Information Technology (IT) has become such a widespread career choice. 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, 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
Depending on your level of expertise, working in IT security can involve everything from implementing proper security software to educating end users 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.
Networking is a complicated subject — 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.
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, storage methods, and regular maintenance.
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 and organizes them to keep the progress on track.
- Quality Assurance — Errors in new software could result in consequences as minor as customer frustration or severe as people dying. Thus, proper testing is vital and these folks are the ones who do it. In QA, you’ll work to make sure programs are user-friendly and free of issues before they’re released to the public. This field also has a great work-life balance.
- Cloud Architect — As more software becomes available through “the cloud,” fewer businesses want to run in-house software and servers. Cloud integrators specialize in implementing cloud solutions like Office 365, Salesforce, Microsoft Azure, and more.
- Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning — Artificial intelligence has exploded in progress over the last several years. New positions are opening up to study and develop them; some of this overlaps with computer science positions.
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. 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:
- Computer Programming I and II — The basics and intermediate-level concepts of programming in C++. Some schools teach Java as a first programming language instead.
- Systems Analysis — Learning the basics of the Systems Analyst position through theoretical as well as real-world study of an on-campus system.
- Software Engineering — Working in a small team through an entire semester to create, design, and document a software project for a business client.
- Business Statistics — Covered basic methods of tracking and interpreting business data.
- Principles of Management and Leadership — Learned the qualities of a good leader and what it’s like to lead a team in a business environment.
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, 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 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, 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, 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.
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, 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.
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