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

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

This article explores the role of embedded systems and embedded systems engineers.

[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' within a larger mechanical or electronic system. There are four types of embedded systems:

  1. Standalone embedded systems. 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 embedded systems. Network embedded systems, or networked embedded systems, communicate with web servers through wired or wireless networks.  

  3. Mobile embedded systems. 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 embedded systems. Output generation speed is the crucial component of real-time embedded systems, which have the primary function of providing results immediately.

Embedded systems examples

Standalone embedded systems

Network embedded systems

Mobile embedded systems

Real-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 that provide computational power to embedded systems.

  • 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. 

The three main components of embedded systems

Embedded systems have three primary components:

  1. Hardware

  2. Application-specific software

  3. A real-time operating system (RTOS) 

Working with embedded systems

If you want to pursue a career in embedded systems development, you can become an embedded systems engineer. The IT sector, in general, is an in-demand career choice, with technical engineers in short supply. This makes it a good option, giving you choices and a good salary if you are qualified. 

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

According to Glassdoor, the average base salary for an embedded systems engineer in the UK is £39,198 per year. Depending on experience and location, this may rise to £52,000 [1].

How to become an embedded systems engineer

According to Glassdoor [2], seventy percent of embedded systems engineers obtain bachelor’s degrees, usually the entry point for an entry-level position. It takes approximately two years to advance to the next level position. Some advance their careers with master's degrees and certifications. Embedded systems engineers usually study electrical engineering, computer science, or a related field. Examples of degrees aspiring embedded systems engineers pursue include a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

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. 

  • Written and verbal communication

  • Problem-solving

  • Project management skills

  • Creativity

  • Logic

  • Patience 

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

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

Embedded systems design

  • Unified Modelling Language

  • Multiprocessor design skills

  • Understanding of embedded systems design patterns

  • Ability to work with modelling programs and languages like MATLAB

  • Knowledge of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design for embedded systems

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

Enhance your CV.

Building a strong CV is an essential step for any job seeker. You can enhance your CV in several ways, including creating a portfolio. A portfolio is a collection of your best work to share with potential employers. If you still need to work 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

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 specialisation like Introduction to the Internet of Things and Embedded Systems.

Article sources


Glassdoor. “Embedded Systems Engineer Salary, https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Salaries/embedded-systems-engineer-salary-SRCH_KO0,25.htm.” Accessed June 10, 2024. 

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