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Information Technology (IT) has become such a widespread career choice Do You Have What It Takes for a Career in Technology? Do You Have What It Takes for a Career in Technology? The digital world may tempt you to jump on the information technology wagon. But is it the right choice for you? You have to make a decision. Ask yourself these seven questions. Read More . But few people actually know what IT is and what its discipline entails.

Let’s take a look at the facts. We’ll give IT a proper definition, discuss its many facets, and list the skills that any skillful IT worker must have.

What Exactly Is Information Technology?

Look at different reputable sources, and you’ll find varying definitions of what IT means. Most will serve you fine, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll refer to IT as:

The use of an organization’s computer systems — including physical hardware as well as software — to manage its information.

Note that this definition gives us some clues about what IT is and is not:

  • IT does not involve personal computing. This means that when you work in IT, you’re almost certainly working to support a business’s infrastructure.
  • IT encompasses more than just computers. Hardware, like servers and printers, as well as software, like databases and proprietary applications, all fall under its umbrella.
  • IT is a core part of any business. Managing a company’s information means that everything from keeping its employees’ computers working smoothly to protecting its data backup archives is covered.

Now that we know what IT means, let’s check out the different disciplines that make up the field.

The Many Disciplines IT Encompasses

In a field as broad as IT, it’s no surprise that you’ll find dozens of different specializations. If you’re considering studying IT Tech Jobs of the Future: What To Study If You Want a Cool Job Tomorrow Tech Jobs of the Future: What To Study If You Want a Cool Job Tomorrow If you're a student and looking to land a good technology job of the future, understanding the direction of technology will help you position yourself to succeed, and figure out what to study to get... Read More , these are some of the most popular options you could find yourself in.

Help Desk Technician

When most non-technical people think of IT, this is the position that comes to mind. Indeed, these technical support folks are responsible for helping clients with all sorts of troubleshooting Windows Troubleshooting for Dummies Windows Troubleshooting for Dummies Windows takes a lot of crap for problems outside of its control. Learn about the biggest issues people incorrectly pin on Windows and how to actually troubleshoot them. Read More . Help desk technicians will regularly take calls and emails from employees having trouble — whether that means they can’t figure out how to use Excel or their internet service is down.

Lots of people first getting into IT start at this entry-level position How to Get an Entry Level IT Helpdesk or Technical Support Job How to Get an Entry Level IT Helpdesk or Technical Support Job You don't need a degree in computer science to enjoy a career in IT. You can be on the front line of IT as the help desk or technical support specialist. Here's how. Read More . In it, you’re mainly working on user-level problems, so big-picture tasks like pruning databases aren’t your concern. Good communication, patience, and familiarity with the operating systems and programs your clients use are a must.

Systems Analyst

If you like managing the big picture, System Analysis is the sub-field for you. As the name implies, Systems Analysts primarily concern themselves with researching and planning for upgrades to the company’s information systems for maximum efficiency. This could involve everything from planning an entirely new workflow to writing technical manuals to working with programmers to develop new software for the business.

Thus, Systems Analysts don’t typically get too involved in any one aspect of the company’s infrastructure. They might survey employees to find pain points with a current process, design a new one, and pass diagrams of this onto the programmers designing a new application for those employees.

A great Analyst will always look to improve the company’s processes and equipment so it can become more efficient. They also must communicate well with a variety of departments, and make wise decisions about the best moves for their firm.

IT Security

As you might guess, security is a field that’s both wide and explosively growing. In the past few decades, computers have gone from a convenience to an always-on part of modern business. Because of this, malicious folk are always coming up with ways to attack and steal a company’s information. When they fail, disasters like the WannaCry incident happen The Global Ransomware Attack and How to Protect Your Data The Global Ransomware Attack and How to Protect Your Data A massive cyberattack has struck computers around the globe. Have you been affected by the highly virulent self-replicating ransomware? If not, how can you protect your data without paying the ransom? Read More .

Depending on your level of expertise, working in IT security can involve everything from implementing proper security software to educating end users 5 Ways Your Security Is at Risk in the Office 5 Ways Your Security Is at Risk in the Office You assume your corporate IT colleagues are skilled enough to keep your data safe. But what if they're not? And what other threats face your privacy and security in the workplace? Read More to actively scanning for threats. The larger a company is, the more work it takes to keep it secure. Though it’s a specialization that requires a cool head and smarts to stay one step ahead of hackers, there’s never a boring moment.

Network Administrator

Networking is a complicated subject Networking 101: Ethernet, LANs, and How They Work Networking 101: Ethernet, LANs, and How They Work Even for modern users, the language surrounding home networking can be a little confusing. What's a LAN? Why do I need an Ethernet cable? Isn't it all the same? Read More — network admins must know it all. From setting up networks for new business to maintaining existing networks, their duties scale as the company’s networks do. Projects might include setting up a new VPN for a second campus or for remote workers, testing the network for weak points, and implementing an on-site email system.

If network access goes down, employees won’t be able to get much work done. So the job of a network admin is incredibly important. Networks are sensitive to changes, so getting everything done in a short time is critical. In addition, networking regularly changes, so a good network administrator can learn and adapt to new paradigms quickly.

Database Administrator

Databases hold an enormous amount of business data. Whether this is healthcare history for a hospital, or customer information at a department store, databases are not static objects. Where a database admin comes in, then, is to oversee and manage all database goings-on.

This can include installing and setting up a new database system, or perhaps even migrating from an older provider. Like most other IT fields, an emphasis security is vital due to the catastrophic effect of a database leaking to the public. Someone in this position obviously must know databases extremely well, including SQL How To Write Microsoft Access SQL Queries From Scratch How To Write Microsoft Access SQL Queries From Scratch Microsoft Access is one of the least used products in the Office family. But it's also the most powerful. Here's how you can use them with the SQL querying language. Read More , storage methods, and regular maintenance.

Other Fields

We’ve touched on five popular fields in IT, yet you’ll find so many more. In the interest of time we won’t discuss them all at length, but will list a few extras here:

  • IT Consultant — Similar to a helpdesk technician, an IT consultant supports external clients with any of their IT needs. They might work as an outsourced provider for many small clients, or might support anyone who needs help as a freelancer.
  • Project Manager — Technical projects, such as development of a new proprietary software for the company, need someone to oversee them. A project manager works with all the teams involved in a project How to Become a Project Manager How to Become a Project Manager If productivity is your passion and initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, and closing sound familiar, you may be a natural project manager. Let us show you how to kick off a career in project management. Read More and organizes them to keep the progress on track.

You know how many places IT can take you, and maybe one of these specializations stands out to you. What types of classes will prepare you for working in these fields?

Typical IT College Courses

As you’ve probably figured out, IT is not the same as computer science What Is Computer Science? What Is Computer Science? In the simplest of terms, computer science is the study of information ("data") and how it can be manipulated ("algorithms") to solve problems, mostly in theory but also in practice. Read More . Computer science manipulates information to solve problems and wants to understand the theory behind applications. In IT, we’re only concerned about existing systems and mastering them to help our clients become more efficient.

I graduated from Grove City College with a degree in Computer Information Systems. At my college, this major was essentially half Computer Science, and half business courses. Some of my relevant classes included:

This is just my experience at one college. You’ll see several themes in the required courses for an IT degree across major universities:

  • Database Management — Most degree programs include at least one class on the basics of using a database.
  • Networking — Likewise, learning the basics of networking, including the nitty-gritty concepts of transferring data, is standard.
  • Math — Most computer-related majors require some sort of math class. Business calculus and discrete math are both common.
  • Website Development — While you might not make a living designing websites, understanding the fundamentals of how web pages are built is useful.
  • Cybersecurity — As we mentioned above, almost every aspect of computing these days involves taking steps to secure it.

You think you’ve found a degree program that works for you. The last question left to ask yourself is whether your personality is right for a job in IT.

Important Skills and Characteristics

Just like not everyone should be a programmer 6 Signs That You Are Not Meant To Be A Programmer 6 Signs That You Are Not Meant To Be A Programmer Not everyone is cut out to be a programmer. If you aren't completely sure that you're meant to be a programmer, here are some signs that may point you in the right direction. Read More , even if you have an interest in IT, you might not possess all the characteristics of someone who typically pursues that work. That’s OK — don’t let a minor discrepancy deter you from pursuing what you really want to do.

But as a barometer, most of these characteristics and skills should apply to you if you want to soar in IT:

  • You enjoy working with people. This is a huge one. While some specialist programmers can work in their cave all day without seeing anybody, that’s not the case in IT. No matter which specialization you join, human interaction is a huge part of every day. Help desk technicians are essentially performing customer service to keep employees happy, while even high-level engineers must work with others to ensure everything runs smoothly.
  • You’re good at explaining complex concepts to people in simple terms. As a “tech person,” you’re the one who has to keep less tech-savvy folks informed. If you’re working in help desk support, will end users’ silly misunderstandings 10 Amazing Tech Support Stories That Actually Happened 10 Amazing Tech Support Stories That Actually Happened Tech support is important. It's also filled with life stories that need re-telling. Here are some absolutely amazing stories that give a glimpse into the lives of these unsung heroes. Read More drive you crazy? Understanding these concepts isn’t enough — you need to regularly inform and sometimes even persuade others of important updates.
  • You have a good understanding of common systems. When a relative asks why they can’t access their files 5 Things Users Tell IT Support and What They Really Mean 5 Things Users Tell IT Support and What They Really Mean Sometimes what people tell you they need, isn’t always what they really need. Sometimes, you just have to know better. Read More , do you immediately think of several scenarios that could be causing the problem? When working in IT, you should know Windows, Linux, MySQL, Word, or whatever other software and systems they use in your sphere. Of course, you won’t know everything and learning as you go is perfectly acceptable. But if you can’t solve your own network issues 7 Simple Steps to Diagnose a Network Problem 7 Simple Steps to Diagnose a Network Problem Network issues are frustrating, especially when the problem lies with your ISP. Next time you can't get online, here's the process you should follow on your end to diagnose the network problem. Read More , you probably aren’t fit to do it at an enterprise level.
  • You stay up-to-date and learn quickly. Some fields are static. The training you got 30 years ago provides everything you need to know today. IT isn’t like this. You have to stay on top of the latest trends, including security issues, end of life for major software, and best practices. So many aspects in this field change so rapidly that if you don’t keep up, you’ll get left behind.
  • You understand the business environment. A lot of this will come with experience, but it’s important to know what to expect from the outset. Working in a business environment is not the same as fixing your grandma’s computer. For instance, most businesses are still using Windows 7, even though Windows 10 has been out for a few years. Enterprises value the stability of Windows 7 more than the neat features in Windows 10 7 New Windows 10 Features You May Have Missed 7 New Windows 10 Features You May Have Missed Every major Windows Update now comes with countless new options and features. Here we cover awesome new features that didn't make the headlines. Read More .

Think IT Is Right for You?

If you take away one bit from this article, understand that IT is a broad field. Before you enter college, you might be interested in “doing something with computers,” which naturally leads you into IT. If you don’t like to code Coding Isn't For Everyone: 7 Tech Jobs You Can Get Without It Coding Isn't For Everyone: 7 Tech Jobs You Can Get Without It Don't be discouraged if you want to be a part of the tech field -- there are plenty of jobs for people who don't know how to code! Read More , you can eliminate jobs like a software engineer or game developer.

But you should still decide what you’d like to specialize in before you start college. General IT is applicable to most of the disciplines above, but you’ll have more success if you plan to enter a certain sphere. Whichever you choose, you’ll be entering a rewarding and challenging career — and that’s exciting!

Already have a degree and looking to change paths? Check out how to turn a liberal arts degree into a tech career How To Turn A Liberal Arts Degree Into A Great Tech Career How To Turn A Liberal Arts Degree Into A Great Tech Career If you're interested in technology, a Liberal Arts degree can be a great thing to have. The trick is to play to your strengths, minimize your weaknesses, and realize you are capable of contributing. Read More .

After reading all this information, do you have an interest in studying IT? Which specialization jumps out at you most? Feel free to leave your questions and comments below — I’d be happy to discuss my experience in the field if it would help you.

Image Credits: lassedesignen/Shutterstock

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  1. Sam
    August 13, 2017 at 5:27 am

    I'll start with a word. Rather, a country: India. It is likely you'll be outsourced, or downsized due to your employer moving your work to that country. Start with googling "Disney, outsourcing" and work your way outward with other companies. Then move on with the search terms, "H1B and tech". In addition, as was mentioned previously, you can kiss your nights, weekends and free time goodbye. Changes and emergency outages (SEV1s) don't happen during bankers hours.

    Unless you're an executive, or you're a consultant (even then, depending on the type, it could be bad), you'll be pulling terrible hours, working for crap pay (as compared to other industries), with little upward mobility, and when you're close to retirement age you'll be tossed aside with little regard to all of the experience you've acquired (google "tech industry ageism").

    As someone who's BTDT, if you want a career in an industry where your contributions are respected, valued, and you're compensated well for your time, choose ANY other career than I.T.. You MIGHT hear anecdotes here of those who have gotten lucky and got into the right company, or paved their own way, but they are NOT the majority. All you have to do is use your search-fu in google and you'll get the true scoop. You'll see I'm not B.S.ing or sour grapes. I.T. is a wonderful, fun and interesting hobby, but DON'T make it a career. Trust me on this.

  2. Dan
    August 11, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    You should also add that since IT is a 'must', expect to occasionally work nights and weekends to implement changes that won't impact your users. Not all changes can be done during normal working hours.

  3. Hildy J
    August 9, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    I'd add one other skill - you are good at breaking down complex things into interacting components and defining the interactions. From system flowcharts, database diagrams, workflow diagrams, GANTT charts, hardware interconnections, etc., IT is defined by components being orderly linked together.

    If you need to drill down multiple levels in your Windows Documents folder before you even see a document file, you may have the mindset. If you just throw your documents in Google Drive and rely on search to find them, you may not.