what do electrical and computer engineers do?

Despite the number of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) departments around the country (also EE, EECS), very few prospective students know what electrical and computer engineers do; even on our own campuses, we are typically a mystery. While in high school many students get exposed to various areas of computer science, they rarely do so for areas of ECE. Moreover, the lack of understanding of how we impact the society and people’s lives influences the enrollment of underrepresented students and creates a general misconception of electrical and computer engineers walking around with soldering irons. 

This short article, the pictures that go with it, as well as the YouTube video we recorded at Carnegie Mellon ECE constitute and attempt to transmit some of the excitement that those of us working in the field feel. It is meant for students considering (and wondering about) ECE, their parents, lay people, even our families and friends (“what is it again that you do?”…)


Electrical and computer engineering integrates many disciplines from electrical engineering and computers science under a common umbrella. Think about it, wherever electrons or computers are, that’s where we are!

The field was initially focused on electric machines and power, then radar and communications, such as radio and TV, then electronics and computers. It contains a number of subfields such as electronics, power engineering, telecommunications, signal processing, computer hardware and software design, and many others. Today ECE as a field permeates nearly all aspects of society and the work done by electrical and computer engineers has deep and broad impact on all our lives.

A perfect embodiment of this impact is a smartphone; almost all of us have some version of it that we use it in a myriad of ways to go about our daily lives; we depend on them for communication (and despite the word “phone”, we seem to be using it for almost everything else except for making phone calls), tracking our appointments, playing games, watching video, listening to music, helping with navigation, booking travel, reading news, connecting with friends, and many, many others.

But did you know that a number of crucial functions of what’s “under the hood” of a smartphone such as an iPhone, as well as what you see above the hood are created by electrical and computer engineers? For the rest of this conversation, we will deconstruct the iPhone and see what makes it “tick”…

Inside an iPhone

Let us start with:

  • The radio transceiver, antenna, Wi-Fi, cellular network support, have been developed in the fields of communications and electromagnetics. Since the days the first radio waves were transmitted and received through the ether, our lives have never been the same.
  • Audio & video codecs have been developed by researchers in signal, image & video processing, the same ones who developed the well-known JPEG and MPEG image and video compression standards that allow us to store tremendous amounts of data efficiently.
  • The camera — the “social-soul’ of the cellphone — uses digital image sensors that rely on the field of information theory as well as devices that sense light efficiently.
  • Siri is based on the work in voice recognition and signal processing.
  • Battery, touch screen, flash memory, and power amplifiers are rooted in the fields of electronics, integrated circuits, semiconductors, and data storage. Having all our music and movies at our fingerprints would not have been possible without dramatic advances in data storage, for example.
  • Fingerprint scanner was developed in the field of biometrics, that uses human characteristics, such as fingerprints, faces, irises, etc, to recognize and identify individuals and use it to control access to sensitive information, for example, in banks.

On the more computer engineering side, we have:

  • The iOS, iPhone operating system, is the “brain” of the entire system, which controls the behavior of all components – it is developed under the fields of software systems and embedded systems. iOS is similar (although not identical) to the OS X, Unix-like operating system running on all Apple products.
  • The logic board & processor electronics, integrated circuits, computer architecture comprise the hardware “skeleton” that allows the software applications to run seamlessly, however the user chooses.
  • iOS security: Engineers develop and implement encryption and network security technologies so you know your conversations and communications are private and secure, protect your data on the phone, and check the apps you install for security-critical bugs. At Carnegie Mellon, we believe security also relies on being able to anticipate new attacks, so we build technologies to find novel vulnerabilities and fix them before they can be exploited by the bad guys.
  • iCloud, is a storage and computing service on remote shared servers that relies on cloud computing, data centers, data storage, and distributed systems.
  • On-chip/in-package design & testing puts together all of the components in an “electronic organism” that can function under user control, while the system power management decides when such components can be shut down, set on “stand-by” or sent to “sleep” when not in use. All these are developed under the design tools & methods area in ECE.

iPhone apps

Let us not forget the apps.

  • Power and battery monitoring apps allow the user to figure out when the phone needs a recharge and which apps hog the power. You can learn about these in coursework on workload & user characterization.
  • Facebook relies on user characterization.
  • Shazam, the app that listens & recognizes music, was developed using tools from signal processing, big data systems, and cloud computing.
  • Netflix relies on cloud computing, recommendation systems, and data science, while
  • Skype relies on networking, signal & video processing.

And there are many many others …

Come join us!

In our Electrical and Computer Engineering departments, we have people in each of the subfields I mentioned. So come join us. Become one of those who will continue to change the world and impact our lives (and have fun while doing it)!


The entire ECE faculty body contributed to this writeup; thanks!

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