As technology improves and businesses depend more upon it, the demand for computer and information technology professionals is set to rise dramatically in coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports demand in this field will rise by 13% from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than the average for all occupations. In total, approximately 557,000 new jobs will be added in this sector in the next several years. Professionals who want to enjoy a great career and salary are commonly attracted to the computer technology field, but should you choose computer engineering or computer science?
Both the computer engineering and computer science fields are becoming more specialized as technology advances. Therefore it is important to completely research any computing degree program so that you are confident that it will provide you with the experience and knowledge you need for your technology career.
Learn more below about these two related but distinct fields so that you can make the best career decision.
What Is Computer Engineering?
Computer engineering is a combination of computer science and electrical engineering. It centers on computing in all of its forms, from embedded computer devices to laptops and desktop systems, to microprocessors to supercomputers. Computer engineering concerns the many electrical engineering considerations about the function of microprocessors and how they are designed and optimized.
It also concerns how data is transferred and communicated across many electrical components. Further, computer engineering involves how integrated electronic component systems are made and how they function to process information that is written in software. Essentially, computer engineers are specialized electrical engineers focused on software design, hardware design and systems design that deal with both.
Computer engineering students and professionals typically focus on these subjects:
- Numerical problem solving tools
- Engineering technology problem solving for Windows and UNIX
- Networking concepts
- Circuits and electronics
- Computer systems and architecture
- Computer scripting
- Web applications development
- Enterprise computing
- Vital resource management
- Simulation methods
- Service oriented architecture
- Business continuity
- Advanced web application design
- Database systems
- IT project management
What Is Computer Science?
Computer science focuses on how data and instructions are processed, communicated, and stored by computing devices. Computer science is a descendant of applied mathematics and electrical engineering. It deals with different types of algorithms that process data, how data and instructions are symbolically represented, how instruction languages are designed to process data, and ways to write software that process computer data on many different computer platforms.
Computer science is concerned with the theoretical operation of computers, computing devices and programming languages. Students in the computer science field must have a complete understanding of computers and how they are applied to real world problems, but also need to be able to apply this to deal with problems in the abstract.
Computer science also is about designing advanced protocols to communicate data securely and reliably across different platforms and how to organize data in all types of databases of different scales and types. Computer scientists are essentially scientists and mathematicians who develop innovative ways to process, store, interpret, communicate and secure data.
Students and professionals in computer science typically will focus on the following subjects:
- Algorithms and complexity
- Architecture and organization
- Computational science
- Discrete structures
- Graphics and visual computing
- Human and computer interaction
- Information assurance and security
- Information management
- Operating systems
- Programming languages
- Systems fundamentals
- Networking and communications
A common misconception about computer science is that it is only concerned with programming. There is more to it that that. Computer science is a general term that covers the major parts of computing: theory, programming languages, algorithms and architecture.
Computer Engineering vs Science Overlap
Computer engineers and computer scientists work with data and try to gather meaning from it. So, there is a lot of overlap in their work and the college programs they study, as well as the careers they choose. But this does not minimize the fact that the two disciplines are distinct and separate.
Workers in both disciplines promote the advancement of computer technology and solve complex problems with computers. Computer engineers often work more at the macroscopic and microscopic ends of the technology spectrum in their duties. Computer scientists tend to work more in the middle parts of the technology spectrum.
Also, computer engineers tend to deal with semiconductor electronics physics so that hardware can be designed at the level of integrated circuits, as well as with hardware and software integration that are optimized to operate on it to comprise complete computer systems. On the other hand, computer scientists compose the software, design databases, write algorithms, write communications and secure data that is processed by hardware.
How to Illustrate Differences Between Both
A good way to see the difference between computer engineers and computer scientists is the iPhone. Computer scientists and engineers both work on this device. Computer and electrical engineers design the chips that contain the circuits that make the various components of the iPhone work, such as cell radio, controls, screen, memory and microprocessor. They also figure out how to get these myriad components to work together. This involves viewing the iPhone from both the microscopic and integrated systems level.
Computer scientists write the operating system that deals with the iPhone’s memory and the various applications that run concurrently. They also write the apps you find in the App Store that run on the top of the OS. Computer scientists also are responsible for the data packing and unpacking for network communications and data encryption so that hackers and other unwanted parties cannot access it.
Computer scientists are ultimately responsible for glueing together the different pieces that transform the beginning product from the computer engineers – the various component designs – into a complete, functioning product that people use to text, email, view the Web, etc.
With the iPhone example, as there is so much dependence upon the function of the other to complete the product, it is understandable that there is much overlap between the jobs that computer engineers and computer scientists do.
Computer engineering and computer science are exciting, demanding and lucrative careers. Which one is for you? Answering that question comes down to your career goals and interests. How close to the computer software do you want to be? Professionals who work with software that is close to the hardware, such as cell phones and computers, tend to have more of the granular computer engineering experience.
But if you are interested more in higher level software design that is not focused on interacting with the hardware, as it is designed to run on a common OS such as Windows or Linux, you may prefer a computer science career. The key is to grasp where computer engineering and computer science intersect, and having an understanding of which end of the technology work is preferable to you. Either way, with a degree in computer engineering or degree in computer science, you are sure to have a profitable and rewarding career in technology.
- Computer and Information Technology Occupations. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/home.htm
- What’s the Difference Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering? (2018). Retrieved from https://www.petersons.com/blog/whats-the-difference-between-computer-science-and-computer-engineering/
- Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering: What’s the Difference? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.lewisu.edu/experts/wordpress/index.php/computer-science-vs-computer-engineering-whats-the-difference/