Computer hardware engineers design, build, and test computer hardware (such as computer chips and circuit boards) and computer systems. They also work with peripheral devices such as printers, scanners, modems, and monitors, among others. Hardware engineers are employed by a variety of companies, some of which specialize in business, accounting, science, or engineering. Most hardware engineers have a degree in computer science or engineering or equivalent computer background. There are approximately 77,000 computer hardware engineers employed in the United States.
Hardware Engineers Job Description
Computer hardware engineers work with the physical parts of computers, such as CPUs (computer processing units), motherboards, chipsets, video cards, cooling units, magnetic tape, disk drives, storage devices, network cards, and all the components that connect them, down to wires, nuts, and bolts.
Hardware engineers design parts and create prototypes to test, using CAD/CAM technology to make schematic drawings. They assemble the parts using fine hand tools, soldering irons, and microscopes. Parts are reworked and developed through multiple testing procedures. Once a final design is completed, hardware engineers oversee the manufacture and installation of parts.
Computer hardware engineers also work on peripherals, such as keyboards, printers, monitors, mice, track balls, modems, scanners, external storage devices, speaker systems, and digital cameras.
Some hardware engineers are involved in maintenance and repair of computers, networks, and peripherals. They troubleshoot problems, order or make new parts, and install them. Calvin Prior is a network systems administrator for TASC, a nonprofit social service agency headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. He is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a state-wide network of over 300 servers. Prior starts work early; most mornings he’s at his desk by 7:30 a.m. His first task of the day is making sure the network files from the previous day backed up successfully. Then he checks for email and voice mail messages and promptly responds to urgent problems.
Daily meetings are held to keep informed on department business. “It’s very short and informal,” says Prior. “We discuss urgent business or upcoming projects and schedules.” The rest of the morning is spent working on various projects, troubleshooting systems, or phone work with TASC’s remote offices. After a quick lunch break and if no network breakdowns or glitches occur, Prior usually spends his afternoons researching hardware products or responding to user requests. Since computer technology changes so rapidly, it is important to keep up with the development of new parts and the procedures for incorporating them into older systems as soon as they become available.
The workload changes daily, leaving some days more hectic than others. “It’s important to be flexible,” says Prior. “And be good at multitasking.” If a major problem cannot be solved over the phone, Prior must travel to the source. Solutions are not always simple; some require changing hardware or redesigning the system. Prior often upgrades or reworks systems in the early morning, late at night, or on weekends to minimize the disruption of work. Major network problems require a complete shutdown of the entire system. “The fewer servers on the network, the better,” he says.
Engineering professionals like Prior must be familiar with different network systems such as local area networks (LAN), wide area networks (WAN), among others, as well as programming languages suited to their company’s needs. Many work as part of a team of specialists who use elements of science, math, and electronics to improve existing technology or implement solutions.
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