What is Computer Engineering?

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The modern era has witnessed a rapid development in computer technology, both in hardware and software. Each year a host of new advancements is unveiled, from home robotics to advanced operating systems, microprocessors, and supercomputers with massive computational capabilities.

In general, a significant amount of the work in this field is conducted by computer engineers. Computer engineers labor tirelessly to develop new software and computer-related hardware to be used in a variety of applications. According to Virginia Tech, computer engineers apply computer science methods to analyze and solve computer-oriented problems.

As the desire for advanced technology continues to increase, so too does the demand for these professionals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Oct. 2017) reported that openings in computer hardware engineering were expected to swell five percent nationally between 2016 and 2026, roughly on par with the average growth anticipated across all U.S. occupations during that time period. The BLS also found that job opportunities for software developers—a position held by some computer engineers—were expected to grow by 24 percent between 2016 and 2026, adding an incredible 299,500 jobs across the country.

The following guide provides a snapshot of computer engineering, including specializations, expected coursework, and the present and future outcomes of joining this field.

Why Does the World Need Computer Engineers?

In reality, the field of computer engineering has existed since the first computers were developed. In fact, the individuals who developed the Antikythera mechanism thousands of years ago could have considered themselves among the first computer engineers, as they developed hardware that acted as the basis for all computational systems that we use and understand today.

Since this time, the field of computer engineering has grown and developed significantly, providing a wide array of technological advancements that many people use every day. For example, computer engineers were integral in the development of:

  • Smartphones – includes both the hardware that sustains the operating system, as well as the operating system itself
  • Wireless networks – allows the world to utilize the Internet
  • Robotics – can be developed for both personal and industrial use

Computer engineering principles can be applied to a number of other purposes, including the development of integrated circuits, embedded systems, computer vision, computer systems architecture, and much more.

What Do You Learn in a Computer Engineering Program?

Generally, in order to pursue work as a computer engineer, prospective students must first complete a degree in this specific subject, either at the associate or bachelor’s level. Not all computer engineering programs are identical, with each having certain unique characteristics. That said, most students within undergraduate computer engineering programs take classes on the following subjects:

  • Calculus
  • Principles of electrical engineering
  • Principles of computer engineering
  • Systems design and analysis
  • Physics
  • Data structures
  • Electromagnetic theory
  • Microprocessor architecture

Additionally, students within a computer engineering degree may have the option to specialize, for example, in software or hardware development. Specializations are especially prevalent at the higher degree levels. Students who choose a concentration are required to take courses that relate to their chosen specialty.

Furthermore, in order to obtain a degree in computer engineering, most students are generally required to take part in a laboratory class, and may also need to complete a large-scale senior project or complete an internship. Senior projects are intended to help students put their newly acquired skills to use while developing software or hardware with real-world applications. Internships can help students gain experience and develop connections with other professionals that may extend well beyond graduation.

Finally, some students may also choose to continue their studies in pursuit of a master’s degree, or even a doctoral degree (PhD). While this is not a requirement in order to gain employment in the field, pursuing a graduate degree can demonstrate a superlative commitment to advancing the field computer engineering in research and practical applications.

Branches of Computer Engineering

At first glance, computer engineering may seem to be a narrow field with only a single focus. However, computer engineering can be broken down into a multitude of different subcategories, all of which are geared towards a specific focus. Although it would be impossible to list all of the subtopics within the field of computer engineering, the list below elucidates several of these distinctions:

  • Embedded systems – Embedded systems work within a larger system and have a specific function integral to the entity as a whole.
  • Computer systems – The subfield of computer systems focuses on the development of processes that provide reliable and secure computer systems.
  • Wireless networks and communication – This specialization focuses largely on the development of wireless networks and communication systems, as well as data transmission and storage methods.
  • Computer networks – This subfield is concerned with technology that allows a number of computers to work in a larger network.
  • Computer coding – The subcategory of computer coding focuses on utilizing existing coding techniques, as well as developing new ones, with various applications, such as protecting sensitive information.
  • Operating systems – Computer engineers in this field work to develop and improve operating systems.
  • Robotics – Some computer engineers may work to develop robotic technology that is intended for public or private use.

As mentioned above, this is only a small sample of the specializations available within the field of computer engineering, and those within the field will likely discover many more. Some schools actually allow for the opportunity to specialize during a degree program. For instance, those students who are pursuing a degree in computer engineering at Kansas State University may choose the following specializations: bioengineering, electronics and communications, and power systems.

Computer Engineering Salary & Career Outlook

While the present day holds many opportunities for those with a degree or experience in computer engineering, the future is likely even brighter. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Oct. 2017), there were more than four million jobs in computer and information technology in 2016. This number was slated to add 546,100 new jobs nationally between 2016 and 2026—an expected growth of 13 percent overall, nearly double the average growth expected across all U.S. occupations during that time.

Some of the reasons for the expected rapid growth in computer engineering over the next decade and beyond is due to the continued demand for mobile computing, as well as a thriving demand in cloud computing, the collection and storage of big data, and information security.

The significant demand for computer engineers and related professionals allows these individuals to command a relatively high salary as well. The BLS (Oct. 2017) reported that computer and information technology occupations earned an annual median salary of $82,860 in 2016. Thus, those in computer and information technology careers were earning well over twice the median salary of all U.S. occupations ($37,040).

Why Study Computer Engineering?

Overall, computer engineering is an extremely important field in the modern era. Computer engineers are responsible for the design and development of certain pieces of technology that are used every day. From personal computers and desktops to smartphones and robotics, these advancements in technology are meant to add convenience to our daily lives.

Computer engineers also perform a variety of other important tasks, from developing and improving wireless networks to allow for communication across the world, to the creation of operating systems powered by new hardware and high-level research that expands the boundaries of computer science and computer engineering as a whole.

In addition, those working in computer and information technology occupations are well-compensated for the work they perform. As discussed above, these individuals can earn more than twice the annual median salary in the U.S., and likely even more with additional education, experience, and training.

The following is a list of some of the most compelling reasons to pursue a computer engineering degree. Getting trained in computer engineering affords a person the opportunity to:

  • Perform extremely meaningful and interesting work that helps bring advanced technology into the hands of individuals worldwide
  • Retain job security, as jobs in the field of computers and information technology are slated to grow 13 percent between 2016 and 2026
  • Earn a competitive salary by securing full-time employment in this field with an associate or (more commonly), a bachelor’s degree.

These are only three reasons to pursue a degree in computer engineering, and may not apply to everyone. However, those interested in computer engineering may pursue a career that can better integrate the world with rapid advancements in technology.

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