Do IT: Information Technology Career Paths

Information Technology is a very large field but within the field there are common job categories and career paths. Over time new careers appear and a few old careers fall away and within broad career paths there are many areas of specialization. This article’s focus is to look at the large, broad categories to give new IT professionals or IT hopefuls a basic grasp of options within the field.

The categories here are separated by duty and represent the basic building blocks of the IT professions and disciplines. By no means is this meant to be representative of all job roles and career paths available to an aspiring IT professional or hobbyist but to provide some structure to make target careers less ephemeral. In the real world few, if any, IT professionals do the work of only a single job role without venturing outside its strict boundaries if such boundaries can even be argued to exist. In extremely large IT departments (those over 10,000 IT professionals) will often stick very strictly to descriptions such as these but small departments (say of only 10 IT professionals) may lump almost all skills into just two or three overarching job descriptions.

Programming: Of all professional areas within Information Technology the area of programming is surely the most well known to people outside of the profession. Programmers can work in numerous different technology areas, specialize in many different ways and can work with many different languages and platforms. Programming is often the area of IT that draws people into the field. Programming, more than any other IT discipline, is easy for people to begin learning early and is very accessible.

Programming, or coding, involves the writing of computer programs which can range quite significantly and job titles vary dramatically as the job descriptions begin to differ. Beginning professionals on the programming path are often just termed “programmers” and can expect to do programming projects that involve tiny pieces of larger systems. Programmers are almost always working on teams of programmers but can potentially live very solitary existences if such is desired. Programming professions allow for a very wide array of working environments. Programmers are more well suited to working flexible hours and from remote locations or “work from home” due to the nature of many programming projects.

As programmers progress along their career paths they can move up to positions like software developer, software engineer and software architect. Specialization within the programming realm can include system programming (working close to the hardware – highly technical), user interface programming (working closer to the end user experience – generally less technical and more creative and involved in the “human element”), database programmer, web application programmer, etc. Programming fields lend themselves to crossing into software design and management roles as well.

Systems Analysis and Design: Programmers may write software but systems analysts design it. Often the two roles are combined in what is called a “programmer analyst” as the roles are so closely identified. A systems analyst’s role is to define requirements and high level design for an application or program. Programmers are responsible with the low level design. A good analyst will have a very good understanding of programming, developer’s tools, architecture and more. It is a broad discipline that often involves a lot of customer or client interaction and the ability to translate requirements from clients outside of the IT field into useful requirements for design and for the programmers.

Systems Analysis is almost a management discipline and analysts will often cross that boundary many times during their careers. It is an exceedingly creative part of the IT field requiring a lot of critical thinking and “outside the box” contemplation skills.

Project Management: Any area of IT can have project management involved with it but this almost always applies to software project management or system project management. IT departments that include any number or programmers and possibly analysts will logically be charged with developing software. Project Managers oversee this process. Technical project management is generally closer to being a management discipline than an IT discipline but many PMs are highly technical and come from the core IT ranks as IT project management is so varied and different from project management in other areas such as engineering.

Hardware Support: Hardware support comes in two basic flavours – desktop hardware (which includes laptops and other commodity end user items) and server or datacenter support. Hardware techs range from consumer desktop support personnel that you will encounter at stores like CompUSA and BestBuy to server technicians working in the datacenters working with multi-million dollar hardware. the range is rather broad. Because desktop hardware has become so commonly known the “computer store” techs are generally not considered to be IT professionals any more than a car salesman would be considered a mechanic or a car designer. Sometimes a store tech job can provide leverage into the field but generally this is not the case. The technologies that are used in consumer PCs is enough different from enterprise business systems that the skills are generally not useful across the divide.

Some large companies maintain a staff of hardware technicians who work on desktop and laptop level hardware. Desktop class technicians are so identified with the CompTIA A+ certification that often times these job roles may be termed “A+ Techs”. This is generally a path towards the server technician positions. Server technicians need to be familiar with much more complicated and varied hardware and often work in large datacenters where there is little or no direct customer interactions. While desktop techs often interact to some degree with end users and desktop support technicians, server technicians generally interface only with systems administrators.

Networking: One of the core skill areas in IT is networking and communications. Networking is a relatively new discipline within the industry as computers used to exist primarily as stand-alone devices whether in homes or in business. But over the last few decades the idea of computers that are not a part of a larger network has gone from commonplace to practically unthinkable. Today even the most basic home computer is purchased to be an Internet connection node and not for the innate capabilities of the computer itself. Because of this networking has exploded into a very large, core discipline needing many qualified professional to fill out its ranks. Networking jobs generally fall into a few basic categories: network technician, network administrator and network engineer.

As you can guess from the job role names a technician’s general role is to deal with mostly “field” networking issues which often involves a lot of leg work, is more likely than other positions to place you in a remote office and often involves working with smaller categories of networking equipment but it is a stepping stone to high level networking positions. The network administrator is the position responsible for managing and running the day to day operations of the corporate network. Generally the network administrator is the last word in the company’s network operations. This can be a very senior position and while the job titles are few the discipline’s long term career growth is solid. A network engineer’s job would be to design a network. Often administrators and engineers are the same people but in large companies these roles are separated with engineers generally having a broader knowledge of network solutions and vendors and administrators having a more thorough knowledge of low level tuning and configuration of the equipment used at that time.

Systems: Possibly the largest of all IT disciplines is that of systems. The concept of systems is so large that it is difficult to define in any meaningful way and is often conceptualized as several sub-disciplines to make it easier to quantify. The basics are that the “systems discipline” involves any basic management of computer “systems”. This can mean management of end-user resources like desktops, laptops, PDAs, etc. as well as shared resources like servers. Generally a “systems” professional will work primarily with the computer’s operating system but this qualification is hazy at best. Any real work systems professional will have much overlap with other areas but core functionalities are generally more well defined.

Desktop and Deskside Support: The most common sub-discipline within systems is desktop support. This role is very difficult to separate from that of “Helpdesk” although the later is less of a distinct discipline but more of a delivery method of support. Most businesses separate helpdesk into a unified function that crosses many discipline boundaries.

Desktop Support involves the direct management of personal computers whether they are Windows, Mac, Linux, etc. A desktop technician will often work either directly with an end-users workstation or remotely via remote control technologies to help keep workstation resources working correctly, adding new software, etc. Desktop administration often deals with large numbers of desktop resources and generally handles password and account issues, large scale desktop changes, migrations, etc.

While desktop job descriptions are generally rather lean the field is actually extremely large. Almost every business requires a regular host of support personnel to keep the non-IT staff working on a day to day basis and will additionally utilize contract desktop support staff to augment internal resources as often “project” work will require far more people than a company can normally keep on staff. Many IT professionals who intend to enter almost any of the other disciplines will start their careers in the desktop support realm as it has the lowest “barrier to entry” into the field. But don’t be fooled. Just because it is easy to get into the beginning desktop support ranks there are many long term career opportunities within this field as well. Many professionals have long and rewarding careers without even leaving the desktop support arena.

In some large organizations there might even be a dedicated desktop engineering role specifically for those function of designing the operating system and application profile for corporate desktops. This position is almost always included in other job roles but can, potentially, exist on its own.

Server Administration and Engineering: The most visible and well known career path under the systems umbrella is that of server administration and its nature sibling, server engineering. These roles are so common that almost all businesses simply refer to them as system administration and system engineering.

Server support roles are involved with the designing, building (from a software perspective,) securing, deploying and managing the server resources of an organization. These servers come in a wide variety of types from Windows, Linux and Netware operating systems to application, database, web and email functions. Server support is a very large job role category that often spans entire careers from intern to retirement. This is one of the largest senior level career categories and is often a “target” career for people entering the IT field.

Pure server support roles as can be found in very large companies may be very strictly limited to supporting just the operating system and core functionality of a server. More often server system administrators will be involved in the running of extended functionality such as email, web, database and other software that is tied to the server.

Application Support: In large organizations when the system support role is strictly limited to the server’s operating system you will find dedicated application support personnel who generally specialize in a single application (such as Microsoft Exchange) or in a category of applications (such as Email) or in a suite of applications (such as Microsoft BackOffice including applications like Exchange, SharePoint, LiveCommunications Server, Project Server, etc.) More often you will find mixed server and application specialist who specialize on a particular platform and application combination such as iPlanet on Solaris or Apache on Linux, etc. Management Information Systems applications such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Customer Resource Management (CRM) are common dedicated application areas as well.

Many companies have myriad internal applications that have been developed or customized either in house or through a consulting agreement and are considered to be a competitive advantage for the organization. These unique applications often require support as would any commercially purchased off the shelf application. In addition to the obvious role of application administration the role of application support is also common in large corporate entities. This is often called “operations” as this role functions almost as an organizational nerve center.

Database Administration: Known as a DBA, a database administrator is a special category of application administrator that is dedicated to the database technologies. Databases (such as Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, Sybase, MySQL, PostgreSQL, etc.) are such a critical, popular, important and unique application that the field is considered to be its own area. There are many skills unique to the DBA profession that are not used or not widely used outside of database administration.

Database Designer: In a role somewhat related to both systems analysis and programming is that of database designer. A database designer’s job role is to work with application designers and analysts to design the database portion of an application. Databases are extremely complex types of software that generally require careful management and tuning and individual databases require detailed design which can be a significant portion of the design of an application.

Web Designer: Unlike the web application developer which is a popular programming job role a web designer fulfills the very popular function of designing web pages themselves. This is often considered to be a fringe IT job role because it is equally related to publishing, marketing and other, non-IT disciplines but because a truly qualified web designer needs a to be very skilled technically it is, in my opinion, a true IT discipline. Web designers get probably more opportunity for artistic creativity than any other IT activity. Often web designers will slowly more into programming to enhance their skill sets and will begin to become user interface specialized web application developers. But the leap from non-programming web design to web application development is a large one not to be undertaken casually. It is truly a change of discipline but between two disciplines that are closely tied together. Web design is by far the most prominent IT discipline to make use of traditional artistic abilities.

Security: While almost every job role needs to make security a part of their own discipline the enterprise has a place for overarching security personnel as well. IT, because of its ties to the company’s most valuable non-people assets – data, is integrally tied to security. The role permeates the field and is broad in its implications. Security professionals must be aware of everything from physical security, system security, network security, database security, programming methods, etc. In today’s IT professional realm security has become an extremely hot topic and it is very likely to remain so indefinitely.

Help Desk: This task is often placed in its own category because of the nature of the position. Help desk generally refers to the job role of the technical support call center. Help desk roles generally range from customer application support to remote desktop support. A help desk and an operations center will often be paired together or combined into one entity. Using current remote desktop management technologies such as RDP the modern helpdesk has taken on many of the job functions previously covered by deskside support. As networks become more stable and power powerful and as desktop management becomes more ubiquitous and far reaching the abilities for the help desk to cover most day to day support functions increases. Often the helpdesk is used as an aggregation resource to provide a single point of contact for any needs originating from an non-IT end user.

LAN Administration: This mostly deprecated term was once popular for referring to the small and medium business combined job role of deskside and server administrator along with network technician. LAN Administrators were often required to be “jack of all trades” functioning as a single point of resolution for all “computer” problems in small businesses. Often this meant constant trips to user’s desks and wrangling with tiny mixed user server and network closets. As IT advances this role is becoming less popular but is likely to continue in smaller companies for some time. The term LAN refers to the “Local Area Network” and was meant to suggest that the administrator was responsible for all machines connected to and including the office’s network. LAN Administrators also have a tendency to occur at remote, branch office locations where a single person can satisfy almost all local IT needs and additional needs can be handled via helpdesk or remote administration.

Storage Administration: One of the newest professional areas now widely available as a specialty within IT is that of storage management.  Over the last several years new and highly specific storage technologies have emerged and have become a mainstay in the corporate technology environment.  These technologies are, to some degree, unique to storage dealing with large and fast storage hardware as well as network technologies adapted for dedicated use in the storage space.  Storage results in generally being a blend of systems, networking and a little server level hardware support.  This is a young and growing area within IT but definitely here to stay.

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