What does an Embedded Software Engineer do?

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In today’s addition to our career insights series, we’ll be talking about a field that has seen quite a resurgence in the past few years. Largely due to the rise of the Internet of Things and smart wearable devices, good embedded software engineers are in huge demand.

We will first be looking at the definition of Software Engineering, then covering the most important skills and, as usual, looking at the average salary and freelancer suitability for the job.
 

What does an Embedded Software Engineer do?

Embedded software is the first layer of code that runs on a device. Think BIOS on a PC. Embedded engineers write code, but unlike software engineers, they need a deep understanding of the hardware it runs on. An embedded engineer knows the schematics of hardware and how chip datasheets relate to the code written for them. Embedded software is usually self-contained and only runs a single program. Because of that, embedded software engineers determine the smallest possible number of drivers the device needs to run the software.

Almost anything, from toasters and flashlights to smartwatches, digital TVs and electronic control units in cars, has embedded software in it. We don’t generally think of those devices as computers, but they have underlying software that makes them run. As an embedded software engineer, that’s what you’ll be creating. The profession is at the crossroads of software engineers and electrical engineers. Because of that, embedded software engineers have to hyper-focus on how the code they write interacts with the electronics.
 

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How to become an embedded software developer: The skills you’ll need

First of all, you need to cover your bases. Mastering C as a programming language is a must for embedded software engineers. C is considered to be one of the most efficient programming languages. Regardless of what field or company you take a job in, you will probably be working with C.

1. Master C and C++
First of all, you need to cover your bases. Mastering C as a programming language is a must for embedded software engineers. C is considered to be one of the most efficient programming languages. Regardless of what field or company you take a job in, you will probably be working with C.

2. Understand hardware and its components

As we said in the job definition, knowing how the hardware for which you’re writing code is essential. As an embedded software engineer you won’t have the luxury of just checking up on the code. You’ll always also have to consider the possibility that something could be wrong with the hardware. To identify and fix that, you will know how that hardware functions and why it does things in certain ways.

3. Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOS) 

An RTOS is meant to serve real-time. That means data will be coming in and the system will have to handle that data immediately. These are programs that have to be able to allocate resources in real-time and determine which tasks require more attention than others. There are deadlines to some tasks (think an airbag in a car opening at the right time) and you will have to make sure the RTOS doesn’t miss its deadlines. Popular RTOSs include:

  • LynxOS
  • OSE
  • QNX
  • RTLinux

4. Master resource management and allocation

As an embedded software engineer, a huge part of your job will be dealing with different constraints. You will have to think about how much of your hardware resources the embedded system is using. That includes RAM, ROM and CPU cycles. These have to be used as efficiently as possible and allocated into the right places. Weighing out the pros and cons and identifying the most important tasks is critical in this field of work.

Related job titles: Firmware Engineer, Systems Engineer, etc.

The boundaries between embedded software engineers and software engineers are often not clear. While it is not a difficult task to determine who is an embedded engineer and who isn’t, there tends to be a lot of overlap between embedded software engineers and a number of related job titles.

Here are the most commonly used terms to describe embedded software engineers:

  • Firmware engineer
  • Embedded engineer
  • Embedded firmware engineer
  • Systems engineer

The salary of an Embedded Engineer

As we said, embedded engineers are currently in high demand. That means you can expect a more than reasonable salary. According to Glassdoor, the average yearly salary for an embedded software engineer in the United States is around 83,000 USD. The roof that Glassdoor puts on the job is around 118,000 USD, but that doesn’t include job titles that assume longer experience, like a senior embedded software engineer. The numbers for that title are significantly higher, with an average of 105,000 USD and a roof of 136,000.

As always, please be aware that these are just averages and they can vary, especially if you’re looking to work in a different country. If that is the case, you can get a better idea by inputting your location into the aforementioned platform.
 

Can Embedded Engineers work as freelancers?

Freelancing is on the rise, with more than a third of the US workforce alone working as freelancers rather than traditional employers. Embedded engineering is also in high demand with the rise of products like refrigerators and smart home systems using more software. Both of those trends put together mean that yes, you can be a freelance embedded software engineer. But here is our number one piece of advice if you’re looking to go down this particular career path:

Build a network before you start – Starting from scratch in this highly technical field is very difficult as a freelancer. That’s why you might want to get some experience under your belt and get to know potential clients. If you start with an already built network, finding jobs will be much easier. That doesn’t mean you need to spend ten years stuck at one company. But having one to two years of experience working within the industry and getting to know the people in it will give you a significant career boost!
 

Useful online resources for Embedded Engineers

There are amazing resources for embedded engineers where you can read a lot of information and do in-depth research. Here are a few you can’t miss:

Both sites are full of well-researched articles written by experts in different fields of embedded software architecture such as Michael Barr, Nigel Jones, Matt Green, etc.
 

Considering embedded software engineering? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Viktor Marinov

Viktor is the voice behind the freelancermap blog. Every week he comes up with helpful hints, checklists, and guides for freelancers and independent workers. If you would like to know how to find remote jobs online or how to niche yourself as a freelancer, don't miss his freelancer tips!

By Viktor Marinov

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