How To Become A Computer Engineer

Becoming A Computer Engineer: Overview

One of the reasons many people enter computer engineering is for the pay--computer software applications engineers in 2009 earned median wages exceeding $87,000 annually, while the highest 10 percent took home more than $132,000. Even the lowest 10 percent of wage earners well exceeded the median U.S. wage with annual earnings approaching $55,000. Wages were slightly higher in 2009 for computer systems software engineers. Median wages exceeded $93,000, and the top 10 percent earned almost $140,000 per year. The lowest 10 percent took home nearly $60,000 annually.

The field of computer software and systems engineering is expected to add nearly 300,000 new positions from 2008 to 2018, the BLS reports--a rise of 34 percent, which is far higher than most occupations.

What Is a Computer Engineer and What Do They Do?

Computer engineers fall into two main categories: Computer software engineers and computer hardware engineers. Computer hardware engineers work in a variety of functions with computers components, including circuit boards, chips, keyboards, routers, printers, and monitors. They manage the installation of all these separate components, as well as research, design, and implement new computer technologies. Their counterparts, computer software engineers, develop and write the software programs that control all the different components inside a computer, as well as the common computer applications.

Computer software engineers--one of the fastest growing professions through the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report--design and develop many different types of software, including gaming applications, video games, business software, and networking and computer operating systems. Computer software engineers assess a client's needs, and then develop working software that fulfills those needs. During this process computer software engineers develop detailed instructions called algorithms that control the computer. The people that convert algorithms into computer code are called computer programmers.

Computer software engineers typically either design computer operating systems or the applications that run on computers, such as word processing and spreadsheet programs or computer games. Computer systems engineers work with companies, assessing departmental needs and designing a corporate-wide computer system that meets client requirements. They also maintain and upgrade those systems as necessary, as well as set up intranets--linked computers within an organization. They may also keep businesses' computer systems secure from hacking or unauthorized access.

Some computer software engineers also work in support roles for companies that provide computer services to other businesses, acting as the first point of contact for technical problems that might arise. Still others work as troubleshooters, modifying and tweaking existing software to fix bugs and glitches. Computer engineers also work in management positions, overseeing a staff of engineers, computer programmers, and technicians.

What Are the Steps to Becoming a Computer Engineer?

Computer engineering has been cited as one of the best professions to enter due to its high pay, ease of entry, and ability to advance rapidly within the field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that most employers seek job candidates who hold at least bachelor's degrees, but many prefer candidates who have earned master's degrees in computer science, software engineering, or mathematics. Some computer engineers also study computer information systems. Although some computer engineers earn just an associate's degree and then enter the field through lower-level jobs hoping to advance on the strength of their technical aptitude, the more complex jobs typically are held by computer engineers with graduate degrees, the BLS states.

As with most college degrees, an associate's degree takes roughly two years to complete, while bachelor degree programs last about four years. Post-graduate degrees can add one to two years to the length of study--however, certain online computer engineering degree programs can compress the amount of time spent studying through accelerated course offerings. The BLS notes that internships for computer engineering students can be crucial in landing work upon graduation.

Some of the coursework students might find in a computer engineering degree path could include:

  • Introduction and advanced computer and electrical engineering
  • Computers in society
  • Introduction and advanced computer science
  • Fundamentals of electrical circuits
  • Scientific computation
  • Beginning and advanced software practice
  • Advanced algorithms and data structures
  • Web software architecture

Bachelor degree programs in computer engineering also typically include study in calculus, physics, statistics, and English. Students can get ahead of the curve by tackling these subjects in high school. Computer engineering bachelor degree requirements vary by institution, but a minimum of 122 semester hours, with at least 40 semester hours in advanced coursework, is a rough standard.

How to Become a Great Computer Engineer

Looking at the required coursework, one of the traits that can best serve computer engineers is a high degree of aptitude for math and science. If these subjects simply are not your best strengths, work that may prove easy for some computer engineers might challenge your abilities.

Computer engineers routinely use algebra, geometry, calculus, and statistics. They also are highly analytical, able to look at complex problems and derive solutions. Great computer engineers should be creative, able to spot problems ahead of time and arrive at cost-effective solutions by gathering and processing information.

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