Computer engineering: Your guide to getting started

Interested in an in-demand and ever-evolving career in computer engineering? Whether you're still on the fence or ready to jump over it, this page can help guide you.
Written by Maura Deering, Contributor
Black man and Black woman tech workers looking at a computer together
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Computer engineering is an evolving and fast-paced career that requires creative thinking, adaptability, teamwork, and technology skills. 

As a trained computer engineering professional, you'll have the skills to excel in many positions. Jobs in the field include computer programmer, computer systems analyst, database administrator, data scientist, forensic computer analyst, and web developer.

Computer engineering pays well, too. Annual median salaries for computer engineering professions range from $84,810 to $151,150, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Read on to learn how to get started in computer engineering.

What is it like to work in computer engineering?

If you're considering a career in computer engineering, you're likely drawn to the hardware and systems sides of computing. 

Computer engineers combine computer science and electrical engineering to build mobile applications, operating systems, and web browsers. Computer engineers need to know languages like C, Python, and Java

Subfields span big data analysis, computer architecture, cybersecurity, game hardware design, mobile device engineering, and user interface design. 

Typical computer engineering duties include:

  • Designing and testing computer hardware components
  • Managing operating systems
  • Researching software and computer hardware
  • Setting up computer networks
  • Writing and testing software for mobile devices 

Computer engineers work for gaming companies, financial firms, government agencies, healthcare organizations, and tech companies. They collaborate with designers, researchers, systems and securities experts, and testers.

Is computer engineering right for me?

Your strengths, interests, and professional goals can help you decide if a computer engineering career is for you. Explore them with the steps below.

Think about your strengths.

Successful computer engineers need to be adaptable and flexible to handle the fluid nature of technology. Computer engineers solve problems, so creativity and an ability to focus on work are important assets. 

Rather than working on a computer in isolation, engineers are part of teams who collaborate with other engineers, developers, and analysts. They need communication and social skills — especially those who aspire to management and leadership positions.

Consider your interests.

Computer engineers generally have a strong interest in coding, learning programming languages, and software development structures. A desire to understand evolving technology is key. 

In addition, engineers should be interested in research, analysis, and information synthesis. 

Visualize the kind of career you want.

Computer engineers typically work in an office, but many work from home all or some of the time. Face-to-face interaction may happen through video conferencing. A 40-hour workweek is usually the minimum, with extended hours during critical stages of projects. 

Projects generally have competing deadlines, and prioritizing the workload can be stressful. 

Computer engineers should also be prepared for continuing education expectations or requirements, including online classes, industry certification, or IT conferences.  

Computer engineering involves hours spent indoors at a desk and in meetings. 

Computer engineering may be a good fit if none of these are deal-breakers for you.

Consider what it takes to pursue a computer engineering career.

Portfolios and tech internships are important tools for launching your career. Portfolios are electronic documents or websites that showcase projects you've completed, describe the steps you took, and highlight your technology skills and certifications.

Check out our guide on how to build a coding portfolio for tips on putting your best foot forward.

Internships establish your employment record and provide references. They also help you narrow down a field of interest or work environment. Tech companies, corporations, government agencies, and healthcare organizations hire interns for short-term projects or timeframes. Internships may be paid or unpaid.

What skills do I need to work in computer engineering?

Computer engineers need hard skills learned in degree programs, bootcamps, or certification courses to perform the job, but soft skills — also called people skills — are equally important. People skills can be learned and practiced if they don't come naturally.

SEE: 5 soft skills for computer science careers

Hard skills

People skills

  • Building and installing hardware
  • Mathematics
  • Researching alternative strategies
  • System maintenance and testing
  • Technical skills in programming languages, operating systems, and databases
  • Troubleshooting
  • Communication and interaction
  • Creative thinking
  • Flexibility and resilience
  • Patience and focus
  • Problem-solving
  • Teamwork and collaboration

Choosing the best computer engineering degree for your goals

Important things to look for in a program include accreditation by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and reputation within the industry. Decide whether you prefer online or in-person classes and full- or part-time study.  

Each degree and credential suits a different career path and current level of education and experience.

Associate in computer engineering

Length to complete: Two years full-time
Costs: $3,300-$16,000 per year
Post-grad career options: Computer programmer; systems analyst; web developer

An associate degree works well for students interested in exploring computer engineering. 

The degree offers relatively low time and financial investments. Internships and post-graduation entry-level positions allow students and graduates to experience computer engineering without committing to a four-year bachelor's program.

Helpful prerequisites include math and physics and a basic understanding of computer systems and programming languages.

Bachelor's in computer engineering

Length to complete: Four years full-time
Costs: $9,300-$66,000 per year
Post-grad career options: Computer hardware engineer; computer network architect; software developer 

You can pursue a bachelor's degree right after high school, as an adult, or as someone who already holds an associate degree. A bachelor's offers a broader and deeper skillset than an associate degree, plus more room to customize your degree with electives and concentrations.

Applicants typically have 3.5 GPAs and ACT/SAT scores in the 90th percentile. Students can choose on-campus or online computer engineering degree options.

SEE: Getting a computer engineering degree online: What to expect

Master's in computer engineering

Length to complete: Two years full-time
Costs: $7,300-$41,000 per year
Post-grad career options: Computer and information research scientist; computer or information systems manager; electrical or electronics engineering

A computer engineering master's attracts bachelor's degree-holders and professionals who want to move into management positions, pursue a specialization, or prepare for doctoral study. 

Programs usually require a bachelor's degree in computer engineering or a related field. Work experience is a plus for admission but is generally not required. 

Additional ways to prepare for a computer engineering career

Other routes to a computer engineering career include coding bootcamps and online courses. Bootcamps take 10-20 weeks to complete and focus on coding language, data science and analytics, and mobile app, software, and web development. 

When deciding whether a coding bootcamp is worth it for you, consider your goals. Bootcamp completion most likely results in entry-level jobs. Many employers require degrees for advancement. 

For specific skill development, online courses — including free courses — can earn you a certificate or prepare you to test for a certification.

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