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Difference Between Computer Science and Computer Engineering

Computer science vs. computer engineering: General breakdown

difference between computer science and computer engineering

As in many technology-based fields, there tends to be a little confusion and blurring of lines between disciplines. In some cases, these different subject names are a matter of semantics where the same general information is just labeled differently, while others have much more pronounced differences. For the subjects of computer science and computer engineering, there’s a clear split despite some overlapping focuses.

Duke University does an excellent job of breaking it down: Computer science programs are often focused on mathematics and the theoretical foundation of computation, while computer engineering focuses on the practical aspects of development and computer usage.1

You could think about the difference in terms of goals. “Computer science is looking to progress the general understanding of certain phenomena or technologies,” says Jesse Nieminen, co-founder, and chairman of Viima. “Computer engineering is the application of (scientific) knowledge to design and build new things.”

Another view that can help you better understand these disciplines is to look at where they emerged from. Early computer science programs were (and sometimes still are) branches from universities’ mathematics departments, while computer engineering branched off from engineering or electrical engineering departments.

In terms of practice, Nieminen says computer scientists create or apply new theories and mathematical models that can then be used in software systems. Someone with a focus on computer engineering will focus more on the technical specifications needed for the hardware to support these systems.

Computer science vs. computer engineering: Job titles

So how can choosing a path affect your life? The good news is that both approaches have results that will impress you, and most tech jobs stay exactly where the two sides go.

That being said, we used real-time job analysis software to find out what positions employers are looking to fill with applicants from computer science and computer engineering majors. Here’s a quick snapshot.

Top job titles seeking computer science majors2

  • Software Development Engineer
  • Business Analyst
  • Java Developer
  • Systems Engineer
  • Data Analyst

Top job titles seeking computer engineering majors2

  • Software Development Engineer
  • Systems Engineer
  • Software Developer
  • Network Engineer
  • Firmware Engineer

As you can see, most of these jobs cross over into both majors. The commonalities apply in skill sets as well. The skills that employers of computer science and computer engineering majors want most in their applicants are almost identical. Languages like SQL, Java®, JavaScript®, and Python® all were among the top technical skills sought after in job postings seeking computer science grads as well as computer engineering grads.2

Computer science vs. computer engineering: Choosing your focus

“Computer science is more theoretical and prepares you well for a career as an expert in certain topics,” Nieminen says. “If you love going deep on certain technical topics, it’s a good fit for you.”

On the other side of the coin, computer engineering is slightly more practical and prepares you well for a business-oriented career where your job is to build software systems and teams, Nieminen explains. “If you’re the kind of person who enjoys seeing your handiwork used and doesn’t mind constant variety in the problems you solve, it’s a great fit for you.”

Companies often hire a mix of specialists for expert areas they need to be covered, as well as generalists who understand the broader principles at play and can perform a wide range of tasks, according to Nieminen.

“My company is still quite small and evolving fast—so we prefer to hire generalists, often with an engineering background. However, as the company grows, we will need expertise in areas like artificial intelligence, which is when we’re likely to hire specialist computer scientists.”

A career in shaping the future

If you are more attracted to computer or computer engineering, you are considering an exciting industry. "Either of them is a great choice that will lend itself well to the demands of the future," says Nieminen.

Earning an education in these areas can open up a vast range of potential careers all over the country. If you’d like to learn more about those options, you’ll want to check out our article “What Can You Do With a Computer Science Degree?”

If you don’t feel confident that computer science or computer engineering is the right direction for you, our interactive tool is “Which technical degree is right for me? "help you find your focus.

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