Hardware Engineer Career Overview


Updated October 31, 2023

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Hardware engineers design and develop computer systems and their physical components. Their work also involves the extensive testing and modification of initial designs, along with maintenance tasks like applying product updates.

On many custom projects, hardware and software development needs overlap. Hardware engineers often collaborate with software engineers and developers to ensure seamless compatibility.

Some employers use alternate job titles to refer to hardware engineering roles. Common examples include computer hardware engineer, computer vision engineer, and computer engineer.

Computer engineers typically work full-time hours in offices and laboratory settings. Employers in the public and private sectors hire them to lead and supervise product development operations. Entry to the profession typically requires at least a bachelor's degree in computer science, computer systems engineering, or a related field. Many hardware engineers also hold one or more industry-standard professional certifications.

This career guide explores computer hardware engineering duties, common skills, and career pathways. Discover resources to learn more about the field and connect with relevant educational opportunities.

History of Computer Hardware Engineers

Computer engineering emerged as a professional specialty in the U.S. labor market during the 1940s and 1950s. At the time, early computer systems were in their initial stages of development. Electrical engineers migrated into the developing field of computer science. As computers became more advanced and complex, engineers adopted specializations focused on their systems and components.

Many influential tech industry pioneers performed tasks now associated with computer engineering. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak ranks among the best-known examples. Industry observers widely credit Wozniak's engineering expertise with making the Apple II one of the first home computer systems to achieve commercial success.

With computers becoming an entrenched feature of everyday life, demand for specialized engineers exploded. Higher learning institutions increasingly began to offer computer science programs focused on engineering. Professional organizations also developed uniform standards for certification.

Today, computer hardware engineers typically complete degrees before earning certifications. Some engineers build their knowledge bases by combining self-led and on-the-job training.

What Does a Hardware Engineer Do?

Hardware engineers usually work on computer systems, components, and computerized products for consumer markets. Their main duties include testing, modifying, and maintaining the products they build.

Most components must work alongside networking and software tools. Ensuring compatibility with networked systems and specialized applications adds an additional level of complexity to their work.

Primary Duties

  • Designing Computer Hardware: After using engineering tools to design new computer hardware, engineers test and analyze the product. Then, they update the design to improve usability concerns. Once manufactured, these products need continuous upgrading. Sometimes engineers reconfigure current hardware rather than building a new product.
  • Writing Computer Software: Although many computer engineers design physical products, building computer software and applications forms the core of a software developer's job. Using programming languages such as C++ or JavaScript, engineers can develop packaged applications. Often, though, they create customized tools or databases for their employers or customers.
  • Creating and Testing Robots: Computer engineers may work as part of a team to develop, create, test, and manage intelligent machines or robotic systems. In this role, professionals may conduct research on robotics and robot development and work with CAD or CAM tools to build the machines.
  • Researching New Tools in Computer Engineering: Computer engineers need to stay up to date on new tools emerging in technology. Research is ongoing in areas such as data science, machine learning, computer security, distributed computing, and human-robot interaction. Companies use this research to develop new tools. Engineers who stay informed of new developments provide meaningful value to their companies.
  • Managing Teams of Engineers: Some computer engineers move from tool development to management and leadership roles. As team leaders, engineers must understand the project's details, keep an eye on overall goals, and ensure that their team stays motivated and well resourced.

Nonstandard Duties

  • Drone Software Engineering: Companies use drones for aerial surveillance or to take pictures for marketing and advertising. Engineers help develop the software and hardware that advances drone technology. They can serve in the commercial, consumer, or military markets.
  • AI Consulting: AI consultants help companies leverage artificial intelligence tools to improve business outcomes. This work might involve programming computer applications that use machine learning. However, not all AI consulting focuses on program development. Some professionals help corporate leaders understand the value of machine learning solutions and select appropriate AI-powered tools for their companies.
  • Video Game Development: Computer engineers can design software programs for video games. In this role, engineers work with artists, writers, and animators, providing the coding that brings their creative vision to life. Though most video games function as entertainment, some games serve as educational tools, therapeutic interventions, or even as experimental tools in blockchain finance and business.
  • Virtual Reality Design: Engineers use new technologies such as visualization, mapping, and 3D modeling to form immersive digital worlds. Beyond daily use in games and shopping, virtual reality plays an important role in national security, education, sports, mental health, and medical training. Companies such as Microsoft, Samsung, and Facebook invest in hiring engineers who can create new hardware to support virtual reality.
  • Blockchain Development: Responsible for researching, analyzing, developing, and executing blockchain applications, computer engineering professionals use programming languages to design blockchain architecture and infrastructure. Companies that see value in decentralized applications often hire engineers and programmers who can work with blockchain technology. Outside of cryptocurrency, blockchain functions in the supply chains, internet of things, and data application sectors.

Key Soft Skills for Hardware Engineers

  • Analytical Thinking: Engineers examine the functionality of system parts by designing, building, testing, and troubleshooting computer hardware.
  • Creativity: These professionals must infuse prior knowledge with their imagination to envision new possibilities and methods. Problem-solving, a common activity for hardware engineers, also involves creative and critical thinking.
  • Critical Thinking: Hardware engineers with strong critical thinking skills often have an easier time learning and applying new skills and technologies. Furthermore, computer hardware engineers with critical thinking skills often have greater leadership potential and advance further in their careers.
  • Communication Skills: Depending on their company, position, and project, hardware engineers may often work alone. However, hardware engineers sometimes work on teams and must communicate through writing and speaking with software engineers, technicians, and clients.
  • Problem-Solving: Hardware engineers should know how to identify and address hardware-related problems. These professionals test and troubleshoot their work to recommend solutions and updates.

Key Hard Skills for Hardware Engineers

  • Computer-Aided Design: Computer engineers make extensive use of CAD platforms to visualize designs and prototypes.
  • Operating Systems: Common examples of operating systems include Windows, iOS, Linux, and Unix. Components and units manufactured for niche purposes and industries may involve uncommon and special-purpose operating systems.
  • Computing Languages: Hardware engineers often use familiar programming languages such as C and C++. Their work also involves a unique class of languages known as hardware description languages (HDLs).
  • Circuit Design: Computer engineering focuses heavily on designing and integrating computer circuitry into parent systems. Advanced circuit design and development proficiencies are a requirement among many employers.

A Day in the Life of a Hardware Engineer

Computer hardware engineers perform an array of diagnosis, design, and testing tasks, depending on employer needs. They use creativity to design computer equipment and hardware.

Computer hardware engineers also employ analytical and problem-solving skills to identify and fix problems with hardware designs, media, and storage devices. These professionals also ensure compatibility between hardware and software by collaborating with software developers,

Hardware Engineer Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job growth of 5% for computer hardware engineers from 2021–2031. May 2021 BLS data indicates a median salary of $128,170 per year for computer engineers and demonstrates that salaries vary by industry and region, sometimes significantly.

Payscale data shows that average hardware engineer salaries follow a consistent trend of increasing with experience.

BLS and other labor market analysts expect demand for computer engineers to continue rising as computerization becomes increasingly prevalent in many industries. However, the profession's projected growth rate remains modest compared to many technology professions. BLS ascribes this disparity to the higher level of innovation focus on the software development side of the industry.


Annual Median Salary

Source: BLS

How to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer

Hardware engineers usually prepare for their careers by earning bachelor's degrees from accredited computer science or computer engineering programs. Learners interested in particular engineering specializations sometimes continue studying at the graduate level.

Many computer hardware engineers also hold industry certifications. These credentials can help engineers broaden their appeal to prospective employers. Leading organizations offering hardware engineering certifications include Apple, BISCI, Cisco, and CompTIA.

Some accomplished computer engineers are self-taught, while others combine on-the-job training with coding bootcamps or other self-directed education. Individuals with strong technical aptitudes are generally more likely to follow these alternative paths. In such cases, certifications are strongly recommended as they provide an additional level of skills validation.

The following pages offer further information and insights:

Internship Opportunities

Many computer engineering students choose to pursue internships. These valuable opportunities help new labor market entrants expand their networks and develop their professional skills.

Many major technology companies offer computer engineering internships, including:

  • Google: This Silicon Valley giant regularly updates its engineering and technical internship postings.
  • Microsoft: Students and recent graduates may qualify for this leading tech company's varied internship programs.
  • Intel: This computer hardware developer and manufacturer welcomes thousands of student interns.

Many of these resume-enhancing opportunities integrate interns with professional teams working on real-world projects. Some internships also pay modest stipends.

Certifications for Computer Engineers

Employers maintain varying standards for job openings and promotions. Computer engineering professionals can stay up-to-date in their field by pursuing certifications. Optional credentialscan boost a professional's credibility and demonstrate a commitment to ongoing development.

Many institutions offer certification programs, including private companies and professional organizations. Examples of computer engineering certifications include:

Computer engineers can also pursue professional engineering licensure through the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.

Computer Engineering Degree Programs

Computer Engineering Degree Programs

Connect with accredited undergraduate and graduate educational programs for aspiring computer engineers.

Computer Science Professional Certifications

Computer Science Professional Certifications

Multiple organizations provide credentialing programs and certifications valued by employers. Learn more with this guide.

Similar Specializations and Career Paths

Learners interested in hardware engineering can also explore overlapping tech industry roles. The following list describes five similar career paths and specializations to consider.

  • Network Architect: Computer network architects design, develop, and create digital communication networks. Many work on a contract basis for clients who need in-house networking solutions. Professionals usually graduate into the architect role after multiple years of experience as network or systems administrators.
  • Software Developer: Software developers create and test applications for desktop and mobile computing systems. The profession also includes software engineering roles, which cover similar tasks with a stronger emphasis on conceptual design.
  • Information Technology Architect: IT architects design and update networked and non-networked communication, computing, and data storage systems. IT includes specialized database architect and administrator roles.
  • Information Security Analyst: Infosec analysts design the standards and systems organizations use to protect their proprietary and sensitive data and information. The role shares similarities with other cybersecurity professions but covers non-digital and offline information storage.
  • Electrical/Electronics Engineer: Electrical engineers lead the design, research, and development activity for electrical systems and equipment. Electronics engineers fulfill a similar set of duties but with a specific focus on consumer electronics components and products.
Career Required Education Required Experience Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate (2021-2031)

Network Architect

Bachelor's degree

5 years or more



Software Developer

Bachelor's/master's degree

2 years or more



IT Architect

Bachelor's degree

5 years or more



Information Security Analyst

Bachelor's degree

5 years or more



Electrical/Electronics Engineer

Bachelor's/master's degree

4 years or more



Source: BLS

Resources for Hardware Engineers

The following resources focus on professional organizations that offer advanced career development programs. The associates also host educational conferences and industry events, which double as strong networking forums.

Professional Organizations for Hardware Engineers

  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: This global organization counts more than 370,000 members in nearly 170 countries to offer continuing education, professional development opportunities, conferences, technology publications, and several kinds of community groups. IEEE also plays a role in setting industry technology standards.
  • Computing Research Association: Unifying academic, governmental, and industrial sectors to improve the world through innovative computing research, the CRA gathers and publishes data, news, and other resources. It also features active committees, conferences, graduate student cohorts, and job-finding resources.
  • National Society of Professional Engineers: In addition to its continuing education offerings and advocacy work, NSPE creates community through interest groups, state societies, and other communities. Membership comes with 15 free online courses through NSPE's professional engineering institute.
  • Association for Women in Computing: Founded in 1978, the AWC supports women's advancement in computing-related careers such as system analysis, programming, technical writing, and consultants. With chapters at schools across the United States, AWC provides continuing education, mentoring, and networking opportunities for women in computing.

Computer Hardware Engineer Questions

  • Can anyone be a computer hardware engineer?

    Computer hardware engineers have strong mathematical aptitudes. They also must possess advanced component and system design and development skills. Anyone whose abilities match these requirements can become a computer engineer.

  • What skills do you need to be a hardware engineer?

    Successful hardware engineers possess advanced abilities in CAD, computer languages, operating systems, circuit design, and system design. Important soft skills include collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication.

  • What do entry-level computer hardware engineers do?

    Entry-level hardware engineers often work full-time for technology manufacturing companies. These professionals help guide the manufacturing, installation, and testing of computer-related products.

  • Do hardware engineers need to know coding?

    Hardware engineers apply general computer programming and coding skills to many design, research, development, and testing tasks. They also require advanced knowledge of specialized computing languages, including hardware description languages.

Page last reviewed on Jan 19, 2023

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