A computer engineering student displaying a project on a tablet.

What is Computer Engineering?

Jacob Imm

Mar 30, 2021

What is Computer Engineering?

The term computer engineering puts together two words that a lot of people associate with college. For years, and now maybe more than ever, people who know a lot about either of these words and make them their professional business are in high demand. 

Still, the computer engineering curriculum is a mysterious topic. A subject you might not think of as a realistic possibility. A made-up job for movie characters and people you never meet, because they’re too busy working alone in front of glowing screens.

Let’s start at the beginning, bring out some facts and work on a computer engineering degree definition. You should hopefully see why it could be a very real option for you.

What do computer engineers do?

The term computer engineering comes from, not by coincidence, the combination of computer science and engineering. Essentially, what sets it apart from the other engineering disciplines like mechanical engineering and electrical engineering is that computer engineers build, design and maintain different parts of the triangle that is a working computer: hardware, software and networks. Unsure as to the answers to “What is mechanical engineering?” or even “What do electrical engineers do?” We’ve got your answers!

A computer hardware engineer gets a lot of hands-on experience and learns the fundamentals of building machines and using automation, as well: they build CPU towers, laptops, monitors, tablets, smartphones, servers, and any other machines that have a computer inside. 

Computer software engineers create the programs and intelligent systems that instruct hardware what to do: operating systems, apps, computer and video games, computer-aided design software—anything with an icon you tap, click or double-click to start up.

Network engineers set up and maintain the huge, complicated connections between computers that allow them to talk to one another, whether in the same building or across the world through the Internet. Enjoy your lightning fast Wi-Fi? Thank a network engineer.

Because of our obvious reliance on computers, professional computer engineers are all over the place. You can find work in any number of industries to apply such engineering disciplines, while strengthening your skills. 

With your bachelor’s degree, you can work for banks and in finance creating applications or building complex computing systems. You could find work with a chemical manufacturer, designing programs to test and analyze new products. 

The transportation industry hires computer engineers to help automate trains, design fuel systems and navigational software for jets, or even big, futuristic projects like self-driving cars. Manufacturing is becoming more and more the work of programmed machines, so you could find work designing and building the very robots that put cars, household appliances, and even computers themselves together.

If nothing else, a trained computer engineer can get great work as a consultant for companies with big ideas who don’t know how to use computing to make them happen—things like virtual reality technology and artificial intelligence. And there is always the biggest of jobs—working for the government or defense contractors to help design the machines and digital systems used to protect people.

Again, everyone needs computers to get their jobs done, but many fewer people than that know how to get computers to do what they want. A degree in computer engineering will set you up for work opportunities just about anywhere, where you will be highly valued by whomever you work for.

What is the difference between computer engineering and computer science?

Both complex and important subjects, computer engineering and computer science go hand-in-hand. You can’t fully understand computer engineering without computer science, but you must understand that they are very different in practice before you choose one as your career path.

The easiest way to explain the contrast is this: computer science is all about theory while computer engineering is about execution. 

Computer science is about coming up with possible solutions for real problems. You have to literally use your skills to think like a computer, meaning a lot of math, data analysis and reading and writing programming code. Computer scientists design a lot of things without actually building them, like web structures and user interfaces, and teach computers to be better and more efficient, directing them how by writing code.

Computer engineering works more in the physical, doing other things with your hands along with typing. While computer programming is vital knowledge, you also have to be skilled in physics and electronics. You need to know how circuits fit together, how processors work, the ins and outs of drives, and anything else that might be going on under the hood of a computerized device. 

Another big distinction between the two areas is the courses you’ll take if you major in one or the other. Typical computer science classes cover:

  • Design and Analysis of Algorithms 
  • Operating Systems 
  • Software Engineering 
  • Data Analysis 

Where a basic computer engineering curriculum is more like:

  • Mechanics 
  • Electricity and Magnetism 
  • Calculus 
  • General Physics 
  • Electric Circuits 
  • Waves, Optics, Thermodynamics 
  • Digital Logic 
  • Machine Design 

Is Computer Engineering a good career?

As we discussed before, there are certainly plenty of jobs available for computer engineering graduates, including entry level positions. Areas like robotics, mobile device design, telecommunication and the aerospace industry area always in need of good computer engineers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that for a computer hardware engineer in particular, job opportunities should increase 6%--a rise of 4,000 positions—by 2028.

Beyond that, salaries for computer engineers tend to be quite strong. 

According to Payscale, a bachelor of science degree in computer engineering can get you a position with starting salaries in the $70K per year range up to higher-level salaries close to $120K a year with the average yearly salary sitting at $86,000. A master’s degree, whether on campus or an online masters’, pushes the average into six digits at $100K per year, with the lower end of the scale rising by a lot.

Job security and take-home pay aren’t everything, though. You may be wondering about work-life balance for computer engineering professionals.

Tech jobs, the kind computer engineers find themselves in often, are known for expecting a ton of hours on the job and not a lot of allowing for family time or vacation. The proof is in the fact that a lot of tech companies have made a point to mention how much they value work-life balance on their job listings.

This goes both ways, though: computer technology continues to grow with no slowing-down in sight. Companies know they need massive, well-trained groups of employees to keep up in a tough market, and they’re willing to do what it takes to keep their workforce happy.

In short, if you have a passion for the kind of work computer engineering takes, go for it—but keep in mind that you may need to devote yourself to more than a 9 to 5 life. Be sure you love this work and that it makes you happy, because it’s not something you want to be stuck in without the joy of going to the office. 

When you apply for jobs, make sure your questions for future bosses include asking about work-life balance. The better their answer and the easier they come up with it, the more you know they’re aware it’s important.

What is a computer engineering major?

We mentioned above some of the classes you should expect to take in your computer engineering major. Once you have those basic courses, you will move into more specialized areas as you choose what parts of computer engineering you like best. You’ll study things you may never thought you’d get a chance to take a course in, like bioinformatics, Linux computer programming, game design and development, and data mining. 

A capstone project will more than likely be at the end of your degree program. While that means a lot of research, writing and presenting, it also means you’ll get a chance to build a computing project of your own, which could even launch the next big idea in computing.

You should add to that a few more things to look for in a strong computer engineering program:

  • Focus on automation and robotics
  • A lot of hands-on learning about designing digital systems and analyzing high-end, embedded computer systems
  • Emphasis on teamwork and problem-solving skills as well as computer engineering as life-long learning
  • Updated computer software and hardware and software in classrooms and labs
  • Opportunities to get internships at labs and tech companies
  • The chance to do research projects and go to competitions against other schools

If you want to find out more about what a computer engineering program looks like, check out North Central College’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. And to find out more about the College and apply, go to northcentralcollege.edu/apply

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.