The products and end results of information technology are a part of our daily lives, whether it’s the operating systems on mobile phones, the computer networks that automate everyday financial transactions, or the reams of information sought and found on the Internet.
So it should come as no surprise that careers in the IT field are expected to grow significantly in the next decade—jobs in computer software engineering, for example, are expected to grow by 32% by 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And every company or organization has a computer-related component that’s critical for getting the job done. So you might program or engineer computer software (though the BLS warns that programming jobs will likely shrink due to offshoring and the increasing ability of users to write their own programs), evaluate and implement the proper computer network architecture to fulfill a company’s objectives, develop or administer websites, coordinate a company’s information security, or design games and apps.
A strong background in the technical fundamentals of computer science and programming languages like Java, Microsoft.NET, and C++ are obviously important for success in the field. But a creative brain and an ambition to stay updated on the newest advances in the field — whether through books or training — are also key, according to recruiters and IT employees. That’s because there’s never one way to solve a problem and technologies are constantly evolving.
“You always have a new challenge and you’re always applying a different set of knowledge to solve it,” says Jim Schelle, a solution architect for Synchronoss Technologies in Seattle, Wash. “It’s constant work to stay on top of it. You don’t get to rest on your laurels in the tech industry.”
It’s also important that you can communicate and work well with others, because you’ll likely be working in a group with other programmers, engineers, or architects. And don’t expect to arrive at an interview with strong grades as the main proof of your desirability as a candidate — be prepared to show hiring managers your code from a class project or a student competition (read: get involved with activities outside of your core course load) or a program you created in your spare time.
Salaries in information technology are strong—Web developers start out earning an average of $38,800 a year, according to salary data from PayScale.com. With several years of experience, you can earn $94,800 per year as an information technology program manager, or $93,600 per year as a software development manager. And many companies pay much more for skills that are in-demand.
What Professionals in the Field Say:
Sixty-five percent of those in the field who answered our PayScale.com survey said the skills sets they learned in their degree program (in CIS or MIS-related degrees) were important or very important for advancing their careers; and 53% of respondents said they’d recommend or strongly recommend an IT-related major to a friend, family member, or colleague.
Common Majors: Computer Science and Management Information Systems (MIS)
Personality Fit for IT: Curious, creative problem solvers with strong technical abilities.
Your IT Career: In order to get hired in IT, you’ll need a strong undergraduate background in computer science, math, and physics classes, because while you’ll learn plenty on the job, recruiters and employees in the field stress that those technical building blocks are crucial for cementing the kind of analytical thinking that’s necessary to succeed.
But you don’t have to stick just to tech companies for prospective jobs—you can also take your programming skills and apply them in another field. For example, Adam Roberts, a 2007 computer engineering graduate of the University of Florida, spent two years as a teacher in the Teach for America program, and now works as an IT manager for a school district in Washington, D.C.
Getting Started: While there’s not a set career trajectory in IT, as a recent college graduate, you might enter the workforce as an entry-level computer programmer or software engineer, where you’d be writing or updating code or engineering computer software. Recruiters say it can be a plus to have a sense of the creative side—the graphic design elements that compliment programming. But be cautious about focusing only on the latest hot tools.
“We don’t want students to circumvent their undergraduate degrees,” says Karen Morris, the university relations director at gaming company Electronic Arts, who opposes the increase in the number of two-year “gaming universities” that give students a quick dose of typical game design languages like Adobe’s Flash but skip the rest. She points out, “Who knows if we will use Flash in a few years?”
Get on the Fast Track: Hot areas of IT where jobs are expected to grow include cybersecurity and cloud computing, and mobile- and Web-based games and apps are exploding. So if you know the mobile programming language HTML5, or are a whiz at using Flash to design cool graphics, you’ll have a leg up. The field of Web analytics, used to enhance user experience or business functions, is also poised for huge growth, so if you have a background in both computer science and marketing or business, you’ll be an in-demand hire.
Next Up: After a few years, you could advance in the ranks to become a senior level engineer after becoming faster and more skilled at solving increasingly complex software solutions that involve more moving parts. But recruiters emphasize that ambitious and hardworking entry level hires can make an impact and advance quickly if they show the talent and the drive to continue taking on more responsibilities. An engineer with a knack for management might advance to become a project manager, directing groups of engineers and programmers. But if you prefer the technical side of the coin, you’d advance to become a senior developer, and then a team lead, in which you’re advising the team of developers.
Phase Three: Within about 10 years, you might become an architect, in which you are mapping out and testing the kinds of technologies that will best accomplish your goal, and which requires a bigger picture view of the business and its objectives.