For many people, information technology (IT) is basically synonymous with the guys and gals who call you when you need help with a computer problem. While this view of information technology is not entirely incorrect, it drastically underestimates the scope of this critical career field.
If you want to get a better handle on information technology and the many facets of this field, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve done the digging for you and talked to IT industry professionals to create this helpful guide for beginners in the field.
What is information technology and what does it encompass?
The most basic definition of information technology is that it is the application of technology to solve business or organizational problems on a broad scale. Regardless of role, a member of an IT department works with others to solve technology problems large and small.
There are three main pillars of responsibility for an IT department:
IT Governance: this refers to the combination of policies and processes that ensure IT systems run effectively and meet the needs of the organization.
IT Operations: this is a catchall category for the day-to-day operations of an IT department. This includes providing technical support, network maintenance, security testing, and device management tasks.
Hardware and Infrastructure: This focus area refers to all physical components of the IT infrastructure. This pillar includes the setup and maintenance of devices such as routers, servers, phone systems, and individual devices such as laptops.
Although a company’s IT department performs 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 don’t even know you have. This means they can automate and create processes for many of their daily tasks to keep the business running smoothly. The ideal IT department is also aligned with the goals of the business and transparent enough in its processes that the rest of the company can understand and contribute to it.
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 rely, at least in part, on computers and the networks that connect them. Maintaining a standard level of service, security and connectivity is a big task, but it’s not the only priority or potential challenge on their plate.
More and more enterprises are looking to implement more intuitive and sophisticated solutions. “ES can provide the edge an organization needs to outsmart, outperform and outmaneuver competitors,” says Edward Kiledjian, chief information security officer and technology blogger. Let’s look at the needs that current and future IT professionals will be working on:
Data overload: organizations need to process huge amounts of data. This requires large amounts of computing power, sophisticated software and human analytical skills.
Mobile and wireless: More employers are offering remote work options that require smartphones, tablets and laptops with wireless hotspots and roaming capabilities.
Cloud services: Most companies no longer operate their own “server farms” to store large amounts of data. Many companies now work with third-party cloud services hosting platforms to manage this data.
Bandwidth for video hosting: video conferencing solutions are becoming more popular, so more network bandwidth is needed to adequately support them.
Based on the volume of these needs, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that employment in computer and information technology fields is expected 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 big part of an IT department’s job, but what counts as hardware? And what is software? Let’s break down this important distinction.
Hardware includes all the physical parts of a computer system. This includes hardware that is installed in the computer, such as the motherboard, central processing unit, and hard drive. Hardware also describes components that can be attached to the outside of a computer, such as a keyboard, mouse, and printer. Note, however, that some tablets and smaller laptops integrate elements such as a keyboard and mouse into the device. Basically, hardware is a 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 includes all data, applications, and programs stored electronically, such as an operating system or a video editing tool.
How does this distinction apply to an IT career? Almost every IT job requires a mix of hardware- and software-based expertise. Some IT workers may spend more time configuring hardware components, but those components are also controlled by software. In addition, IT professionals are responsible for deploying and setting up software applications for users.
IT Career Opportunities
Now that you know the general duties of an IT department, you may be wondering what the individual roles within it are. Here are some of the positions you’ll find in many IT departments:
Computer support specialists work on the front lines of troubleshooting technology issues, including software problems, computer crashes and hardware problems. These specialists may also assist higher-level IT members with larger 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 connect them to intelligent business solutions. They typically specialize in a particular industry while working for a technology company or working directly in an industry such as finance or government.
Information security analysts are responsible for the security of a company’s computer networks, conducting tests and developing company-wide best security practices.
Note that some of these roles change depending on the size and scope of the company. In smaller companies, most of your day-to-day work may revolve around relatively mundane things like troubleshooting printers, but on the other hand, you may need to be more of a jack-of-all-trades with broader skills. At large companies, IT staff have a more diverse range of potential focus areas-some may advance into management and strategic planning roles, while others may pursue specialized areas like cybersecurity.
What qualities do employers look for in IT candidates?
Candidates best suited for IT work are those who have strong communication skills. From helping executives develop sophisticated technological solutions to troubleshooting a network problem, those in information technology must have a level of empathy that allows them to see exactly what a customer or employee is dealing with and quietly help them achieve their goal or solve a problem.
This may mean breaking down a big problem or end goal into multiple steps so the stakeholder can see exactly what they need to accomplish it. Taking time to define and explain what is needed can help an IT department better manage stakeholder expectations and maximize the department’s hours, according to Keri Peterson, IT business analyst and project manager at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul. Many companies want to use technology as a means to an end, and a competent IT department can help them do that.
A positive attitude and passion for technology can help an IT staff succeed and progress. Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director of 4D – Data Centers, says the combination of these traits will foster greater accountability. Plus, this passion for technology will make it much easier and more enjoyable to stay up to date on the latest technologies and advances-another must for the IT professional.