This article was updated on Oct. 24, 2023 with additional contributions by Mars Girolimon.
From checking email on our phones to crunching numbers on our laptops to organizing a teleconference over cloud-based software, it’s hard to overstate the importance of information technology (IT) in the workplace — and the ever-growing roles in the IT field. But what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about IT?
What is the Definition of Information Technology?
The phrase “information technology” goes back to a 1958 article published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). Authors Harold J. Leavitt and Thomas L. Whisler defined several types of information technology:
- Techniques for the fast processing of information
- The use of statistical and mathematical models for decision-making
- The “simulation of higher-order thinking through computer programs”
“While many aspects of this technology are uncertain, it seems clear that it will move into the managerial scene rapidly, with definite and far-reaching impact on managerial organization,” they wrote.
Six decades later, it’s clear that Leavitt and Whisler were onto something big. Today, information technology refers to everything that businesses use computers for. Information technology is building communications networks for a company, safeguarding data and information, creating and administering databases, helping employees troubleshoot problems with their computers or mobile devices, or doing a range of other work to ensure the efficiency and security of business information systems.
What’s the Difference Between IT and Computer Science?
The distinction between IT and computer science is frequently debated in the tech world. “If you search it or if you ask AI, you probably get 5,000 different answers every time,” said Renard Spratling, associate dean of technology at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
Within the higher education context, a computer science degree is largely focused on programming and software development, while information technology is the study of computer systems and networks as they relate to the operation of a business.
“As you go deeper into the science of computers, it’s an actual scientific process of exploring new possibilities of what computer software can do,” Spratling said. “Information technology on the other hand, tends to focus more on the technologies that are necessary to manage all this information.”
Spratling also offered another way to understand this distinction. “I would look at computer science as a subset of information technology,” he said. No matter how advanced you get with a software program, you’re still dealing with information technology, according to Spratling.
Either subject can be the foundation for a great career in the field. You may also choose to specialize in particular computer-related areas, such as earning a cyber security degree or continue your education with a master’s degree in IT or in a related field.
Why is Information Technology Important?
So much of today’s world is powered by technology. In fact, Spratling said it’s hard to find any area of modern life that doesn’t already have some usage or application of information technology.
“To add to that, anything can be enhanced or improved or made more efficient through the implementation of technology,” he said. “In a nutshell, that sort of says why it’s important.”
As technology continues to grow and evolve throughout many facets of daily life, the ways we interact with technology are changing, too. “Technology moves so fast, so it’s definitely important that we pay attention,” said Spratling.
He noted laws are always behind technology, so staying current with the technical side is imperative to keeping up with legal and social changes that come with it. In that way, being technologically literate can invite you into vital conversations and allow you to participate in finding solutions.
“Let’s see what problems we can solve,” Spratling said.
What are Some Examples of Jobs in Information Technology?
When it comes to types of IT jobs, examples run from tiny consulting firms to huge multinational corporations, and from highly technical specialties to management roles that demand strong people skills.
Here are some examples of routes you might choose and their job descriptions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
- Computer Network Architect – This is a step up the career ladder for a network administrator and usually requires a bachelor’s degree and previous experience in the IT field. People in this position design and build networks, such as intranets, local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs). The median pay for this kind of work was $126,900 in 2022, BLS reports.* Network architects often need to understand a variety of software systems, including administration tools, development environment software and operating system programs. There’s also often an element of human touch to this job since network architects may need to work with customers and sales and marketing staff to meet customer needs and make sure accounts are set up correctly.
- Computer Systems Analyst – This job, also known as system architect, demands an understanding of both IT and business systems. As with many information technology careers, the typical background for the job is a bachelor’s degree in a computer or information science field, but some people come to this work after studying business or even liberal arts. Strong computer skills, often including programming tools, database management software and development environment software are a must. At the same time, people doing this work must be able to apply computer systems to address business management issues like workflow, inventory control and production processes. As more businesses move into cloud computing, work in this area will grow. The median pay for the job was $102,240 in 2022, according to BLS.*
- Computer Support Specialist – These positions require a bachelor’s degree and are a good fit if you enjoy answering questions about computer software and hardware, setting up equipment, and training computer users. People in this position need to have a strong grasp of many kinds of software, including database interface programs, development of environment tools and operating system software. The median annual pay for this job was $59,660 in 2022, and positions in this field are projected to grow at a 5% growth rate through 2032, according to BLS.*
- Database Administrator – This fast-growing field involves protection and security of data such as financial information and customer shipping records. The jobs are often in specialized firms that provide services to other companies, or in data-heavy industries like insurance. The median pay for this work was $112,120 in 2022 with an 8% expected growth rate through 2032, according to BLS.* Most employers expect candidates for database administrator jobs to have a bachelor’s degree in an information- or computer-related discipline. It’s also helpful to understand database management software, as well as operating system tools, development environment and web platform software, and tools for enterprise resource planning.
- Information Security Analyst – This is one of the fastest-growing jobs in IT, with an expected 32% increase by 2032, according to BLS.* Professionals in these positions shield company networks and systems from cyber attacks. The role generally requires a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related discipline, plus some experience in the IT field, such as IT internships. The median wage in this job was $112,000 in 2022, BLS notes.*
- Network and Computer Systems Administrator – This job often requires a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field, though some employers may only ask for an associate degree in IT or postsecondary certificate, BLS said. Workers in this type of role earned a reported a median salary of $90,520 in 2022, according to BLS.* Daily tasks in this job could include maintaining computer network hardware and software, backing up data and troubleshooting network problems. To do this work, you need to know how to use database management software, as well as network monitoring and web platform development tools.
For many of these career paths, earning a bachelor’s degree is an important first step. But don’t discount what you can do with an associate degree in IT – it may allow you to get your foot in the door and it’s a solid start to earning your bachelor’s.
Is a Career in IT a Good Choice for You?
To have a successful career in IT, you’ll need to be just as comfortable interacting with people as you are with computers. IT professionals regularly assist others with technical issues, which means communication in IT is crucial.
Sheelabanny Vunnam ’23 didn’t always consider herself a techie, but that changed while she earned her master’s degree in IT. Now she’s confident troubleshooting and problem solving. But, she said she also developed more than technical skills while working as a graduate assistant and completing her program at SNHU.
“I learned how to multi-task, how to interact with supervisors and how to interact with colleagues,” Vunnam said.
Skills like multi-tasking, communication and time management are all necessary for IT professionals. If you’re considering a career in IT, you’ll also want to develop soft skills like these while becoming a techie in your own right, like Vunnam.
What are the Benefits of Working in IT?
As for the best aspects of a career in tech? “Wow, where do I start?” Spratling said.
First, he noted how important flexibility is to many individuals and families. “A lot of the careers (in IT) may give you flexibility in not just location, but also time,” said Spratling, pointing out that many positions in IT allow you to work from home and offer an accommodating schedule.
Another positive of working in IT is that you don’t have to work exclusively with technology itself, according to Spratling. “You could look at it as more — if I have a passion about something, how can I use technology to supplement the passion that I have?” he said.
There are tech workers in every field, as well as positions that combine IT with other fields, like digital forensic examiners working in criminal justice or biotech workers in the healthcare sphere.
The outlook for tech careers offers a potential advantage, too. The field’s growth rate is much faster than average, according to BLS.*
“And it pays well. That’s another benefit,” Spratling said. ” Make some good money and solve some problems at the same time.”
Although salaries vary between roles, BLS reports the median annual wage for tech workers was $100,530 in 2022.*
How Can You Get Started in IT?
The first thing you’ll need to do to launch your tech career is develop a foundation of relevant knowledge and skills. For many tech workers, that means earning a bachelor’s degree.
Some schools, like SNHU, offer online degree programs that allow you to work with the latest technologies and create a digital portfolio to showcase your skills and help you land a job. You could even go on to earn a master’s degree after completing your bachelor’s for a more advanced understanding and a potentially higher salary.
But now that’s not the only way you can start a career in tech. “It used to be that you’d have to have a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree to really get started and maybe some certifications on top of all that,” according to Spratling.
He noted trends are changing — employers are adjusting their approach and looking at nontraditional educational paths. “There are shorter term programs that you can complete to get a highly recognized credential or certification that can be very valuable and quicker to get a job,” Spratling said.
For example, if you have an interest in coding you might decide to earn a computer programming certificate.
“I still encourage you to get a degree,” said Spratling. “But you know, that’s not the only path.”
Networking, professional development and experiential learning can also help you move forward with an IT career.
“Training, networking with people, getting your name out there is huge,” Spratling said. “That’s a big part of it nowadays, just the learning and development and on top of that, always developing that mindset of always learning because technology changes so fast.”
If you’re interested in an IT career, Spratling’s advice is simple — explore.
“There are so many avenues you can go down within IT and there’s so many different facets of it. So just explore, try to get a broader sweep first to see what the different arenas are and see what you gravitate to,” he said. “See where it goes you’ll be somewhere in the field that you might be passionate about.”
Regardless of your specific path, the world of opportunities in IT that Leavitt and Whisler saw emerging back in 1958 is still growing today, with no end in sight.
*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.
Livia Gershon is a freelance writer focused on education and healthcare.
Mars Girolimon ’21 ’23G is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University where they earned their bachelor’s and master’s, both in English and creative writing. In addition to their work in higher education, Girolimon’s short fiction is published in the North American Review, So It Goes by The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, X-R-A-Y and more. They’re currently writing their debut novel, which was Longlisted for The First Pages Prize. Connect with them on LinkedIn and X, formerly known as Twitter.