What Are Embedded Systems (+ How to Work with Them)

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Explore the role of embedded systems and embedded systems engineers with the following article.

[Featured Image] An embedded systems engineer shows his colleagues a monitor connected to a larger electronic system.

What are embedded systems?

Embedded systems are computer systems that have a dedicated function. They are “embedded” because they exist within a larger mechanical or electronic system. There are four types of embedded systems:

  1. Standalone. Operating within a larger system is a key characteristic of embedded systems, but the standalone variety can function independently. Standalone embedded systems can produce outputs without a host computer. 

  2. Network. Network embedded systems are also referred to as networked embedded systems. They rely on communication with web servers through wired or wireless networks to operate.

  3. Mobile. Mobile embedded systems are small, portable devices. All mobile embedded systems are also standalone embedded systems. However, not all standalone embedded systems are mobile embedded systems. 

  4. Real-time. Output generation speed is the crucial component of real-time embedded systems. In other words, their primary function is to provide results immediately. 

Embedded systems examples

Standalone embedded systemsNetwork embedded systemsMobile embedded systemsReal-time embedded systems
Digital cameras

Digital watches

Temperature measurement systems

Washing machines
Home security systems

Point of sale (POS) systems

Automated teller machines (ATMs)
Cell phones



Self-driving vehicle controls

Aircraft control systems

Medical devices and patient monitoring systems

Characteristics of embedded systems

Embedded systems vary significantly in complexity. One thing that they all have in common is that they are task-specific. The following bulleted list outlines a few more shared characteristics of embedded systems.

  • Microprocessor-based or microcontroller based. Both microprocessors and microcontrollers are integrated circuits. They provide embedded systems with computational power.

  • Frequently used for Internet of Things (IoT) devices. The IoT refers to a network of devices that can communicate with each other without human assistance, such as a home security system. Embedded systems support real-time computing and sensing in the IoT. 

  • Time-sensitive function execution. Embedded systems are often required to execute their intended function within a specific time frame to keep the larger system running properly. 

Read more: What is the Internet of Things (IoT)? With Examples

The three main components of embedded systems

Embedded systems have three primary components:

  1. Hardware. Microprocessors and microcontrollers are the hardware of embedded systems. Typically, they include a central processing unit (CPU) connected to other basic computing devices, such as memory chips, power supplies, and LCD displays.

  2. Application software. Embedded system software is typically made up of specialized programming tools that enable the machines to function. The level of complexity can vary depending on the devices it is designed to control.

  3. A real-time operating system (RTOS). An RTOS is a special type of operating system that is designed to respond to external events extremely quickly.

Working with embedded systems

If you want to pursue a career in embedded systems development, you can become an embedded systems engineer. Engineering careers belong to the occupational field of architecture and engineering. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 4 percent job growth in this category between 2021 and 2031. This figure translates into approximately 91,300 new jobs and is in line with the average growth for all occupations [1].

Embedded systems engineer job description

An embedded systems engineer is responsible for designing, developing, and managing embedded systems in products. They work collaboratively with developers and provide technical assistance to clients and other departments. Embedded systems engineers also create and maintain documentation of projects and procedures. 

Embedded systems engineer salary

The average base salary for an embedded systems engineer in the US is $128,603 per year, according to Glassdoor. Embedded systems engineers also report an additional average annual pay of $41,323. Additional pay may represent profit-sharing, bonuses, or commissions. These figures combined equal a total estimated yearly compensation in the US of $169,927 [2].

How to become an embedded systems engineer

Seventy-five percent of embedded systems engineers obtain bachelor’s degrees, 17 percent have a master’s degree, 5 percent have an associate degree, and 1 percent earn a doctorate-level degree [3]. Embedded systems engineers usually study electrical engineering, computer science, or a related field. Examples of online degrees aspiring embedded systems engineers can pursue include a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

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Gain the essential skills.

Embedded systems engineers possess a combination of technical and workplace skills. First, the list below outlines essential workplace skills. Then, the following sections sort technical skills into two categories—programming and design. Consider using the checklists below to identify areas of focus for your study. 

Embedded systems programming

  • C and C++ programming languages

  • Experience working with RTOS

  • Familiarity with device drivers like Linux

  • Remote and local debugging capabilities

  • Extensive experience working with hardware and software

Read more: What Can I Do With a Linux Certification?

You can gain embedded systems programming skills with a certificate in an online course like the University of Colorado Boulder’s Introduction to Embedded Systems Software and Development Environments.

Embedded systems design

Build your design skill set by earning a UX and Interface Design for Embedded Systems certificate from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Enhance your resume.

Building a strong resume is an essential step for any job seeker. You can enhance your resume in several ways, including creating a portfolio. A portfolio is a collection of your best work to share with potential employers. If you have not yet worked on an independent project that you can use for your portfolio, consider enrolling in a Guided Project. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder offers an online Real-Time Project for Embedded Systems. You can read 10 more ways to enhance your resume in the article below.

Read more: 10 Ways to Enhance Your Resume 

Learn more about embedded systems with Coursera

Want to keep learning about embedded systems and embedded systems development? Consider earning a certificate from an online specialization like Introduction to the Internet of Things and Embedded Systems.

Article sources


US  Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Architects and Engineers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/home.htm.” Accessed July 12, 2023.

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