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Hardware Engineering

Hardware engineers are concerned with the design, development and testing or debugging of computer hardware

By the editors of gecc

There's a joke circulating across the Internet that goes: "A software engineer, a hardware engineer, and a departmental manager were driving down a steep mountain road when suddenly the brakes on their car failed. The car careened out of control down the road, bouncing off the mountainside. The car's occupants, shaken but unhurt, discussed what to do next.

The departmental manager said, 'Let's have a meeting, propose a vision, formulate a mission statement, define a set of goals, and by a process of continuous improvement, find a solution to the critical problems, and then we can be on our way.'

'No, no,' said the hardware engineer, 'That will take far too long, and besides, that method has never worked before. I've got my Swiss Army knife with me, and in no time at all I can strip down the car's braking system, isolate the fault, fix it, and we can be on our way.'

'Well,' said the software engineer, 'Before we do anything, I think we should push the car back onto the road and see if it happens again.'"

While that joke may not be particularly flattering to engineers, it does shed some light on the nature of the hardware engineer's function. Generally, they are concerned with the design, development and testing or debugging of computer hardware-the nuts and bolts of a system. As the hardware engineer in the joke displayed, technical professionals in this capacity like to strip a problem down to the wires and fix it fast.

Employers can range from computer manufacturers to universities to any company that uses computer networks. When hiring hardware engineers, all look for qualities such as the ability to ensure hardware reliability, isolate problems quickly and improve the computer development process.

Sound like abilities you possess? If so, you might be interested in this dynamic field, which attracts technical professionals from electrical, systems and programming backgrounds. The day-to-day pace is varied and the challenges are numerous, but for the right candidates, the rewards are no joke.

Name: Bruce Parkes

Title: Electrical Engineer, Sustaining Engineering Dept.
Company: G-Tech Corp., developer of retail, on-line lottery systems
Education: B.S. in Electrical Engineering, University of Rhode Island

Job Description:

  • Point-of-sale terminal design
  • Design of related peripherals

How I Knew Hardware Engineering Was the Field for Me: "I wanted to get into a field that would see technological changes happen often and rapidly. That's what hardware engineering is-seeing technology change day in and day out."

Why I Accepted the Job: "G-Tech's a unique environment in that we do everything from marketing to design to manufacturing to testing all in one facility. To be able to walk onto the manufacturing floor and talk to somebody who's building what you're designing is invaluable. Not every engineer gets that opportunity."

Biggest Problems Encountered: "I'm primarily a problem-solver. Challenges range from software-related interface issues to process problems. I encounter other constraints, too, that are not just design-related. They're marketing, documentation and parts-availability constraints, but I don't see those as a big problem. They're challenges and issues that have to be considered in your design.

"The benefits far outweigh the disadvantages, however. Engineering designers these days have to think more about where the product is being used, who the customer is and how the product is being manufactured. You have to implement design for manufacturing, design for assembly and design for final life."

Non-technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "Communication, communication, communication. All the non-technical aspects relate to that, whether it's writing a spec or writing an email."

Work Environment: "G-Tech is very much team-oriented. Our development process involves a 'development highway,' the process which a design goes through during development. There are certain requirements, or tollgates, along the way that the design has to pass before it progresses to the next stage: what are the design features? does it meet the business plan? is it still needed by the customer?

"The people that control that product along the way are the core team. Each core is cross-disciplinary, involving marketing, manufacturing and design people. The team stays together until the final tollgate, when the first customer shipment goes out."

The Worst Piece of Advice Someone Ever Gave Me: "'Be concerned only with your job.' Although you have to be concerned with doing your job to the best of your ability, taking such a narrow approach prevents good teaming skills. The design you're doing absolutely affects other people downstream. You have to take those people into consideration because in the long run, the customer will pay for those narrow views."

Advice to Future Hardware Engineers: "If I could get across one thing to senior engineering students, it's to communicate and record their designs. Document your designs and how you implement your decisions along the way.

"I've been back to URI since I graduated, and the biggest thing I tell students is to think of other things-constraints, requirements, other people. You can't afford just to design and pass it off. You can't work in a box."

Name: Steve Patton

Title: Systems Engineer
Company: Thompson Technologies
Education: B.S. in Computer Science, McGill University

Job Description: Installation and maintenance of UNIX operating system hardware.

Why I Accepted the Job: "Thompson is an international company with divisions in Canada and Europe, as well as across the States, and that was something I was looking for. I also wanted room for growth and our office, although small, is growing."

Biggest Problems Encountered: "We know right away when something doesn't work, and that raises expectations. There's the anticipation that everything will be functioning 24 hours a day. But Thompson Technologies is a consulting company that serves the other parts of the Thompson corporation, so when the system goes down, it impacts several hundred people."

Non-technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "You have to know how to communicate and deal with people."

What the Future Might Hold: "I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. For now, I'm headed back to school in January for an MBA to complement my technical skills with a business ability. I see business decisions being made that impact me and other people, and I'd like to educate myself to be able to have an active role in making those decisions. It also opens the possibility of becoming a manager one day."

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