Computer hardware engineering is a vast field incorporating many functions. This includes research and development, design, installation and testing of computing equipment such as processing units, interface devices, servers and network switches. As such, the field offers a variety of options to people who have an interest in computing hardware.
1. Research the Profession
Before you decide whether this is the perfect profession for you, it’s always a good idea to research what this career path entails. The first step is examining the day-to-day duties of the job, work environment, skills you need to succeed and what you can get out from it in terms of salary potential.
Computer hardware engineers can specialise in many functions depending on their specific area of interest.
Their main duties include:
- Designing new hardware and conducting upgrades on existing ones to improve performance, functionality and ease of use
- Testing the hardware to ensure that it is functioning properly and that it is compatible with existing software before going into final production
- Installing computer hardware and troubleshooting any problems that arise during use
- Conducting research and development on how the efficiency of hardware such as processors, servers and circuitry can be enhanced
- Assessing the hardware needs of an organization and advising the management team accordingly on the specifications of the hardware to procure
Essential Skills and Qualities
The following professional skills are essential for this job:
- Creative thinking
- Analytical and complex problem solving skills
- Active listening and interpersonal skills
- Ability to pay attention to detail
- Ability to work in a multi-disciplinary team
- Ability to stay up to date with emerging technologies
- Strategic planning skills
- Project management skills
Working Hours and Conditions
Research laboratories and office buildings are the most common work environments, but travel might also be necessary to install hardware at a client’s premises. The work can be tiring and although there are regular hours, you may often have to work overtime to finish a project. It could also involve many hours staring at a computer screen researching, developing and designing, but the relatively good work-life balance makes up for it.
The job also has some interpersonal aspects, particularly when brainstorming with other team members about how to improve on existing hardware.
Computer hardware engineers are paid according to their qualifications, level of work experience, the size and capacity of their employers and their ability to deliver products that are functional, easy to use and in demand.
According to PayScale, the annual average salary in the UK is £35,000 and may go as high as £50,550 as you gain experience and seniority. For the US, the average salary for 2016 was $ 115,080 and the hourly rate $55,33 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
2. Get the Qualifications
A Bachelor’s degree is the preferred qualification for this profession because it requires a lot of skill and intellect. A degree in computer science, computer or electrical engineering or another related field will equip you with knowledge in:
- Electronic circuit analysis
- Digital signal processing
- Design micro-processors and other components
- Interaction between computer hardware and software
- Computer programming, language and algorithms
- Embedded systems
This profession is highly competitive and the best way to increase your employability is to work towards any of the following qualifications:
- An advanced degree depending on your chosen area of specialization. For example, you will need a doctorate if you choose to specialise in research and development
- Certifications such as Certified Computing Professional or Systems and Network Administration Professional offered by industry giants such as Microsoft and Cisco
- License to operate if you wish to work in the public sector
- Hands-on experience obtained through internships and on-the-job training
- Knowledge of technical standards for computer hardware and consumer safety requirements
In the US, many engineering programs are accredited by ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) and employers prefer graduates from such courses. Large companies might also require you to have a master’s degree in computer engineering.
Other qualifications that provide training in this field you can consider are:
- BTEC/SQA National Certificate/Diploma in Computer Studies or IT. You will need four or five GCSE’s/S grades (A-C/ 1-3) or equivalent qualifications.
- BTEC/SQA Higher National Diploma. You will need one A Level/two H grades and four GCSE’s/S grades (A-C/ 1-3) for college admission.
An alternative route to becoming a computer hardware engineer is completing an apprenticeship in IT and engineering or starting off as a computer or technical support agent and moving up from there.
3. Land Your First Job
Completing an internship is the best way to enter the profession. Most colleges and universities will have affiliations with employers that recruit new graduates and provide on-the-job training.
Amongst the main graduate employers are some popular ones including Accenture, Apple, Cisco, FDM, Fujitsu, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Softcat etc.
To search for jobs check the following sites:
For more information on computer hardware engineers visit ACM – the Association for Computing Machinery and IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organisation for the advancement of technology.
4. Develop Your Career
Getting work experience in the field and learning how things work in the industry, can give you the necessary skills and knowledge to become a manager or team leader, with the potential to earn a higher salary. This would involve managing the work of support staff, planning regular schedules and general operations.
You also have the option to become self-employed and work for large organisations as a consultant.
Just like in any tech-related field, professional development, lifelong learning and staying up to date with the latest trends in computer technology is crucial to success.
The job outlook for computer hardware engineers is projected to grow by 3 percent from 2014 to 2024, which is slower than the average for all occupations. Although technology continues to revolutionise hardware design, the career prospects are slightly less bright. This is because most of the technological advances are occurring in software and companies are outsourcing the engineering to other countries that have equally skilled but cheaper workers.
Luckily, due to the versatility of the profession, you can transfer your skills to related fields such as network architecture and design to enhance your job prospects.
Even though the job prospects are not as good as many other careers in the tech sector if you are passionate about computer hardware and have the right attributes, then this might well be the career for you. What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below…
This article was originally written in October 2014.