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You are probably familiar with the terms computer hardware engineer and computer software engineer, but what, if any, are the main differences between them? Let's find out.
What is computer hardware?
Computer hardware is a term that refers to the physical elements, machinery, or equipment of any computer. Better-known examples include the keyboard, the monitor, the mouse, or the hidden gubbins like the central processing unit (CPU), or hard drive.
While you are probably more than familiar with using many of the hardware components mentioned above, the vast majority of any computer's physical bits are out of sight, and usually out of mind, safely tucked away within the casing.
Of these bits, the most important component is called the motherboard. This piece of hardware is actually a collection of even smaller parts that effectively power and control the entire machine.
So, hardware, on the whole, is distinctly different from software, as you are about to find out. That being said, neither one can work in the way you expect a computer to work without the other. Without the software, many parts of the hardware would be effectively useless.
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However, the software would not be able to perform any of the clever tasks it does without the hardware that makes up the CPU. They are, in effect, completely interdependent on one another.
What are the 10 major hardware components of a computer system?
While we have already mentioned some of the most crucial hardware pieces of a computer, there are some other vital components to any modern computer.
They are as follows:
- Motherboard - The heart of the computer, the motherboard holds all the main components of the machine together on one printed circuit board. It will generally house the CPU, hard drive, transistors, RAM memory and expansion slots, PCI slots, and USB ports, etc. If you are familiar with Arduino or Raspberry Pi boards, these are effectively mini motherboards.
- CPU - The Central processing unit, or CPU, acts as the brain of the computer. This is part of the machine that actually does the active "running" of any code, manipulates data, etc. When people refer to computers adding X numbers, a billion times a second, that is the CPU doing that stuff.
- GPU - Graphics processing units are much like CPUs, with the exception that they tend to specialize in handling images and graphics. While not essential for most average computer users, gamers, and professionals like graphic artists understand the difference they make to the performance of a computer for their needs.
- Main memory (RAM) - Random Access Memory (RAM) is the computer's notepad or whiteboard. It is essentially used to store code and data that are being actively used during computations. It is fast and able to retrieve the value of any particular byte within nanoseconds. However, this data is only stored as long as the hardware dedicated to it is supplied with power. Once the power is turned off, this data is completely erased.
- Persistent memory storage/hard drive/flash drive - Hard drives, or persistent storage, is the bit of the computer that saves data (like files, photos, videos, etc) for extended periods of time, even when no power is supplied. It can come in the form of older spinning magnetic disks or newer solid-state hard drives or "flash" type storage devices.
- Expansion cards/slots - While less important for laptops, expansion cards are another essential component of desktop computers. They enable the computer to be upgraded with expanded functionality over time. Expansion cards are added to the motherboard.
- Power supply unit/battery - A computer is simply an expensive piece of desk furniture if it cannot get power. This is where the power supply unit is a vital piece of kit for any computer. This device converts AC to low-voltage regulated DC power for the internal components of the computer.
- Keyboard - The keyboard is an essential user interface device to enter characters, and other functions, into the computer system. It is the primary device humans enter text and numerals, into the computer system.
- The mouse or touchpad - Like the keyboard, peripherals like a mouse or touchpad, are essential for humans to be able to interact with a computer. While cursor keys on a keyboard can be used to some extent for this purpose, the mouse has revolutionized the way we use computers since its invention.
- Monitor - The monitor, while not necessarily essential for the computer itself to run, it is for the user. Without it, most computer users would have a hard time using the machine for all the amazing tasks a general-use computer can perform.
What is computer software?
Computer software, in contrast to computer hardware, is all the digital instructions that tell the hardware of the computer how to perform a task. Also known as programs or applications. software is produced by a software developer in a form that will be accepted, or understood, by the entire platform (software operating system and hardware CPU).
Software developed for Windows, for example, will only usually work on that OS. This is called compatibility, and cross-platform software instructions are usually tweaked to provide the same, or similar, function on a variety of operating systems.
Software is usually capable of performing many tasks at any one time, while the hardware can usually only perform the physical tasks they were designed for. In this sense, the software can perform many tasks with the same basic hardware.
The software usually comes in two, well three, main types:
- System software - This software forms the key core functions of a computer that help run both the hardware and any other software installed on it. This will include things like the main operating system, device drivers, diagnostic tools, etc. This kind of software is usually installed and shipped with the physical computer itself.
- Application software - This kind of software is usually the kind that allows users to accomplish one or more different tasks using the computer that is not required to run the machine itself. Examples usually include things like word processors, web browsers, computer games, and any other task you install software to do. Some of these may also be pre-installed on the computer prior to supplying it to the customer.
- Network software - While not necessarily a completely separate entity, network software performs tasks different enough to the other two to justify having its own class. This kind of software helps coordinate communication between different computers that are linked in a network. Examples would include network data-access management, messaging, emails, firewalls, APIs, teleconferencing, and video conferencing apps, and security-type software, to name but a few.
Software is generally written or created, in a high-level programming language that is, more or less, readable by human beings. These human-readable instructions are then converted by the software into "machine language" instructions represented in binary code.
This conversion is essential in order for the computer's hardware to be able to "run the code".
What is a computer hardware engineer?
By now, we hope you have gained an appreciation of the essential elements of a computer and the difference between hardware and software. With that in mind, you may be able to develop a surface level understanding of what a hardware engineer might actually do for a living.
These are the people who, effectively, help accelerate or develop new computer technology and refine existing hardware solutions. Hardware engineers develop things like circuit boards, routers, processes, and memory devices, among other things.
Their duties include to name but a few (courtesy of careerexplorer.com):
- Designing computer hardware.
- Creating blueprints.
- Testing models of computer hardware.
- Analyzing test results.
- Modifying designs.
- Updating existing computer equipment.
- Working with software engineers.
- Overseeing the manufacturing process.
Computer hardware engineers also identify potential problems with hardware and develop/test possible solutions to any problems they may discover. While their field is very different from that of software engineers, they do often work very closely with them since both have vested interests in each other's products.
Computer hardware engineers also develop tech for non-computer devices like car parts, medical devices, and network hardware devices, especially related to telecoms infrastructure.
What is a computer hardware engineer's salary?
With our ever interconnected and technologically dependant world, it will come as no surprise to you that hardware engineers are not only in demand but also well renumerated for the labor.
According to the United States Bureau of National Statistics (BLS), the median salary for hardware engineers is currently $117,000 per annum. They also tend to attract an hourly rate of around $56 per hour.
According to other sources (at the time of writing), like PayScale, expected salaries in the United States vary widely depending on your experience and work history. An entry-level hardware engineer can expect to be paid around $77.5K a year, while mid-career engineers (5-9 years experience) should be able to net a salary of closer to $98,000.
The highest earners in the field tend to earn in excess of $124,500 a year with more than 20+ years of experience. Not short change!
What is a computer software engineer?
Without going into too much detail, every time you fire up your computer, open an app on your computer, visit a webpage or use a web-based app, you are, in effect, using the products of the labor of software engineers.
These chaps are computer science professionals who use knowledge of engineering principles and programming languages to build software products like apps, operating systems, develop computer games, and run network control systems, etc.
While their daily tasks vary widely, software engineers design many of the apps and programs we use on a daily basis both online and offline.
But, they also do much more than that. Software engineers also analyze user needs, provide consultation services to discuss design elements, and coordinate software installation.
Most of their duties tend to revolve around one, or more, of the following (courtesy of the BLS):
- Analyze users’ needs and then design, test, and develop software to meet those needs.
- Recommend software upgrades for customers’ existing programs and systems.
- Design each piece of an application or system and plan how the pieces will work together.
- Create a variety of models and diagrams (such as flowcharts) that show programmers the software code needed for an application.
- Ensure that a program continues to function normally through software maintenance and testing.
- Document every aspect of an application or system as a reference for future maintenance and upgrades.
- Collaborate with other computer specialists to create optimum software.
To do this effectively, most computer software professionals have to consider mathematical models and use scientific analysis to assess the needs and outcomes of any project.
Most software engineers will need to develop a combination of hard and soft skills to get the job done. The former will usually comprise of working knowledge of various programming languages like Java, SQL, and Python.
They will also need to garner a deep understanding of the operating systems they use for developing software and apply engineering principles to complete a project.
Important soft skills that software computer engineers need to develop include, but are not limited to:
- Communication - This soft skill is essential when working in teams or reporting to management. They will also need to be able to break down complex subjects when talking to non-professionals like clients, etc.
- Multi-tasking - Software development tends to require engineers to split their attention across different modules within the same project. This is especially true for senior project management engineers. Engineers will need to be able to easily switch gears between projects when working to a deadline or meeting a team's needs.
- Organization - In order to effectively handle multiple projects at various stages of development, software engineers also need to be exceptionally well organized. The bigger the project, or the more complex it is, the more organization will be needed by engineers on the team.
- Attention to detail - Software engineers need to also have a keen eye for detail. They must troubleshoot coding issues and bugs whenever they arise, and keep track of a host of complex details surrounding multiple ongoing projects.
What is a computer hardware engineer's salary?
You will not be surprised to learn that the demand for software engineers has continued to grow over the years. If fact, according to the BLS, job growth in this sector is expected to increase by 21% by 2028.
According to the US Department of Labor, there were well over 1 million people employed as software developers in 2019. With regards to pay, according to the BLS, the median pay in 2018 for software developers was just over $105,500 a year, or $50.77 an hour.
PayScale also breaks this figure down into different income estimates based on an engineer's experience in the industry. An entry-level graduate can expect a basic salary of around $75,400 a year.
Mid-career professionals (5-9 years experience) should expect an income of about $93,000, and highly experienced long-term engineers can see an average compensation of $103,000 a year.
Most computer software engineers will find employment in almost any other industry as more and more organizations develop their IT capabilities. This has led some experts to believe that hundreds of thousands of new computer and IT jobs are set to be created over the next few years.
Not only that but as software engineering by its very nature is innovative, new programming tools of ever-increasing complexity will inevitably be created, needing highly-skilled and knowledgeable professionals to develop them.
In order to become a software engineer, you will usually require a bachelor's degree in a relevant field, like computer science, software engineers, etc. Though there are ways to do it without a formal degree too.
Most degrees of this nature will usually cover a range of topics relating to the profession in preparation for entering the industry.
Many students will also gain valuable real-life experience by tinkering themselves in their free time or entering into an internship with an existing software company while studying.
Some employers may also demand that potential employees also have a master's degree too, but not always.
Software engineers will also need to develop knowledge of a particular industry they may be developing software for too. For example, if they are developing software for a bank, they will need some knowledge of finance in order to fully understand the bank's computing needs.
What are the main differences between software and hardware engineers?
We have already gone into some detail of the differences between hardware and software, as well as the roles of engineers that work on them. For this reason, you probably have an idea in your mind just exactly what the differences between the two actually are.
However, the difference between the two is important to know if you want to pursue a career in either field.
In essence, the main difference between the two is the fact that hardware engineers work on developing the physical bits of a computer, and its peripherals. Software engineers, on the other, hand, use the products of hardware engineer's labor to design and implement new software.
But, some of the other main differences include:
- Software engineers tend to have more job opportunities than their compatriots in the hardware engineering industry.
- Salaries can also differ dramatically for hardware engineers when compared to software engineers. They may even differ for hardware and software engineers working in the same domain.
- One of the biggest differences between the two is the expected lifespan of their products. The software can evolve over time after its release through updates, debugging, etc. Hardware, on the other hand, cannot be "updated" as easily once completed and installed. Any upgrades to it, require the physical component to be replaced.
- Hardware engineers tend to be restricted, in part, in their development of better or completely new hardware. They may, for example, have to "make do" with existing standardized parts.
- Specialize hardware components tend to have a much longer lead time than software.
- A lot of the development made by hardware engineers tend to be driven by the system architecture. This architectural work must usually be developed upfront when compared to software engineering, though not always.
- Software development costs tend to be generally flat over time. Hardware development, on the other hand, tends to rise rapidly towards the end of the project.
- Hardware testing tends to require far fewer tests than software projects which can run into thousands of tests over the project's lifecycle.
- Software testing tends to be completed by specialist engineers called Software Quality Assurance (SQA) engineers. Hardware testing, on the other hand, is commonly completed by the same engineers who developed it in the first place.
- Hardware must also be designed and tested to work over a range of time and environmental conditions. This is not necessarily as critical for software.
- Hardware engineering tends to incorporate four parallel synchronized phases, some of which aren't relevant to software engineering. These include the design of the manufacturable product, the actual manufacturing process and tooling, testing and inspection of the equipment, and planning of the supply chain for any purchased components. Any changes to the product mid-development can have catastrophic implications for the project as a whole. This is not as much of an issue for software development as no physical product is actually produced.
Congratulations on making it all the way to the end. We hope you now have an appreciation of the differences between software and hardware, as well as, the engineer's roles who build them.
Are you interested in pursuing a career in either field? If so, we wish you all the best of luck -- it is not going to be an easy journey!