“Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?”
This siren song of the traditional IT fix-it guy lives on in the form of the professional modern hardware engineer.
No matter how virtual our systems are, how great Kubernetes is, and how many cloud or colocation options a company has, enterprise still needs people to work with hardware systems.
We have not yet found a way to disembody the servers and workstations and other components of our networks entirely.
Hardware engineers are the modern version of the gentlemen or ladies who used to come in and provision our physical workstations, setting up rudimentary security and productivity systems.
Now, however, hardware engineers have more complicated roles to play. They need to understand how physical systems are provisioned, but they also need to have an inkling of the return on investment that each option provides and be able to describe technical architectures to stakeholders. (For a look at another career option, check out Job Role: Software Engineer.)
Designing the Future
One essential role of the hardware engineer is to create custom hardware to specifications.
Hardware engineers may often be involved in crafting specific components, microchips, circuit boards and other elements of a working functional design. Design and test processes will be part of the professional’s lexicon.
In addition to creating these systems, hardware engineers need to deploy them. They will often be the go-to persons for understanding how to set up the hardware to make it work well – whether that be in a cooled and lint-free server room or a rugged environment.
Working with People
“You don’t understand! I have people skills! I’m good with people!”
You may hear a hapless hardware engineer yelling this as he or she walks down the hall with boxes full of personal possessions. Actually, this is a big component of what hardware engineers do.
“Hardware engineers are responsible for researching, planning, designing, testing and developing the functionality of computers systems,” says Tim Hordo, founder of Academic Invest, a site that helps upwards of 30,000 students per month determine what they can do with their degrees. He continues:
This involves planning, developing and testing components such as circuit cards, memory chips, routers, networks and keyboards. … It’s also important that they confer with marketing and sales departments regarding product specifications and features, and always maintain knowledge of computer engineering trends and emerging technology.
Again, here, hardware engineers are responsible for knowing about the context of their work. They’re even more valuable to employers if they can help translate those realities to other departments that may not be as tech-savvy. Marketing and sales departments want to sell — they don’t necessarily have the technical expertise that hardware engineers do. So as effective communicators, hardware engineers can tell the story of the physical infrastructure and help streamline success.
Working Up the Ladder
The hardware engineer job position is also a role that can work in enterprise at various levels.
There’s the entry-level hardware engineer, and then there’s the career arc that may bring the hardware engineer closer to top-level systems, and bring with it a bigger salary and better perks.
The entry-level hardware engineer may have sporadic hours, lower pay and more routine job duties involving running cable or hooking up systems. Sometimes these job roles tend to look like that old “traditional IT guy job” that is fairly basic and doesn’t require a lot of in-depth knowledge.
But as individuals invest in their careers, they often graduate to other jobs that are more sophisticated and more stable.
“A typical promotion path involves moving up to a job with less physical labor and more dependable hours such as the job of a support engineer who works at a helpdesk or a systems engineer who monitors and maintains software and operating systems for an IT environment,” says Taylor Toce, president & CEO of Velo IT Group, describing how this kind of upward mobility works.
As they gain skills and experience, hardware engineers can actually get closer to some of the more innovative parts of the IT world. As we progress through the age of the internet of things, experiment with machine learning and artificial intelligence, and innovate in enterprise, hardware engineers may be at the forefront in their own ways. (For more on IoT, see 6 Tips for Securing an IoT Device.)
For instance, check out how ComputerScience.org describes some kinds of hardware engineer work:
Most hardware engineers work for computer companies and component manufacturers. Some work for research organizations or government employers, as well. For the most part, these professionals work full-time with typical office hours. In this era of quick computer advancement, hardware engineers enjoy opportunities to work on exciting emerging technology.
Knowing about some of the variation in hardware engineering roles can help to make these jobs more attractive for young career professionals. Sure, it may sound more exciting to have a job title like “IoT solutions architect” or “artificial intelligence wizard” — but hardware engineers can hold their own heads up in the computer science world, and be proud of the work that they do.