A Guide to Hardware Engineering vs. Software Engineering

A Guide to Hardware Engineering vs. Software Engineering was originally posted on Indeed

Sarah, a software engineer, shows you a day in the life of a remote software engineer including work hours, work environment and job duties.

Hardware and software engineering are two important information technology (IT) fields that involve working with computers. Hardware engineering focuses on computer hardware components, while software engineering focuses on programs and applications. Understanding the difference between these two fields can help you determine which one you want to implement in your future career.

In this article, we discuss the differences between hardware and software engineering so you can better understand which is right for you to pursue.

What is hardware engineering?

Hardware engineering is the field of designing, developing, testing and producing physical computer systems. Hardware engineers are typically detail-oriented and have extensive knowledge about all physical components of a computer system. Some typical duties that professionals perform in the hardware engineering field include:

  • Creating models and prototypes of new systems
  • Helping a company or organization update and repair computer systems
  • Assembling and testing computer parts like circuit boards, chips and processors
  • Presenting and explaining prototypes to managers, clients and fellow employees
  • Working in a lab to run tests and analyze data
  • Evaluating user needs and making relevant recommendations
  • Troubleshooting processes related to computer hardware functionality
  • Monitoring the production, installation and manufacturing of computer hardware systems

Read more: What Do Computer Hardware Engineers Do? (Plus Job Outlook and How To Become One)

What is software engineering?

Software engineering is designing, developing and testing computer software programs such as online games, applications, network control systems and operating systems. Software engineers typically work in teams to build and troubleshoot computer programs, often using their creative and analytical skills. Some typical duties that professionals perform in the software engineering field include:

  • Testing and monitoring a software program’s performance
  • Updating existing software systems
  • Researching to develop more user-friendly programs
  • Overseeing the implementation of new software systems
  • Training new users and explaining how to operate software
  • Collaborating with other software engineers and developers
  • Drawing and outlining software diagrams and models for developers to code
  • Collecting and analyzing data to track software performance and plan for future updates

Read more: Learn About Being a Software Engineer

Hardware versus software engineering

Hardware and software engineering involve working closely with computers to design, maintain and develop operating systems. Despite this similarity, the two fields have key differences, such as:

Scope of work

Hardware and software engineering job duties require extensive computer knowledge and experience, but their scope of work differs greatly. For example, consider a video game player. The results of hardware engineering provide them with the physical equipment they need to view their games and execute commands, like their computer’s graphics processing unit and central processing unit. The results of software engineering provide them with the components, like the code for an application, they need to actually play their games.

Work environment

Most hardware engineers work in labs or manufacturing plants to develop, produce and troubleshoot computer parts such as circuit boards, hard drives and central processing units. They typically work in testing areas of production lines. Hardware engineers may also travel to various businesses to assist with hardware installation and maintenance. Software engineers typically work in offices and spend most of their time designing and developing computer programs’ virtual and interactive aspects. Software engineers tend to work in offices with the screen as the main focus.


Hardware and software engineers both need strong problem-solving, critical thinking and operations analysis skills to excel in their fields. Despite these similarities, each field requires specific skill sets to succeed. For example, hardware engineers need to know math, physics and mechanical principles. Those who work in software engineering may benefit from knowing coding languages and visual design. They also tend to have strong customer service and empathy skills, as their job is to create user-friendly programs.


While it’s possible to enter the fields of hardware and software engineering without a college degree, many professionals in both fields have at least a bachelor’s degree. Common fields of study for hardware engineers include computer engineering and computer science. Aspiring software engineers may earn a degree in mathematics or software engineering. Employers also may seek out computer engineers with master’s degrees, internship experience and additional training certifications to find the most qualified and knowledgeable candidates. Both hardware and software engineers need to be extremely comfortable with computer operations to be successful in the industry.

Related: 17 Jobs That Require a Degree in Computer Engineering


Both hardware and software engineering job duties require extensive knowledge of computers, technology, electronics and mathematics. Employers typically require software engineers to know about customer service processes, sales, marketing and design. While both jobs focus on computer operations, software engineers are typically more creative, solution-oriented and flexible in their day-to-day work environments.


Since hardware and software engineering jobs require higher education and specific skill sets, employers in all industries that use computers usually compensate them well for their work. Both hardware and software engineers earn around the same amount annually. Hardware engineers may earn a little more, averaging around $97,567 per year, while software engineers earn about $93,820 per year. There are many opportunities for higher pay, especially if you pursue qualifying certifications or enter a managerial position.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click the links provided.

Related: 10 of the Highest-Paying Engineering Jobs (With Salary Info)


Certain personality traits, also known as soft skills, can help hardware and software engineers excel at their jobs. For example, hardware engineers are typically independent, confident, innovative and detail-oriented. Software engineers are usually creative, collaborative, dependable, and possess natural leadership capabilities. Hardware engineering can require more patience, awareness and innovation because the physical components of computer operating systems tend to take much longer to test, update and install. Certain tools and resources software engineers need aren’t always readily available and can be expensive, making this job slightly more time-consuming than tasks that software engineers complete.

Careers that relate to hardware and software engineering

Many professionals find satisfying careers working in hardware or software engineering. If you have a desire to work with computers but want to explore alternative career options, there are several jobs in the IT industry that require similar skills and abilities. For example, if you’re interested in computer hardware development, think about becoming an electrical engineer. Both of these jobs are interactive. If you’re interested in the virtual design aspects of software engineering, you may consider becoming a software developer, game designer or web developer.

By Center for Cooperative Education and Career Development
Center for Cooperative Education and Career Development