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4 Key Software Programs That Are Critical for Hardware Engineers

March 12, 2019 by Sam Holland

There are certain types of software programs that just about every hardware engineer is going to be working with on the job, whether they are employed by a small startup or an established firm. This software is critical to the timely completion and future success of the projects that you work on. Much of them, like IDEs and PCB design software, are used in higher education classes, while others, like project management software, is something that you learn on the job.

IDEs (Integrated Development Environments)

IDEs for your chosen programming languages are indispensable during the development and testing phases of any project.

You will end up working with quite a few programming languages throughout the course of your engineering career, including assembly as well as the higher-level languages such as Java, Javascript, Python, and the C-based languages. You may also work in other languages such as MATLAB or Mathematica, and these usually have their own IDE. An IDE makes the coding process much easier once you learn how to use the tools and features that it offers, which takes time and experience.

You may use different IDEs (or combinations of compilers, builders, and debuggers) for each language that you work with; however, many modern IDEs support multiple languages. Some of the more popular examples for multiple languages include Microsoft Visual Studio, Netbeans, and Eclipse.

An example of PCB Layout design software (DipTrace). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

PCB Design Software

As a hardware engineer, you know that a good PCB design software package is indispensable—and there are many to choose from. There are large, established companies like National Instruments (and their NI Circuit Design Suite or Multism) or Autodesk (and their Eagle PCB), either of which you may have become familiar with in higher education.

Packages like this usually combine design, prototyping, simulation, validation, and layout. Many companies use PORTEL Altium Designer for their circuit design, which can be especially beneficial for those fresh out of university, because many courses teach it as part of the circuits coursework. Every year, these packages seem to add more features to improve the design process and make simulation and validation easier. As with most software, you will likely end up learning and using the software your employer makes available.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Project Management

Project management tools are not directly related to the designing of hardware, but they are key to keeping that design project on track in terms of user requirements, specifications, and deadlines. The type of project management software you interact with is likely determined by the company for whom you work. There are quite a few out there, including the more well-known packages such as Microsoft Project, Zoho Projects, Wrike, Smartsheet.

The type of software that you use will probably be at least partly dependent on the approach to project planning that your company adheres to. For example, if the company uses the kanban or scrum approach, you may find yourself using a specialised package such as Zoho Sprints, Hansoft, or Trello. Project management software is something that you may not have much choice in, but it remains indispensable to the development process in modern companies.

Version Control Systems

If you are a hardware engineer, you will typically use a version control system to easily manage and organise files, on which you can support seamless collaboration, on them, and track the modifications them.

For a hardware engineer, the files of interest are code and design-related files, and version control systems help you to not lose your work through accidental deletion, careless changes, or a mishap like a hard disk failure. Version control is an invaluable tool for hardware and software engineers alike. Some of the more commonly used versions (at least for hardware engineers) include Apache Subversion (SVN), GitHub, IBM Rational ClearCase, and GitLab.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Final Thoughts

Hardware engineers work with many different types of software packages every day, with four of the most critical being IDEs, PCB design software, project management, and version control systems. There are, of course, other commonly used types of software than those we have covered; we would love to hear about what types of software programs you have found essential for your own careers and workflows!

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