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Learn firmware with online courses and programs

Take online firmware courses to sharpen your hardware and software skills and open the door to new career opportunities. Build the knowledge base to pursue a career as a firmware engineer with online courses delivered through edX.

What is firmware?

Firmware is a type of software that is permanently embedded in a piece of hardware by its manufacturer.Footnote 1 Usually stored on a read-only memory (ROM) chip, firmware is what allows most of our modern devices to operate properly. Firmware is the first part that runs when a device is powered on, sending instructions to the device’s processor that allow it to:

  • Perform basic tasks

  • Communicate with other devices

  • Function smoothly 

Firmware is everywhere: in your mobile device, the coffee machine that brews your first morning cup, and even the autonomous vehicle that helps you get to work. Unlike other types of software, firmware typically cannot be modified or deleted by the end user — only the manufacturer. Ascher Opler, an American computer scientist, is credited with developing the term firmware to describe the distinction between hardware and software.Footnote 2 A good way of thinking about it is this: all firmware is software, but not all software is firmware.Footnote 3

Firmware can be updated to enhance the user experience, fix bugs, improve security, and introduce new features. Devices connected to the internet can check for new firmware and download and install it automatically, while other device manufacturers may require users to install firmware updates manually. A firmware update could be as simple as updating a router for performance and stability, or may involve more complex improvements related to self-driving and safety like those in Tesla firmware.Footnote 4

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Firmware course curriculum

A firmware course curriculum will begin by answering the fundamental question: “what is firmware?” Instructors may also begin by explaining firmware architecture, from the operating system (OS) to application code. This in-depth look will allow learners to compare firmware and software. Some other foundational topics covered in a firmware course can include:

  • C and C++ programming

  • Real-time operating systems

  • Microelectronics

  • Circuit analysis

  • Software engineering concepts

Equipped with the basics, learners may advance to more complex courses that unpack how to integrate embedded systems with different software. More advanced courses may also provide hands-on experience with hardware development, helping learners better understand how product components work in tandem with firmware to interpret commands. 

Learners who begin a firmware tutorial with prior knowledge or experience in software engineering, computer programming, or cybersecurity may ease into course content. That said, those new to firmware can still get up to speed with the right educational setting and instruction. 

Learn system debugging, testing, troubleshooting, and the design and implementation of firmware with courses delivered through edX.

Explore jobs that use firmware

Firmware is an essential part of our modern devices, from home appliances and consumer electronics to industrial machines and automobiles. A few common roles that involve the development and use of firmware include:

  • Embedded firmware engineer

  • Embedded software developer

  • Embedded firmware developer

  • Software test engineer

  • Hardware engineer

  • Hardware developer

While an online course in firmware may be a launch pad for roles in the computer programming or software development fields, it’s important to note that learning the fundamentals of firmware may not automatically make you eligible for the jobs listed above. Depending on the employer, some of these roles may require additional technical expertise that can be learned through a specialized boot camp, or a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree in a related discipline. 

Learn how to use firmware

While many positions that require knowledge of firmware share similar responsibilities, not all roles are the same. For example, a firmware engineer is responsible for writing the algorithms that dictate how a device behaves. A firmware engineer works with both hardware and software to:Footnote 5 

  • Evaluate a project’s firmware needs

  • Design the appropriate solution

  • Implement new firmware/software

  • Debug firmware to ensure it functions properly

  • Evaluate performance and troubleshoot

While they are proficient in programming languages like C and C++, firmware engineers can also be knowledgeable in the areas of hardware, circuit analysis, microelectronics, computer architecture, and real-time operating systems. 

An embedded software engineer, on the other hand, may double as a software and electrical engineer. They are familiar with:Footnote 6

  • C or C++ programming

  • Operating systems like Linux

  • Assembly languages like Advanced RISC Machines (ARM)

Their daily tasks may include overseeing the design, development, construction, testing, and maintenance of all aspects of an embedded system. A software test engineer will also leverage their understanding of firmware to verify whether or not a computer system or application meets requirements and behaves as it should. 

While there is nuance to each of these roles, professionals that use firmware may benefit from a solid foundation in computer science or a related field. Those interested in firmware careers can earn a bachelor’s degree in computer or data science. If you want to deepen and specialize your expertise, enrolling in an online coding boot camp or a cybersecurity boot camp may be the best learning option for you.  

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