Information technology, or IT, describes any technology that powers or enables the storage, processing and information flow within an organization. Anything involved with computers, software, networks, intranets, Web sites, servers, databases and telecommunications falls under the IT umbrella.
Most modern businesses depend heavily on information systems, from employee e-mail to database management to e-commerce Web sites. Hospitals have large patient databases to maintain. Universities have sprawling networks to administer. Even a small, home-based cookie business needs an order-tracking system. The Information Technology Association of America reports that 92 percent of IT professionals work for non-IT companies
Who are these IT professionals, and what do they do?
- Some IT folks work behind the scenes to make sure that all the information systems we take for granted run smoothly. These are database, network and systems administrators.
- Others help design these information systems according to an organization's needs. These are database, network and systems analysts.
- Others help develop hardware and software to make these systems more robust, reliable and secure. These are hardware and software engineers.
- Still others make sure that this information is presented to the user in a clear, useful, dynamic way. These are Web developers and designers.
In this blog we'll tackle the broad subject of IT by first looking at IT education -- the undergraduate, graduate and professional certification programs that train IT professionals. Then we'll look at the most popular IT job titles in detail, describing what that person does and how they do it. We'll finish with a look at salary expectations and the overall job outlook for IT careers.
Undergraduate IT Programs
In 1994, a little over 20,000 bachelor's degrees were awarded from U.S. universities in the computer and information sciences field. In 2004, that number skyrocketed to 60,000 . Undergraduate IT degree programs and majors can be broken down into three general categories: information science, computer science and engineering. It should be noted, however, that each of these majors overlap with each other significantly, with some courses called computer science at one school and engineering at another.
Information science, alternately called information technology, is one of the broadest and most all-encompassing IT majors. Information science majors start from the beginning, learning the common programming languages and mathematical algorithms that make hardware and software tick. Then they learn about operating systems, databases, networks and security. Once they have an understanding of how these basic systems work, they learn how to analyze the needs of an organization or business to design the best and most secure information systems Information science coursework could include:
- Programming languages (C++ is most common)
- Computer systems and architecture
- Computer hardware components
- Software development
- Systems analysis
- Information system design
- Business information systems
While information science covers the whole process of designing information systems, computer science is focused more on solving problems -- in mathematics, physics, engineering, business, et cetera -- with computer systems and software Computer science majors will take more courses in programming than information science majors. They'll also take more math and statistical analysis courses. Computer science majors can also study human-computer interaction and emerging fields like artificial intelligence and robotics Computer science coursework could include:
- Algorithms and programming
- Circuits and electronics
- Statistical and numerical analysis
- Systems design
- Software engineering
- Artificial intelligence
- Computer-aided design
Engineering is a wide-ranging major with many different concentrations. For students considering an IT career, the best engineering majors are electrical engineering and computer engineering. Computer engineering is ideal because it combines the core coursework of electrical engineering and computer science. Computer engineering majors learn how circuits work, how to build simple computers from scratch, how to program hardware and software, and how to assemble those machines into a larger networks and information systems.
Computer engineering coursework could include:
- Microelectronic circuits
- Algorithms and programming
- Logic and statistics
- Software engineering
- Artificial intelligence
- Information science
Graduate IT Programs
Graduate school is a time to focus your education on a particular field of study and explore it in-depth and hands-on. For students interested in graduate-level IT programs, the variety of available programs is as diverse as the IT profession itself.
If you pursue a master's degree or doctorate in information technology, computer science or computer engineering, you'll notice many of the course titles resemble those found at undergraduate levels. The main difference between undergraduate and graduate programs in these areas is the depth of the coursework and the opportunities for original research.
For example, students of Carnegie Mellon University's graduate program in Electrical and Computer Engineering would take courses similar to those in undergraduate programs, but at a higher level, like:
- Advanced Digital Integrated Circuit Design
- Advanced Computer Architecture
- The Art and Science of System Level Design
- Special Topics in Communications: Network Management and Control
That said, many IT graduate programs don't require students to have majored in engineering or computer science (although a strong math and science background is strongly recommended) Even in graduate programs, there are courses meant to introduce students to important IT concepts. In the same Electrical and Computer Engineering program at Carnegie Mellon University, students can take these more general courses:
- Introduction to Security and Policy
- How to Write Fast Code
- Network Security
- Image, Video and Multimedia
Since graduate school is a time to narrow down your studies, there are also many graduate IT programs geared at developing specific job-related skills. For example, students with an eye on being network and systems analysts or administrators can earn a master's degree in Information Networking (MSIN) or Information Security Technology and Management (MSISTM) . Students interested in a career as a tech business executive can get a master's or Ph.D. in Management Information Systems (MIS) . For die-hard coders, there are programs to earn a master's degree in software engineering.
Now let's look at yet another IT education option: professional certification programs.
IT Certification Programs
The IT job market is red hot, but vying for the best-paying, most rewarding jobs is still extremely competitive. Perhaps more than most careers, IT jobs require employees to be up on the latest technologies, trends and techniques. For many employers, it's not enough to graduate with a master's degree in computer science. IT professionals are expected to continuously build on their academic knowledge base through on-the-job learning, professional development courses and certification programs.
Many IT certification programs are tied to a specific company or vendor. Microsoft, for example, offers a host of professional IT certifications, many of them tied to specific Microsoft products. You can become a Microsoft Certified IT Professional as a database developer using Microsoft SQL Server 2005. Or you can earn your Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator certificate on Microsoft Windows Server 2003.
Since these certifications are designed for busy professionals, they only require a few courses and final exams. Each course runs only 3 to 5 days (or the equivalent amount of hours) and can be taken in the classroom, via distance-learning (live video broadcasts), e-learning (self-paced online instruction), CD-ROMs and even books.
In addition to Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco run two other popular professional certification programs. Oracle University classes are available in dozens of languages and offers certificates in all of the company's products, including the popular Oracle Database, Oracle E-Business Suite and the Siebel CRM tool. Cisco ofers equivalent certifications in its areas of expertise, namely networking, network security, routing and switching, and VoIP.
These certification programs are popular for a reason. According to the Robert Half Technology Report, the top three IT skills most desired by employers in 2007 are:
- Windows administration (Windows Server 2000/2003)
- Network administration (Cisco, Nortel and Novell)
- Database management (Oracle, SQL Server and DB2)
In addition to the big-name certification programs, there are also several "vendor-neutral" certification programs offered by companies like CIW (Certified Internet Web professionals) and the Computing Technology Industry Association (CTIA). For some employers, these vendor-neutral certifications are more attractive because they give students a more well-rounded, unbiased approach to the software and methods that get the IT job done.