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Computer Engineer  What They Do

Just the Facts

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dotComputer engineers are the world's high-tech problem solvers. They build, write, design, analyze and correct computer systems and software. Their expertise ranges from operating systems to software and hardware.

"Computer engineering is the intelligence in every new product," says Ruth Dameron. She's a computer engineering instructor.

"Mechanical engineering can make it able to move, but it's computer engineering that does the logical thinking, gathers information [with] sensors or input of some other kind, does the reasoning, does the thinking and has control, and can send instructions out to parts that move or parts that display on a screen," Dameron says.

"The control and the intelligence is all in the computer engineering," she adds. "And I think that's cool."

Students are often unsure of the difference between computer science and computer engineering, says Wayne Loucks. He's a professor of computer engineering.

"There is a lot of overlap," he says. "In the case of a computer engineer, the computer is usually part of something, so you don't see the computer as the end game, you see it as part of something else. Whereas, if you're a computer scientist, you have some problem, you're solving it, and the solution is sort of all within the computer."

For example, if you're designing a computer database, you're likely to be a computer scientist because it's basically all within the computer, says Loucks. But if you're designing a control system for something, whether it's antilock brakes or a steel mill, you're more likely to be a computer engineer.

dotComputer engineers typically focus on systems with both hardware and software. Engineers who focus on large software systems are more likely to be software engineers.

"Their skill set is about managing software development so that it will be successful, so somebody won't make a change over here in this program that makes a problem over there in some other aspect of the system," says Loucks.

Computer programming is another related profession. Computer engineers or computer scientists typically supervise programmers. Programmers help organizations with their existing databases and various other things.

"Programmers can solve smaller problems," says Loucks. "They might be given a task that still requires lots of thinking about to solve, but will likely end up being a much smaller piece of the puzzle, whereas the engineer would be more worried about the whole puzzle."

dotComputer engineers work in offices or labs. They work for companies that develop software for industrial purposes.

Computer engineers may work more than eight hours per day. At times, they may work 70 hours a week. Some companies expect it of their engineers. Others do not.

"That depends on the kind of company that you go to work for," says Dameron. "Depending on the climate of the company, you will typically work a nine-to-five job. Or you can be in a situation where, when the creative energy hits, you just go while you've got it, and then go take a nap.

"You can also be in a lot of unusual and different environments," says Dameron. "You can end up... in Antarctica, or on a ship, or in a big city, or in a remote area."

Computer engineers often have the opportunity to work from home. However, this depends on their employer, or whether they work for themselves. Some computer engineers have their own companies and work on contract for clients. This is the case for Ben Komar.

"You have to really enjoy solving puzzles," says Komar. "Because solving an engineering problem, whether it's testing something or actually designing something and implementing how it's going to work, it's really... like solving a puzzle."

There are other qualities Komar believes computer engineers should have.

"Outside of liking puzzles and liking detail-oriented work and working with the computer... they need to like people," says Komar. "Because you're going to interface with people in a number of ways. As you get to be a senior member of a team, or even a junior or an average member of a team, you're going to have to talk to your teammates, number one. You're going to have to talk to people that have different personalities."

At a Glance

Design and analyze computer systems

  • Computer engineers may work more than eight hours a day
  • The field is expanding rapidly
  • Electrical or computer engineering programs are your best bets to prepare for this career