Firmware Design Engineer Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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A firmware design engineer's median annual salary can be as high as $103,000, but is it worth the long hours? Read real job descriptions and see the truth about career prospects to decide if becoming a firmware design engineer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Working as a Firmware Design Engineer

Firmware design engineers are responsible for designing and implementing software that's embedded into tiny memory chips on computer hardware. If you think a career in firmware design might be a good choice for you, take a look at the pros and cons to help you decide.

Pros of a Firmware Design Engineer Career
High median annual salary (about $103,000 in 2014 for all software developers of systems software)*
Very fast rate of growth over the next decade (22% between 2012 and 2022 for all software developers)*
Only a bachelor's degree needed to get a job*
Companies might offer continuing education opportunities*

Cons of a Firmware Design Engineer Career
Long hours are often required*
Susceptible to eye strain, hand and wrist pain*
Night shift and weekend and holiday work is sometimes necessary to make deadlines*
Some firms may outsource jobs in this field internationally*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job Duties and Career Information

Firmware design engineers are hired to design and implement software programs embedded onto chips on pieces of computer hardware. This software ensures that the hardware will work with specific computer operating systems and perform its functions correctly. These engineers also design device drivers, communication protocols and device system integration. Most engineers have a background in computer programming and are expected to know how to write code in addition to designing the software itself. This can be a high-stress, deadline-oriented job.

Career Path and Education

Most software engineers and developers obtain a bachelor's degree in computer science or software engineering, although you can also break in with an electrical engineering degree. Many also have a background in mathematics or computer programming. Typically, prospective firmware design engineers and developers can obtain entry-level work after completing their bachelor's degree. Staying current with technological developments and new types of computer peripherals and hardware is an essential part of the job. Because of this, it's a good idea to seek out opportunities for on-the-job training and continuing education. Some employers may prefer candidates with a master's degree in electrical engineering.

Job Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), software engineers, also known as software developers, are expected to experience a 22% increase in employment growth between 2012 and 2022. This growth is predicted due to the development of new devices - especially mobile devices, rapidly changing technology in fields like healthcare and concerns about network security. The BLS reported that in May 2014, applications software developers earned a median annual salary of approximately $96,000, while systems software developers earned about $103,000 in the same year.

What Are the Requirements?

In addition to a bachelor's degree, there are a handful of skills that employers look for when they hire firmware design engineers. Most companies prefer engineers that can learn quickly and apply their technical skills to new forms of technology and concepts. They look for engineers that are critical thinkers, exhibit creativity and are able to work in a team setting as well as individually. Companies are also interested in finding engineers that can maintain forward motion on multiple parts of the same project and have strong written and verbal communication skills.

Real Job Listings

Once you begin looking for jobs, you will find that most employers are looking for engineers with programming skills and some industry experience. They are also looking for engineers with a diverse set of technical skills and technical experience in line with their area of business, in areas like digital communication, protocol design and interfacing with hardware. The following available jobs were posted in April 2012:

  • A software design firm in San Jose is interested in hiring a senior firmware design engineer. The preferred candidate will have five years' experience, a background with microcontrollers and microprocessors and knowledge of Linux and C++ programming languages.
  • A New Jersey company that specializes in developing scientific instrumentation is seeking a hardware and firmware design engineer. The company would like to hire an engineer with a bachelor's degree in computer science or electrical engineering. Additionally, the successful candidate should have at least five years of professional experience and the ability to work effectively in a team environment.
  • A North Carolina-based company is looking to hire a firmware design engineer to design, analyze and prototype new products. The company prefers an engineer that holds a bachelor's degree or master's degree in electrical engineering and has four years of professional experience. The company also prefers a candidate with experience in the C programming language, specialized microcontrollers, linear motion control systems, asynchronous communication firmware and writing PC-based test code.

How to Stand Out in the Field

In addition to a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field, firmware design engineers can find other ways to distinguish themselves in the field. Many employers prefer to hire candidates with experience. An internship can provide you with the opportunity to develop hands-on skills. Gaining knowledge of the field you're interested in working in can also be to your advantage; employers of firmware design engineers might develop materials across industries or specialize in pharmaceuticals, telecommunications or security, for example. Some software manufacturers, like Microsoft, offer certification options for developers that work on their operating system. Obtaining certification may also help employers make their decision in a large pool of job candidates.

Career Alternatives

Computer Programmer

If you'd rather have a job that encompasses a diversity of software programs, you might be interested in becoming a computer programmer, which typically requires a bachelor's degree in computer science, although you might be able to land a job with just an associate's degree, according to the BLS. Computer programmers take ideas from software designers and others and write a series of instructions using a specialty computer language that tells the machine what to do. The BLS expected the employment rate in this field to grow by 12% between 2010 and 2020. The BLS also reported that programmers earned a median annual salary of $71,000 in May of 2010.

Computer Hardware Engineer

If computer hardware is where your interests lay, you could use your bachelor's degree in computer engineering to get a job as a computer hardware engineer. You could work for manufacturers, computer system designers or the federal government, designing, testing and installing parts of a computer that make it work, like routers and circuit boards. The pay is a little higher than that of firmware design engineers; however, the growth rate for the field is slower. The BLS reported that hardware engineers earned a median annual salary of about $99,000 in May of 2010. The BLS also projected that this field might grow by 9% between 2010 and 2020, a slower than average rate.

Computer and Information Systems Manager

If big picture thinking about computers and technology is more your speed, you might want to be a computer and information systems manager - the pay is higher but you'll need a lot of work experience and sometimes a graduate degree. In this role, you would establish computing needs and goals for your organization, develop a plan for implementation, and guide projects to completion. You might evaluate vendors for new computer or information systems hardware and software, direct the work of an information technology team that includes systems and security analysts and computer support specialists, and oversee information security.

You will need a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field and several years of related work experience to obtain this job, although some employers prefer a graduate degree like a Master of Business Administration (MBA). The BLS projected that employment in this field will grow 18% between 2010 and 2020, considered an average rate. The agency also noted that in May 2010, computer and information systems managers earned a median annual salary of around $116,000.

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Universal Technical Institute

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