Table of Contents
- The Difference Between Computer Engineering and Software Engineering
- What Is Computer Engineering?
- What Is Software Engineering?
- Computer Engineering vs. Software Engineering Salary
- Computer Engineering vs. Software Engineering: Which One Is Right for You?
The roots of modern computer and software engineering date back to the 1830s, with the work of Charles Babbage (inventor of the first computer, the Analytical Engine) and Ada Lovelace (the programmer of the Analytical Engine). From these early roots to the development of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) in 1945 to the modern day, computer engineering and software engineering have always gone hand in hand. Both fields follow the engineering principles of applying science and math to solve problems.
Now, computer engineering and software engineering are integral to society and business, changing the ways we work, live, and communicate.
The difference between computer engineering vs. software engineering may seem slight, and they are interrelated. However, the fields focus on solving very different problems.
The Difference Between Computer Engineering and Software Engineering
The difference between computer engineering and software engineering can be summed up as hardware vs. software. Computer engineers build the hardware components; software engineers write the code that runs on the components.
Computer engineers design, build, and test computer hardware, such as semiconductors and circuit boards. They also design and build related equipment (mice, keyboards, displays) and networking equipment (routers, modems). These engineers also oversee the manufacturing and testing of hardware, and research and develop new technology and features.
Since so many products have computers inside them — for example, automobiles, medical technology, and even household appliances — computer engineers build computers that consumers never see but must rely on. These products are simply embedded in everyday life.
Software engineers program computers for specific purposes. First, they identify user requirements before designing a program. They then run iterative tests to ensure the code operates as planned. Software engineers also debug code and apply patches to make code work correctly and fix vulnerabilities.
Software engineers design and build code for every computer application. For example, they develop consumer applications, such as word processing software, games, and social media applications. They also design and build software for corporations, universities, and governments. Power plants, satellites, and space missions all run on software that software designers have designed, built, and tested.
Security is a top concern for software engineers. Hackers are experts at exploiting weaknesses in existing software. Software developers must stay one step ahead to prevent breaches. A branch of software engineering is cybersecurity. Cybersecurity engineers often have a software engineering degree but focus on protecting computer systems from cyberattacks.
Core Educational Differences Between Computer Engineering and Software Engineering
Computer engineers and software engineers need different skills to succeed in their careers, and their educational tracks reflect those differences.
Computer engineers take electrical engineering courses because they’ll be designing circuit boards, memory cards, and other hardware. They also learn to test hardware using oscilloscopes and other devices.
Software engineering skills focus on programming and debugging. Software engineers also need to understand the software development life cycle and be proficient in data analysis tools such as SQL.
Depending on a specific program’s curriculum, software engineers and computer engineers usually learn the basic concepts of each other’s jobs. A software engineer needs to understand how computer hardware works to code effectively for it, and a computer engineer needs to understand software development to design and build hardware that works for its intended purpose.
Primary Duties of Software Engineers and Hardware Engineers
Software engineers and computer engineers also share similar primary duties. For example, in each field, engineers are responsible for the following:
- Analysis. The first step for computer engineers and software engineers is to gather product requirements and analyze the needed elements.
- Design and build. Software engineers follow the software development life cycle when coding projects. Computer engineers design products to meet the requirements of a use case or customer needs. The hardware and software design-build processes include similar steps.
- Test. Engineers test their hardware or software iteratively to ensure it operates properly under all conditions. Software developers beta test code before it’s “pushed” to users.
- Debugging. The debugging process roots out errors in software or in embedded programs, so they can be fixed.
Collaboration Between Computer Engineers and Software Engineers
Despite the differences between the two roles, computer engineers and software engineers work closely together, particularly for consumer products. Software developers need to understand the hardware and use case they’re coding for, and equally essential is that computer engineers understand the product requirements and the customer base when designing their products. The laws of computer technology development affect computer engineers and software engineers alike.
What Is Computer Engineering?
Computer engineers combine computer science and electrical engineering to develop technology that’s deeply embedded in modern society. Computer engineering specializations include building different computer components, such as semiconductors, circuit boards, and related hardware.
Besides the design-build-test process, a great deal of computer engineering is research. Computer engineers are on the cutting edge of computing technology. They develop faster semiconductors; more powerful supercomputers; and automobile chips that help make cars safer, more comfortable, and more fuel efficient.
Computer engineers design and build a computer system’s components. They create the features and interfaces that users have come to take for granted. Components include the following:
- Central processing unit. The CPU is the semiconductor that’s the core brain of a computer.
- Printed circuit boards. PCBs hold the copper circuitry that transmits signals to each component in a computer.
- Memory devices. Computers may have external or internal memory devices to store the two main types of memory: random access memory (RAM) and read-only memory (ROM).
- Displays. Displays have come a long way since the first cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor. Liquid-crystal displays (LCD) and touch screens have changed the way users interact with computers.
- Gaming devices. Computer engineers design gaming consoles and other devices, such as hand-held controllers and joysticks.
- Networks. Computer system engineers and network architects develop and design computer networks that can be as simple as a local-area network (LAN) and as complex as a global networking infrastructure.
- Routers. Routers move data packets across the internet between computers and servers.
- Modems. Modems change digital signals into analog signals, and back again, when transmitting across the internet.
Computer Engineering Specializations
Computer engineers can choose from several different specializations when beginning their careers. Some areas of interest are:
- Power management. Computer engineers and electrical engineers design electrical power systems for high-usage industries, such as utilities. These power systems must ensure electrical systems prevent overloads.
- Digital logical design. Digital logical design is the process by which computer engineers design circuitry that performs specific operations. Digital logical design is the foundation of processor design.
- Processor interfacing. While the CPU is the brain of a computer, it has to interface with peripherals to function. A computer engineer may focus on developing processor interfacing solutions.
- Embedded systems. Both computer engineers and software engineers may work with embedded systems. They develop the hardware and software that run the tiny computers inside consumer and commercial technology, automobiles, and medical devices, among other technologies.
Who Should Become a Computer Engineer?
The answer to the question, “What is computer engineering?” may strike a chord with students who are interested in math and science. They may have a yen for building their own technology, or they may like to take apart computers and other devices to see how they work. Successful computer engineers share the following skills:
- An analytical mind. Computer engineering is a problem-solving profession. Engineers should enjoy analyzing a problem and coming up with a solution.
- Creativity. Top computer engineers include Caitlin Kalinowski, who led the teams that designed Facebook’s virtual reality headset Oculus Rift and Apple MacBook Air.
- Communication and collaboration. Computer engineers collaborate with other professionals, all of whom bring their expertise to product research and development. These professionals include software engineers, product designers, usability experts, sales and marketing professionals, and other colleagues.
Resources for Computer Engineering Students
The following are resources for prospective computer engineering students and others who are interested in a computer engineering career:
- IEEE Computer Society. The IEEE Computer Society provides tools and resources for computer science and engineering professionals around the world.
- GeeksforGeeks. GeeksforGeeks is an online community with career, educational, and technology resources for all tech professionals.
- GitHub. GitHub is a software platform and community resource for software developers and computer engineers.
What Is Software Engineering?
Traditionally, the first instruction a computer programmer learns to code is the greeting “Hello World.” That’s because software engineers program the operating instructions that let computers interact with their operators. From that first “Hello World,” software engineers go on to design, develop, and maintain computer programs that are based on system requirements and goals. Software engineers specialize in specific computer languages that other software developers have created to perform certain tasks.
Software Engineering and Programming Languages
The most important skill for software engineers is coding. Keeping up with the changing landscape of computer programming languages is essential. Older programming languages, such as BASIC, FORTRAN, and COBOL, have made way for new languages that provide the operating instructions for more powerful and complex computers.
Key programming languages include the following:
- Python. Python is used in advanced applications such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
- Java. Developers use Java to run Android applications and to develop internet-connected applications.
- SQL. SQL is used in data analytics and data science to query databases.
Typical Software Engineering Process
Before software engineers begin to code, they need to understand the requirements of the program they’re developing. This requires research and analysis before work even begins. The typical responsibilities of software engineers include the following:
- Planning. The planning phase entails more than brainstorming with colleagues; software engineers also need to understand the project scope, timeline, budget, and resources.
- Analysis. The analysis phase includes feasibility studies.
- Design. The design phase is when software engineers select the software architecture and begin the software development process.
- Coding. The coding phase includes coding and design documentation.
- Testing. The testing phase is when software engineers put their code through rigorous testing and retesting to ensure the software works under all conditions.
- Deployment. The deployment phase is when, after being successfully tested, software is deployed to clients.
- Ongoing maintenance. Software engineers are also responsible for maintaining and updating code, releasing new features, and preventing security breaches.
Different Types of Software
Software engineering specializations include the different kinds of software design and development. Some of the different types of software are:
- Application software. Application software is designed for users. Applications run on computers, smartphones, tablets, and other computer systems, and their interfaces are meant to be easy to use.
- System software. The computer’s or device’s system software manages all the system resources, such as memory and security.
- Programming software. Programming software is a special-purpose tool for software engineers and developers. This software is used to create, debug, and maintain other software applications.
- Device driver software. Driver software controls a hardware device that’s connected to a computer. For example, device drivers are needed for computers to be able to send information to a printer, a scanner, a mouse, a keyboard, or speakers.
- Cloud software. Also known as software as a service (SaaS), cloud software allow users to license a software application rather than download it. Then users upload their data to a cloud application rather than save it to a server or an external or internal hard drive.
Who Should Become a Software Engineer?
Software engineers are creative, curious, analytical, and process oriented. As with their computer engineering colleagues, software engineers may enjoy tinkering with computers and other machinery and are intrigued by the interface between hardware and software. Software engineers need several key skills to succeed in the field:
- Cloud computing. As more offices turn to remote work, cloud computing and security are critical skills for software engineers.
- Development and operations (DevOps). The ability to develop and deploy software effectively is a much-needed skill.
- Full-stack programming. Software engineers who create user-facing code and back-end architecture are called full-stack programmers, and they’re in high demand.
- Python expertise. With the growth in big data and machine learning, the need for Python programmers has increased.
Software engineers also need soft skills to be successful in their profession. These skills include the following:
- Time management. DevOps requires time management, process management, and workflow management skills.
- Communications. Software engineers work in a collaborative environment. They need to be able to communicate effectively with their colleagues, customers, and managers.
- Problem-solving and creativity. Analytical and creative problem-solving skills are a critical part of a software engineer’s tool kit.
Software Engineering Specializations
Software engineers can choose to specialize in different areas. Depending on their function, they may focus on coding or on managing the development process. Some specializations include the following:
DevOps combines software development and information technology (IT). Its goal is to streamline software development by facilitating communication between all teams involved in product development. Strong DevOps processes can make software development more efficient.
Software engineers who do back-end development write software to which the front-end code connects the user. For example, a user clicks on a link on a website, and the data retrieved comes from a database that a back-end developer coded. Other back-end applications include underlying website architecture and scripting languages. Back-end developers have experience with SQL and Oracle. They incorporate algorithms and cache tools into their code.
Security breaches have become all too common in recent years. Security engineering is a branch of software engineering that focuses on developing security applications that prevent cybersecurity hacks and that keeps a company safe from attacks. Security engineers develop and execute security measures that include developing software, upgrading network firewalls and other protections, training employees to be security aware, and developing and updating security protocols.
Software engineers work to build software applications that play well with others. They design software applications that integrate with multiple systems. Besides software development and coding, software engineers need to understand network protocols, database development, and application coding interfaces. Examples of software integration include linking point-of-sale (POS) systems to inventory management, or linking employee scheduling applications to payroll management.
Software Engineering Resources
Want to know more about what a software engineer is? The following resources may be helpful:
- The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Blog. A collection of cheat sheets, PDFs, and papers on software engineering processes and terms of art.
- Software Engineering Daily. Daily web magazine with articles for software engineers at all levels of their professional development.
- Geekflare. Website for software engineers and developers, with articles on various topics.
Computer Engineering vs. Software Engineering Salary
The median annual salaries for computer engineers and software engineers are over $100,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Compensation varies based on geographic location and cost of living in a specific region, years of experience, and education. Although a bachelor’s degree is sufficient, employees with a master’s degree in either software engineering or computer engineering can command higher salaries. Some employers prefer a master’s degree.
Computer Engineering Salary and Job Outlook
Computer engineers earned a median annual salary of $119,560 as of May 2020, according to the BLS. Expansion of computer engineering positions in the U.S. is fairly low, with just 2% growth projected between 2020 and 2030; however, a number of openings are expected each year as workers retire or transfer to different roles. Employers include computer systems design manufacturers, semiconductor and electronic components manufacturers, and research laboratories.
Software Engineering Salary and Job Outlook
Software engineers earned a median annual salary of $110,140 as of May 2020, according to the BLS. The BLS estimates positions for software engineers to grow by 22% between 2020 and 2030, much higher than for computer engineers. The largest employers of software developers are computer systems design manufacturers, the general manufacturing sector, and software publishers. Insurance companies are also large employers of software engineers.
States with Highest Employment for Computer and Software Engineers
In regions with strong technology sectors, computer engineers and software engineers are in high demand. These regions may include an entire state or a metropolitan area. However, even states or regions with smaller tech hubs have opportunities for computer engineers and software engineers.
Computer Engineers: Top States and Cities for Employment
California, Texas, and Colorado are the states with the highest levels of employment for computer engineers. The cities with the highest levels of employment for computer engineers are San Jose, California; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles. Other cities with high levels of employment for computer engineers include San Francisco, Dallas, and Boston. The cities with the highest annual wages are San Jose; Seattle, Washington; and Boston.
Software Engineers: Top States and Cities for Employment
California and Texas lead the nation in the highest number of software jobs. The cities with the highest levels of employment for software professionals are the metropolitan areas of New York City, Seattle, and San Jose. Other metropolitan areas that employ many software professionals are Washington, D.C.; Boston; and Dallas. The cities with the highest annual wages are San Jose, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Computer Engineering vs. Software Engineering: Which One Is Right for You?
Employers in all sectors, including government, manufacturing, and healthcare, have more complex computing needs than ever. They need more powerful computers and sophisticated software to run them. As a result, the demand for computer engineering and software engineering professionals is growing. How do you decide which one is the right fit?
While key differences between computer engineering and software engineering exist, both disciplines are helping to design our future. Computer engineers are spearheading research into making computers that can run operations at speeds and with computing power that were unimaginable just 20 years ago. Software engineers are teaching computers to think for themselves and to analyze data in thousands of gigabytes.
Whether choosing computer engineering or software engineering, however, these professionals do what engineers have always done — solve problems with math and science.