This involves understanding circuit theory, component selection, and the use of simulation tools.
  • Testing and Troubleshooting: Hardware engineers need strong testing and troubleshooting skills to identify and resolve issues in computer hardware systems. You’ll learn techniques for testing, debugging, and diagnosing hardware problems, as well as using testing equipment and tools.

Consider Advanced Education

Although not always required, obtaining a master’s degree or Ph.D. in computer engineering or a related field can provide you with specialized knowledge and research opportunities. Advanced degrees may be beneficial for your career advancement or if you plan to work in research and development.

Obtain Relevant Certifications

While not mandatory, certifications can demonstrate your expertise and enhance your job prospects. You should consider obtaining certifications related to computer hardware engineering, such as those offered by professional organizations like CompTIA and IEEE, or vendor-specific certifications from companies like Cisco or Intel.

What’s the Career Outlook for Computer Hardware Engineer?

As a computer hardware engineer, you will have job opportunities in various industries and roles.

Computer Hardware Engineer Popular Career Specialties

Here are Some Common Job Opportunities for Computer Hardware Engineers

  • Hardware Design Engineer: Hardware design engineers are involved in the design, development, and testing of computer hardware systems and components. In this position, you will work on designing circuits, selecting components, optimizing performance, and ensuring the compatibility and reliability of hardware systems.
  • Embedded Systems Engineer: Embedded systems engineers focus on designing and developing hardware and software systems that are integrated into larger devices or products. As one of these, you will work on hardware-software co-design, microcontroller programming, firmware development, and optimizing system performance.
  • FPGA Engineer: Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) engineers specialize in designing and programming FPGAs, which are reconfigurable hardware devices. As an FPGA Engineer, you will work on implementing digital logic circuits, developing algorithms, and optimizing performance on FPGA platforms.
  • Verification and Validation Engineer: Verification and validation engineers are responsible for testing and verifying the functionality, performance, and compliance of hardware systems. You will design test plans, develop test cases, conduct testing, and analyze test results to ensure that the hardware meets the required specifications.
  • Systems Engineer: Systems engineers work on the integration and optimization of hardware, software, and networking components to create complex systems.  As a System Engineer, you will design and analyze system architectures, manage hardware-software interfaces, and ensure system compatibility and performance.
  • Product Development Engineer: Product development engineers are involved in the complete lifecycle of hardware products, from concept to manufacturing. As this type of computer hardware engineer, you will work on product design, prototyping, testing, cost optimization, and collaborating with cross-functional teams to bring new hardware products to market.
  • Quality Assurance Engineer: Quality assurance engineers focus on ensuring the quality and reliability of hardware products. You will be expected to develop and implement quality control processes, conduct testing and inspections, analyze defects, and work on continuous improvement initiatives.
  • Research and Development Engineer: Research and development (R&D) engineers work on advanced hardware technologies and innovations. In this position, you will explore new hardware concepts, conduct experiments, design prototypes, and contribute to the development of future hardware technologies.
  • Technical Sales Engineer: Technical sales engineers combine technical knowledge with sales skills to provide technical support and guidance to customers. As a Technical Sales Engineer, you will likely assist with product selection, explain technical specifications, conduct demonstrations, and help customers understand and integrate hardware solutions.

What Type of Companies Hire a Computer Hardware Engineer?

Computer hardware engineers are hired by a variety of companies and organizations across different industries. Here are some types of companies that commonly hire computer hardware engineers:

  • Technology Companies: Large technology companies such as Intel, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, HP, and Dell are involved in designing, manufacturing, and selling computer systems, components, and peripherals.
  • Semiconductor Manufacturers: Semiconductor companies like Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Broadcom may hire you as a computer hardware engineer to work on the design and development of integrated circuits (ICs), microprocessors, graphics processing units (GPUs), and other semiconductor devices.
  • Consumer Electronics Companies: Companies that produce consumer electronics like Apple, Samsung, Sony, LG, and Panasonic will often employ computer hardware engineers to design and develop hardware components and systems for smartphones, tablets, televisions, gaming consoles, and other electronic devices.
  • Aerospace and Defense Companies: Aerospace and defense companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon are good places to look for a job as a computer hardware engineer if you want to work on avionics systems, embedded systems, and hardware components used in aerospace and defense applications.
  • Networking and Telecommunications Companies: Networking equipment manufacturers like Cisco and Juniper Networks, as well as telecommunications companies such as Verizon, AT&T, and Ericsson, may hire computer hardware engineers to design and optimize network hardware, routers, switches, and telecommunications devices.
  • Research Institutions and Universities: Research institutions and universities often employ computer hardware engineers in their research and development (R&D) departments. In these positions, you will focus on advancing hardware technologies, conducting experiments, and contributing to academic research in computer hardware engineering.
  • Consulting and Engineering Services Firms: Consulting firms and engineering services companies hire computer hardware engineers to provide technical expertise and consulting services to clients in various industries. These engineers may work on hardware design, testing, optimization, and troubleshooting for different projects.

Should I become a Computer Hardware Engineer?

Becoming a computer hardware engineer is an exciting and rewarding career path if you have a passion for technology and a desire to shape the future of computing. It is important to stay curious, embrace lifelong learning, and develop a diverse set of skills to adapt to the ever-evolving technology landscape.

However, if you do not have an overly analytical mind and enjoy problem-solving, or do not think that you will do well with the varied levels of stress that may be involved with project-based work, then becoming a computer hardware engineer is probably not the best option for you.

It is important to take into account the computer hardware engineer job description as well as your personal strengths and interests in order to determine if you should become a computer hardware engineer.

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Lace Brunsden

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