What is Computer Engineering?
Of the 14 branches of engineering tracked by the United States Department of Labor, computer engineering has grown the fastest over the last few decades.
Once confined to university laboratories and big companies, computers now permeate our everyday lives. Computer engineers create objects and services that today's consumers often take for granted. Specifically, they design, construct, and test the computer systems that keep us going. It's not unusual to find a computer engineer involved in everything from cars to toasters.
Computer engineering was originally a branch of the larger specialty of electrical engineering, since early computers required engineers to physically install tubes and solder connections. In recent years, however, as electrical engineers focused on the skills of building actual computing devices, computer engineering emerged as a unique specialty. Computer engineers now focus more of their skills on designing useful software applications that take advantage of widely available hardware tools.
What Do Computer Engineers Do?
Computer engineers enjoy tremendous freedom in choosing the types of projects they want to work on. A computer engineer may decide to work on a project that he finds fascinating, or one that he has a personal connection to. For example, a computer engineer who suffered a loss in his family due to illness might invest his energy on developing medical devices to treat that illness.
Often working on teams with engineers and designers from other disciplines, computer engineers can contribute to a wide variety of compelling projects. From designing new microchips to developing industrial robots, computer engineers use their skills to help businesses and consumers solve all kinds of problems. .
In many cases, computer engineers' contributions aren't so obvious. For example, a computer engineer may team up with civil engineers on a river dam. Her input can result in an automated system that manages consistent water levels in reservoirs or in local streams. Or she might collaborate with automotive designers to create internal systems that regulate fuel efficiency and tire pressure. With computers integrated in more and more products around the world, a computer engineer's career choices are nearly limitless.
Career Education in Computer Engineering
Students who wish to pursue a career in computer engineering need a strong foundation in both math and science, particularly chemistry and physics. Students who wish to pursue bachelor's degrees in computer engineering should try to enroll in more advanced math classes like trigonometry and precalculus while still in high school.
High school students who want to pursue a degree in computer engineering can take advantage of membership in the Junior Engineering Technical Society, which offers students numerous opportunities to test their skills through competitions and scholarship programs. For students attempting to gain entrance to some of the country's most prestigious schools, these extracurricular activities can provide an important edge during admissions reviews.
On-Campus and Online Degree Programs in Computer Engineering
Colleges and universities offer several levels of engineering programs. Note that there are two different types of college degree programs in computer engineering. One is specifically in engineering, and the other is engineering technology (a more vocationally oriented specialty). While the two degrees are very similar, students who study engineering technology may not register as certified professional engineers. Despite that distinction, students in either discipline will often find work in similar types of jobs.
Because so many professional computer engineers work online, many colleges and universities can use the same technology to offer their degree programs via distance learning. Online computer engineering degrees allow working professionals the chance to balance their studies with their personal and professional obligations, and have become increasingly popular among adults seeking additional career training.
Associate Degrees in Computer Engineering Technology
Colleges and universities typically restrict their associate degree offerings to computer engineering technology, where the coursework covers circuitry, networking and electronic devices. Computer engineering majors who enroll in this degree program will participate in a significant amount of hands-on work. They learn high-demand skills that will allow them to enter the work force in as little as 18 months.
Along with core computer engineering courses, associate degree candidates must enroll in math and physics courses. Upon receiving their degrees, students who want to go straight into the work force may be able to transfer their credits into a part-time bachelor's degree program, which they can pursue while they gain work experience. Many computer engineering companies offer generous tuition reimbursement packages that encourage students to grow their skills while earning a salary.
Bachelor's Degrees in Computer Engineering
Though a handful of programs focus solely on tasks like programming and networking, many computer engineering bachelor's degree programs emphasize the core fundamentals of engineering. First-year students participate in a combination of computer engineering electives and electrical engineering requirements. After completing the core courses for their degree program, students can begin to customize their programs. For example, many students choose to explore classes in computer architecture and design, in order to pursue lucrative careers in the manufacturing industry.
Building on the kind of basic coursework shared with associate degree candidates, bachelor's degree students use their education to deepen their knowledge of key principles of engineering. Required liberal arts courses help computer engineering majors develop important critical thinking skills.
Beyond the challenges of completing rigorous classroom assignments, computer engineering majors also pursue a series of essential internships and cooperative learning experiences. These programs allow students to apply their coursework to real-world problems. As an added benefit, many computer engineering majors seize the opportunity to forge strong relationships with working professionals as potential future employers.
Continuing Education in Computer Engineering
The field of computer engineering constantly changes to accommodate new technologies, new inventions, and new consumer demands. To keep up with the frequent expansion of their field, many professional computer engineers participate in continuing education programs.
Computer engineering is a constantly changing field. Therefore, engineers are constantly updating their skills, expanding on older achievements and learning new tricks. Also, engineers frequently need to learn a little bit about related fields they may work with, especially in ancillary industries. For example, a computer engineer who starts a career with a large bank may find it advantageous to pursue continuing education in finance or business, so she can make engineering decisions in an appropriate context.
Internships and Co-ops
Since becoming an engineer requires experience in the field, many colleges and universities now offer internships and co-op opportunities to students. These programs allow students the chance to gain experience and apply knowledge from their classrooms to real-life situations. Often, completing an internship or co-op requires students to invest a little more time in their education. Because successful college interns often find quality jobs more quickly after graduation, the extra work is often worth it.
Computer engineering majors may complete internships over the course of a semester or during a concentrated summer placement. Internships are traditionally unpaid, but in the fast-growing and highly lucrative world of information technology, paid internships are rapidly becoming the norm. In addition, participants gain intimate understandings of the inner workings of real businesses. In the most prestigious internship programs, computer engineering students can work alongside seasoned experts at well-known companies.
Instead of studying the work and the culture of a company from a distant classroom, interns work at company facilities. There, they immerse themselves in a company's day to day routines, contributing as they learn. Many companies allow their interns to work on small projects and sit in on important development meetings. Many companies use their internship programs as opportunities to train potential future employees. By doing so, they assure themselves a loyal work force that already understands the nuances of their role and their company.
Whether or not an intern moves onto a formal paid position at their company, experienced computer engineering professionals understand the real importance of those early internship placements. In addition to absorbing real-life lessons from working companies, interns build relationships with key professionals at all levels of an organization. Some very lucky interns get to connect with top executives and decision makers. Many interns work more closely with junior team members and other recent graduates, who will soon be hiring teams of their own.
Along with building a valuable set of credentials, a computer engineering intern may be able to round out her course requirements by earning credit hours. Typically, the student's mentor or the departmental head will analyze the internship experience to determine how much credit to assign. Students who only visited an internship site a few hours per week might only earn the equivalent of one-third of a regular semester-long course.
On the other hand, students who can show significant commitment to their internship placement by putting in consistent appearances and working hard on company projects can often earn up to two courses' worth of credit. For online degree participants, distance learners, and mid-career job shifters, this extra credit can accelerate graduation from school and elevation to a higher pay scale.
Along the same lines, many computer engineering majors pursue cooperative learning experiences in lieu of internships. Because of the high demand for entry-level computer engineers, many students prefer these paid programs because they allow students to earn money while learning new skills. In most cases, students spend a full work week at the placement site, working with experienced professionals on critical projects. In the cases of internships and co-op experiences, a student can maximize the amount of credit they earn by documenting their learning process diligently. Many professors can justify awarding more credit hours when a student keeps a log of the hours spent at a company facility along with a journal of their specific tasks and insights. Many colleges and universities also require an intern to make a formal presentation to their peers to highlight specific lessons learned from their time with a company.
What Can You Do With a College Major in Computer Engineering?
Computer engineering majors enjoy the opportunity to build a set of core skills that businesses from many industries look for when hiring new staff members. With slight changes in electives or concentrations, computer engineers from the same graduating class could wind up in very different kinds of careers:
- Design engineers set the stage for the development of innovative new products and services. Working in conjunction with specialist designers, a computer engineer may be called upon to build the hot new product dreamed up by marketers or managers. Taking current trends and emerging technologies into account, a design engineer must solve problems in a way that can be easily replicated on a factory floor.
With software pervading just about every kind of consumer product, design engineers with a computer engineering background could find themselves developing everything from toaster ovens to trucks. Students who enjoy living and working on the cutting edge of trends will love the opportunity to shape new generations of consumer goods.
- For computer engineering graduates who want a little more predictability in their daily routines, large companies need quality control engineers. In this capacity, a computer engineer must use his or her keen observational skills to quickly analyze the output of a factory or an assembly line. They must quickly pull defective items from the distribution chain, to prevent malfunctions that could cause inconvenience, injury, or even death.
In addition, quality control engineers must be able to identify consistent problems in a manufacturing process. By providing constructive solutions to ongoing problems, quality control engineers can improve the efficiency of a production facility. Their diligent work can produce a tremendously positive impact on a company's bottom line.
- Development engineers take responsibility for a product after its initial production run. Unlike a design engineer, who dreams up new ideas from scratch, a development engineer examines ways to improve unpopular products and reinvigorate proven hits. In many cases, a development engineer's job can prove even tougher than that of a design engineer, since a development engineer must produce results that meet the existing expectations of diverse customer bases.
Constant improvement and innovation are hallmarks of the development engineering field. Fierce competition between companies produces stronger and faster equipment, along with groundbreaking new software applications. Many development engineers with computer engineering degrees work on advanced artificial intelligence projects designed to automate more and more of our mundane, everyday chores. Likewise, teams of designers integrate computing breakthroughs into medical research by developing intelligent pacemakers that alert authorities to a pending heart attack.
- Just as a commercial architect must figure out how to get more use from limited space, a computer architect examines new ways to make computers smaller while increasing their efficiency. Fueled by constant demand from businesses and consumers for lighter, cheaper, more powerful systems, computer architects work in highly competitive companies who want to gain market advantage by releasing the hottest and most popular systems.
With computers appearing inside all kinds of other devices, today's computer architects have their work cut out for them. Computer engineering graduates have managed to insert fully functioning computers into automobile engines, into traffic lights, and even into batteries. Computer architects helped to shepherd global consumers from using film cameras to operating sophisticated digital imaging equipment.
Salary Expectations for Computer Engineers
Computer applications software engineers earned a median annual salary of $85,430 in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Computer systems software engineers made $92,430, and computer programmers earned $69,620, the BLS reported.
Certification, Licensure and Associations
Any person who wishes to be considered a certified engineer must pass a licensure exam given through the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. In order to ensure public safety, engineers must complete a rigorous set of tasks before earning their credentials. A typical engineer must:
- Complete a four-year degree through an accredited college or university
- Earn four years of qualifying experience
- Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam
Meanwhile, each U.S. state sets its own requirements for licensure. Computer engineering majors can contact their school's career counseling office to learn the specific demands of their home state. Fortunately, state oversight boards understand the difficulty and the time commitment required to achieve licensure. Therefore, most states have signed reciprocal agreements that permit engineers licensed in one state to practice their work in other states without having to repeat the licensure process.
Some states have a provision in place for students who do not have four years of experience. They allow recent computer engineering graduates to register for a prelicensure certificate. The title varies by state, but anyone earning the certificate becomes an EIT, or engineer in training, until he acquires enough experience to apply for the FE and PE exams.
Many computer engineers may choose to limit themselves to a particular specialty and avoid licensure requirements altogether. Though many other disciplines of engineering require state licensure in order to meet public safety guidelines, computer engineers can limit the scope of their work and team up with licensed mentors in order to pass muster with regulators, depending on industry and product. Companies that handle federal and state manufacturing projects, however, must generally restrict their hiring to licensed engineers or recent graduates who have registered for pre-licensure status.
Professional and Licensure Organizations
- The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
- Junior Engineer Technical Society
- The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
- The National Society of Professional Engineers
- National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveying
- American Society for Engineering Education