What is Information Technology

Man working as IT manager standing in a server room working on a laptop.

Information technology (IT) 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. Demand for professionals in this field is high and growing, and people entering the field have a range of career paths to choose from.

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 in the workplace. But what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about IT?

Types of Information Technology

The phrase "information technology" goes back to a 1958 article published in the Harvard Business Review. 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 Can I Do With an Information Technology Degree?

When it comes to career paths in information technology, examples run from tiny consulting firms to huge multinational corporations, and from highly technical specialties to management ladders that demand strong people skills. Here are some examples of routes you might choose:

  • 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 is $52,810, and positions in this field are growing faster than average, according to BLS.
  • 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 or postsecondary certificate. Either way, these jobs are often available to professionals without prior work experience in the field, and BLS reports that they paid a median salary of $81,100 in 2017. 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.
  • 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). Median pay for this kind of work was $104,650 in 2017, according to the BLS. 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.
  • 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 $87,020 in 2017, according to BLS. Most employers expect candidates for the 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.
  • 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 $88,270 in 2017, according to BLS.
  • Information Security Analyst - This is one of the fastest-growing jobs in IT, with an expected 28% increase by 2026, according to BLS. Professionals in these positions shield company networks and systems from cyber attacks. These jobs generally require a bachelor's degree with a computer-related major, plus some experience in the IT field. Professionals in this field need to use development environment tools, as well as network monitoring and operating software and specific security tools. The median wage in this job was $95,510 in 2017, according to BLS.

It's clear from this list that positions in IT represent high-paying, fast-growing career paths. It's also clear that the first step toward many of them is earning a bachelor's degree. Within the higher education context, computer science 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. Either can be the foundation for a great career in the field. Some students may also choose to specialize in particular computer-related areas like cyber security or continue their education with a master's degree in a related field.

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.

Dale Stokdyk is a marketer passionate about STEM higher education. Follow him on Twitter @dalestokdyk or connect on LinkedIn.


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