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A Gateway to a Career in Computer Hardware
Author // Eamonn Gormley
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Demand for computer hardware engineers is expected to grow at 7 percent per year from 2012 to 2022. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2012 median pay for hardware engineers was $100,920 per year or $48.52 per hour.

Innovation happens more rapidly in computer software than in hardware, leading to quicker growth in the former. This is unsurprising, since there are greater barriers to entry for newcomers to the physical manufacture of hardware, compared to the software industry in which any hobbyist with a computer and knowledge of a programming language can begin working on the foundations of a startup.

However, hardware is a respectably prosperous niche that computer-savvy engineers can get into and potentially avoid a software engineering field that can be crowded in certain regions. Someone who likes to work with their hands with physical products rather than software and apps would find this an appealing career choice.

Building a PC is not that difficult. When the IBM PC was launched in 1981, its popularity combined with its open architecture to cause an explosion in the number of third-party vendors producing hardware and software for the platform. “IBM compatibility” was a major selling point for everything from mice to graphics cards to printers. The effects have lasted until the present day where anyone can now pick up inexpensive off-the-shelf components and assemble them into a fully functional computer and install an operating system. With an internet now full of easy-to-access knowledge about how to plug memory, graphics cards and hard drives into a motherboard, it is quite possible to become a self taught computer technician.

While an aspiring hardware engineer can conceivably put on their resume that they have built a PC, prospective employers are more convinced by concrete qualifications and credentials that are recognized by the industry. The CompTIA A+ certification has therefore become something of a rite of passage for entry-level computer technicians, so much so that over a million people have now earned the credential.

Certification for A+, not to be confused with the programming language of the same name, deals very specifically with computer hardware engineering. Both of its tests, CompTIA A+ 220-801 and CompTIA A+ 220-802, must be passed to secure certification.

The 220-801 exam deals with the following areas of competence:
  • 40% PC Hardware
  • 27% Networking
  • 11% Laptops
  • 11% Printers
  • 11% Operational Procedures

The 220-802 exam deals with the following areas:
  • 33% Operating Systems
  • 22% Security
  • 9% Mobile Devices
  • 36% Troubleshooting

The following materials are needed to study for the exam:
  • A PC with Microsoft Windows XP, Vista, 7, or 8
  • Grounding pad
  • Anti Static Wrist Strap (ESD Bracelet or Ground Bracelet)
  • Phillips head screwdriver
  • Calculator

Despite the increasing popularity of open-source Unix-like operating systems, and despite being a vendor-neutral certification, A+ leans heavily in the direction of Windows, and it would behoove anyone taking the test to familiarize themselves with Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. For legacy Windows versions going back as far as 95, it is only necessary to know the upgrade paths, and the boot process for all of these operating systems should be understood.

It is also necessary to have some familiarity with Unix-like platforms including BSD and its derivatives, NextStep, GNU/Linux, and Google Android. Familiarity with MacOS X and iOS would also be useful.

Like all of CompTIA’s vendor-neutral certifications, its requirements are updated every two years, therefore an update for Windows 10 cannot be far away. Much will depend on how popular the new OS becomes. Uptake of Windows versions has been hit-and-miss in the past with some versions, such as NT and XP, getting a roaring reception with others, such as 98 and Vista, regarded as flops. Indeed older versions of Windows have been known to resist retirement in favor of newer versions that have bombed.

One thing is more certain. The ongoing shift to tablets and smartphones means that mobile operating systems are likely to become increasingly important at the expense of more traditional desktop platforms. The A+ certification will doubtless evolve to take this into account, and engineers seeking employment in the hardware field would be well advised to keep their mobile knowledge up to date.