For many people, information technology (IT) is basically synonymous with the guys and gals you call when you need help with a computer issue. While that view of information technology isn’t totally wrong, it drastically understates the scope of this critical career field.
If you’re looking to get a better handle on what information technology is and the many facets of this field, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ve done the digging for you and spoke with IT industry pros to create this helpful beginner’s guide to the field.
What is information technology and what does it encompass?
The most basic information technology definition is that it's the application of technology to solve business or organizational problems on a broad scale. No matter the role, a member of an IT department works with others to solve technology problems, both big and small.
There are three primary pillars of responsibility for an IT department:
- IT governance: This refers to the combination of policies and processes that ensure IT systems are effectively run and in alignment with the organization’s needs.
- IT operations: This is a catchall category for the daily work of an IT department. This includes providing tech support, network maintenance, security testing and device management duties.
- Hardware and infrastructure: This focus area refers to all the physical components of IT infrastructure. This pillar of IT includes the setup and maintenance of equipment like routers, servers, phone systems and individual devices like laptops.
Even though an organization’s IT department handles many different functions and plays a critical role in keeping things running, Andrey Prokopchuk, head of IT at Belitsoft, says the perfect IT department is the one you aren’t even aware of. This means that they are able to automate and create processes for many of their daily tasks, so that the business continues to run smoothly. The ideal IT department is also aligned with the business’s goals and transparent in its processes in a way that the rest of the business can understand and provide input on.
Why is information technology important?
Simply put, the work of most organizations would slow to a crawl without functioning IT systems. You’d be hard-pressed to find a business that doesn’t at least partially rely on computers and the networks that connect them. Maintaining a standard level of service, security and connectivity is a huge task, but it’s not the only priority or potential challenge on their plates.
More and more companies want to implement more intuitive and sophisticated solutions. “IT can provide the edge a company needs to outsmart, outpace and out-deliver competitors,” says Edward Kiledjian, a Chief Information Security Officer and technology blogger. Let’s take a look at the needs that current and future IT specialists will be working on:
- Data overload: Businesses need to process huge amounts of data. This requires large amounts of processing power, sophisticated software and human analytical skills.
- Mobile and wireless usages: More employers are offering remote work options that require smartphones, tablets and laptops with wireless hotspots and roaming ability.
- Cloud services: Most businesses no longer operate their own “server farms” to store massive amounts of data. Many businesses now work with cloud services—third-party hosting platforms that maintain that data.
- Bandwidth for video hosting: Videoconferencing solutions have become more and more popular, so more network bandwidth is needed to support them sufficiently.
Based on the volume of these needs, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that employment of computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 13 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.*
Hardware vs. software
You know that working with hardware and software is a large part of an IT department’s work, but what counts as hardware? And what’s software? Let’s break down this important distinction.
Hardware includes all the physical parts of a computer system. This includes hardware installed inside the computer like the motherboard, central processing unit and hard drive. Hardware also describes components that can be connected to the outside of a computer like a keyboard, mouse and printer. Keep in mind though that some tablets and smaller laptops integrate items like a keyboard and a mouse within the device. Basically, hardware is any part, component or device related to computers and their networks that you can physically touch and manipulate.
Unlike hardware, software is not something you can physically change. Software encompasses all the data, application and programs stored electronically, like an operating system or a video-editing tool.
So how does this distinction apply to an IT career? Nearly every IT job requires a blend of hardware and software-based know-how. Some IT workers may spend more time working with configuring hardware components, but those components are also governed by software. Additionally, IT professionals are responsible for deploying and setting up software applications for users.
IT career opportunities
Now that you know the general responsibilities of an IT department, you may be wondering what the individual roles within are. Here are some of the positions that you’ll find in many IT departments:
- Computer support specialists work on the front lines troubleshooting any technology issues including software issues, computer crashes and hardware trouble. These specialists may also assist senior-level IT members with larger-scale network issues.
- Network systems administrators focus on the big picture of the network system, security and performance.
- Computer systems analysts work behind the scenes to marry IT with smart business solutions. They usually specialize in a particular industry while working for a technology firm or work directly in an industry, like finance or government.
- Information security analysts are responsible for the security of an organization’s computer networks, conducting tests and developing company-wide best security practices.
Keep in mind that some of these roles will change depending on the size and scope of the company. In smaller companies, most of your daily work may revolve around relatively mundane things like troubleshooting printers, but on the other hand, you may be required to be more of a jack-of-all-trades with broader knowledge. With large firms, IT employees have a more diverse array of potential focus areas—some may work upward into management and strategic planning roles, while others may pursue specialized areas like cybersecurity.
What characteristics are employers looking for in IT candidates?
Candidates who are best suited for IT work are those who have strong communication skills. From helping executives develop sophisticated technological solutions to troubleshooting a network issue, those in information technology need to have a level of empathy that allows them to see exactly what a client or co-worker is dealing with and calmly help them achieve their goal or solve a problem.
This may mean breaking down a large problem or an end goal into multiple steps so that the stakeholder can see exactly what it will take to accomplish it. Taking time to define and explain what’s needed can help an IT department better manage stakeholders’ expectations and maximize the department’s hours in the best way possible, according to Keri Peterson, IT business analyst and project manager at University of Northwestern-St. Paul. Many businesses want to use technology as a means to an end, and a competent IT department can help them get there.
A positive attitude and passion for technology can help an IT employee succeed and advance. Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director of 4D Data Centres, says that the combination of these traits will foster greater responsibilities. Plus, this passion for technology will make staying up to date on the latest technology and advancements—another must for the IT professional—much easier and enjoyable.
Are you a fit for an IT career?
Now that you’ve got a better handle on the basics of what information technology is and the important nature of the field, you might be wondering whether a tech career is the right fit for you. Our article, “8 Signs You’re Wired to Major in Technology,” lays out some of the telltale indicators you’d do well in a Technology-related degree program.
*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [information accessed November 5, 2018] https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/home.htm. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and include workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.