How to Become a Firmware Engineer: Putting the Smarts in Our Devices
March 18, 2021
Love solving logic puzzles with tight constraints? Enjoy teasing apart the components of computers and other electronic devices? Think about putting the "smart" in smart devices as a firmware engineer.
The distinction between software and hardware—software is a set of code (i.e., instructions) that tells hardware what to do, hardware is the physical device on which the software runs—is commonly understood, even by laymen. Firmware is another story. Asked to define the term, most laymen scratch their heads, then run swiftly away.
So, for the record: firmware is specialized software that's not meant to be changed or updated often, if ever. You'll find firmware in a garage-door remote, your PS4 controller, smart bulbs, even a car's anti-lock braking system. All the individual components that make up a computer—hard drive, audio card, motherboard, etc.—require firmware to operate.
Firmware engineers bring together the detailed craftsmanship of electrical engineering with the language and logic skills of a software developer. They're as comfortable wielding an oscilloscope as they are writing and debugging new programs. If this mix sounds appealing, perhaps becoming a firmware engineer is in your future.
In this article, we'll cover:
- What does a firmware engineer do?
- Top skills for a firmware engineer
- Education needed to become a firmware engineer
- Career path for a firmware engineer
- Should I become a firmware engineer?
What does a firmware engineer do?
Firmware engineers write the algorithms (the "rules") that tell a device how to behave. When you hit the keys on your keyboard, it's firmware that tells the device how to interpret your physical actions and convert them into a signal your computer can understand.
What is it like to be a firmware engineer?
The day-to-day life of a firmware engineer varies depending on the industry they find themselves in. Some firmware engineers spend most of their time in the lab, writing and testing new firmware with a relative minimum of customer interaction. Others spend much of their time traveling to interact with customers in support of prototype devices. That said, the duties and responsibilities of a firmware engineer typically include:
- Evaluating a project's firmware needs through client and team meetings
- Designing a firmware solution to meet project needs
- Developing and implementing new firmware (i.e., programming)
- Debugging firmware to ensure it functions properly
- Evaluating performance and troubleshooting as needed
- Incorporating client feedback into firmware revisions
- Managing budgetary and time constraints
- Keeping abreast of technological developments and industry best practices
Firmware engineer vs. embedded software engineer vs. embedded engineer
You may have come across job listings for embedded software engineers or embedded engineers. Today, the terms "embedded software" and "firmware" are often used interchangeably, and the distinction seems likely to continue eroding in the future. This is because technological advancements have made it easier than ever to embed sophisticated software with high-level functionality and ease of adjustment far beyond what would traditionally be considered firmware. Although "firmware engineer" is a slightly more specialized role with some technical distinction, you can safely treat it as a synonym for "embedded software engineer" for our purposes.
Top skills for a firmware engineer
Firmware engineers work on both hardware and software. They need proficiency in both domains.
What skills are required in a firmware engineer?
- Programming in C or C++: This is the bedrock of firmware engineering, and mastering these programming languages is essential. Excellent debugging skills are also indispensable; the processes of testing firmware is often the most time-consuming and challenging part of development.
- Hardware expertise: Whatever device you're working on, you need to understand it down to the level of individual components. This is partly because you'll need to do work at that level, but also because you'll need to communicate effectively with dedicated hardware engineers.
- Communication: Because firmware engineers frequently find themselves working with dedicated specialists on either side of the hardware/software divide, strong communication skills are a significant asset.
If you're interested in being an independent contractor (freelancer), you'll also need strong self-marketing skills and a familiarity with the basics of running a small business.
How can you develop the skills required for firmware engineering?
The fundamental skills of firmware engineering are most easily obtained through an undergraduate education in computer engineering or related degrees—more on that in the next section. You can get started developing the programming skills that underpin everything a firmware engineer does via any number of "learn to code" websites and apps.
Once you've acquired the basics, you can strengthen your résumé as a firmware engineer by seeking further education and training. A master's degree in computer science is one option, as are firmware engineering internships. Potential employers should find both very appealing.
Education needed to become a firmware engineer
How long does it take to become a firmware engineer?
The time needed to get your first firmware engineering job is contingent mostly on whether you decide to pursue a master's degree. Because bachelor's degrees are all but standard requirements for entry-level firmware engineering jobs, the fastest way to become a firmware engineer is through a four-year degree program. If you decide to pursue a master's degree (more on that below), you can expect to add another one or two years before entering the workforce.
What should you study to become a firmware engineer?
Unfortunately, dedicated firmware engineering degrees aren't available. The website Embedded does offer a hypothetical curriculum for firmware engineers. Some of the key course subjects identified include:
- C and C++ programming
- Circuit analysis
- Computer architecture
- Real-time operating systems
Of the widely available degree options, computer engineering degrees integrate computer science and electrical engineering, making them an excellent foundation for aspiring firmware engineers. Standard computer science degrees and electrical engineering degrees are also perfectly viable, and the option is always available to minor in whichever of the two you don't choose.
What is the highest level of education required to become a firmware engineer?
A bachelor's degree is sufficient to get started in the field. A master's is not necessary (you can read more about the pros and cons of a master's in computer science here). Still, if you can afford one, in terms of time and money, they're an excellent way to make your résumé stand out and can boost your earning potential.
Career path for a firmware engineer
Once you have a degree in hand, you can begin looking for work as a firmware engineer. Although no internships are required to become a firmware engineer, they're an effective way to break into the field. Entry-level firmware engineering jobs that accept recent graduates exist, but it can be challenging to find work in this specialization without a little real-world experience under your belt. If you've been trying to break into the field and aren't having much luck, look for a firmware engineering internship.
What is the typical career path of a firmware engineer?
Some people dive straight into firmware engineering as soon as they graduate, but just as many get started in less-specialized fields. Spending a few years in different computer science or engineering fields can help you develop the skills and professional contacts to transition smoothly to a role in firmware engineering. Some jobs to consider:
- Software engineer
- Back-end web developer
- Hardware engineer
Any position that lets you develop either your programming or electrical engineering skills is a solid bet.
What jobs can I get with firmware engineering experience?
It's possible to stay a firmware engineer for your entire career, advancing to more senior iterations of the role and taking on increasingly challenging projects with corresponding increases in pay.
If you seek out positions with increasing responsibility and demonstrate strong management and communications skills, it may also be a stepping stone toward a chief information officer (CIO) or chief technology officer (CTO) position. The deep technical knowledge needed to become a firmware engineer can be a valuable asset. Even so, if your dream is a high-level executive position, you will also need to develop your business and communications skills. As one software engineer put it: computers are easy, people are hard.
Should you become a firmware engineer?
If you know you want to pursue a career working with computers and other electronic devices—and you're not put off by its specialized and highly technical nature—there are several compelling reasons to consider a career in firmware engineering. These include excellent pay and promising industry prospects.
How much do firmware engineers make?
Glassdoor.com puts the average base pay of firmware engineers at right about $110,000. Entry-level positions with a minimum of experience start out around $84,000 and senior positions reach a maximum of $155,000. As points of comparison in tech jobs: web designers make around $56,000 and chief technology officers average $156,000.
What's the future look like for firmware engineering?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics puts the projected rate of growth in software developer jobs (of which firmware engineering is a subtype) at an impressive 21 percent—"much faster than average," by the BLS' estimation. Our world is becoming more technologically driven, not less, and just about every device will need firmware of some kind. It's also worth noting that developing the skills required to be a successful firmware engineer will position you well to pivot (it's only a slight pivot) into computer hardware engineering or higher-level software development.
During your own research, you may run into the occasional article proclaiming firmware is dead. Don't let that dissuade you from pursuing this career. As alluded to earlier in this article, the term "firmware" may be falling out of favor as the line between firm- and software continues to blur. However, individuals with a mix of electrical engineering and programming skills needed to design and implement embedded software effectively will be in high demand for as long as we continue to rely on electronic devices. After all, someone has to put the smarts our smart devices.
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