Careers in Information Technology (IT) and Computing
Research in the UK suggests that the information technology (IT) and computing sector is growing faster than any other part of the economy—some estimates suggest around 2.5 times faster. At the same time, a growing ‘digital skills gap’ is opening up. This sector therefore offers very good prospects of employment, because there are fewer people with the necessary digital skills than are needed to fill vacancies.
The IT sector is also extremely wide-ranging. IT specialists may work in companies that develop or sell hardware or software, including games. However, they may also work in any business that uses technology. They may provide support to business users of technology, or they may be involved in developing and implementing new systems and technologies. Many of these jobs share a core of both technical and interpersonal skills.
Why Work in IT and Technology?
There are many reasons to choose a career in a particular sector: the pay and your level of interest are of course important. However, another reason is that there is a shortage of the necessary skills—and you have, or can develop those skills.
This could well be the biggest reason to choose a career in IT at the moment. There is a very definite digital skills shortage (see box), and you are unlikely ever to be short of work.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of IT to organisations, and particularly its ability to support remote work. Analytical skills—that is, skills in managing and manipulating data—are also increasingly important as organisations pivot to become more data-driven.
The Digital Skills Gap in Detail
In 2021, the number of advertised technology jobs rose by 42% in the UK. However, many employers also reported that they were unable to fill those vacancies.
The top shortage jobs were in data science and IT system architecture.
The main skills needed were analytics, machine learning, statistics and artificial intelligence for data science jobs. Systems architects needed skills in business and data management, and experience with AWS.
Source: TechNation’s Jobs and Skills Report 2021, quoted by prospects.ac.uk
Jobs in IT and Computing
Employers of IT specialists fall into two main categories:
Technology companies, such as those developing and manufacturing hardware or software, including games, developing and operating cloud platforms, and providing cybersecurity solutions; and
All other companies and organisations, who use hardware and software as a way to deliver their business objectives and need support to do so.
IT specialists may also be self-employed and work freelance. They will move from project to project in different companies. Some IT work is more likely to be done on a self-employed basis because companies tend to have a ‘once and done’ need for the work. Projects of this type include designing websites, and providing advice about introducing a new IT system, which tends to be done on a consultancy basis.
IT Roles in Technology Companies
IT roles in technology companies tend to be very technical. You therefore need very strong skills in IT, and probably specialist skills in a particular area. Roles include:
Developing software, also known as software engineering.
Software engineers tend to be heavily involved in programming in developing new apps and systems. They therefore tend to enter the profession with some experience of coding, and often already have a technical background. They have strong team-working abilities, as well as good analytical and problem-solving skills. They also tend to have a good level of attention to detail. In Myers-Briggs terms, they are usually SJ-types.
Hardware developers and designers are the people who design, develop and make the ‘hard’ parts of systems: the microchips, circuits and so on. This is a very technical role, and they usually have a qualification in IT or computing, or engineering. Like software developers, hardware developers tend to need good team-working abilities and problem-solving skills, as well as excellent technical skills.
In some countries, you may need a licence to work as a hardware developer.
Games are a very specific type of software that is worth considering as a separate category. Games development teams include coders and software engineers, but they are also likely to include graphic designers or artists as well. The main requirement in developing games is those skills, coupled with extremely strong team-working skills and creative thinking ability. Games development teams work extremely closely together, and may also be required to work long hours and under pressure.
Website development includes a range of roles, from design through to content creation and coding. Like game development, it is one of the more creative areas of IT, although still requires a good understanding of technology and what is possible. It therefore requires similar skills to other IT work—team working, problem solving and technical skills—but with the addition of creative thinking.
Software and hardware testers are employed to check software and hardware before they are released for sale to the public or to businesses. They may have good technical skills—or they may be employed because they don’t have those skills, so are more like ‘ordinary’ users of systems. Like others, they will need good communication skills to both understand what is being asked of them, and to communicate their findings back to the development teams.
Cyber-security analysis and development
Cyber-security is the work required to protect computer systems and data from attack. It is an increasingly specialist field because of the need to stay ahead of criminals, who are becoming very sophisticated. It therefore tends to be the work of specialist cyber-security analysts within specialist firms.
Cyber-security specialists are highly technically qualified. They need to be able to spot holes and vulnerabilities in systems, and identify ways in which they can be plugged. They must therefore understand systems inside-out and back to front, and are also often strong creative thinkers and innovators to help to think differently and identify gaps in development.
You can find out more about the skills needed in some particular areas from our posts on skills required by coders, to work in cloud computing, and in cybersecurity.
IT Roles in Non-Tech Companies
Probably the best-known roles in IT in the non-technology sectors are in ‘IT support’.
This is the function responsible for managing the technology used in the company, both hardware and software, and ensuring that company employees are able to use it effectively. This is worth unpicking a bit, because it includes quite a range of tasks, including:
Working with business users to draw up specifications for technology systems to meet business needs;
Working with vendors and business users to find solutions for business problems;
Evaluating software and hardware against specifications;
Possibly developing or adapting off-the-shelf software to provide solutions;
Developing and managing networks for the company, either internally or beyond (for example, in telecommunications businesses);
Implementing new IT systems, including providing training for business users; and
Providing ongoing support for business users in all the IT used by the organisation.
It is fair to say that most of us generally only see the final task—but it is probably the smallest part of the role of most IT departments in most businesses.
Those working in IT support in non-tech businesses therefore need good technical (computing) skills, and a good understanding of the field. They must, for example, be broadly aware of the range of options available to solve various business problems, and the vendors who provide those products.
IT support workers also need good interpersonal skills. In particular, they must have excellent communication skills. They need to be able to communicate effectively with both customers (business users within their company) and vendors of systems. They often have to translate business requirements into technical language, and then translate back again for business users. They therefore need extremely good listening skills. Listening is also a vital skill for those supporting business users, who often cannot articulate their problem in technical terms.
IT support staff also need to be prepared to work unsociable hours. IT systems are often installed and upgraded outside normal working hours to avoid disrupting the business. On-call support may also be necessary. You may therefore need to work hard on your work–life balance.
You can find out more about working in IT in non-technology companies, and particularly the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), the most senior IT role, from our post on the top professional skills needed by a CTO.
One specific role for which specialists are often employed within non-tech businesses is as network engineers.
Network engineers are those responsible for connecting computers so they can exchange data or information, and then maintaining and managing those networks. They are highly skilled technical specialists, with very good specialist knowledge in their area. They work closely with developers and business users, so need good team-working and communication skills. They also need good problem-solving skills, including plenty of patience to explore problems and find the right solution.
Another area where IT specialists are often employed within other businesses is database administration.
Companies need data—and they need it to be accurate and high quality. The role of database administrators is to ensure that data is kept securely, and organised in such a way that it can easily be accessed by those who need it. Database administrators need very good technical skills, including ability to code. They also need good attention to detail, and excellent communication skills to understand and interpret requests for data. They also need strong customer service skills and time management skills to be able to respond to requests in a timely way.
IT specialists may also be employed in other more specialist roles within some companies, and for particular purposes. For example, a start-up might employ a software developer in the early stages of the company to develop a website and app, rather than pay a consultancy to do this work.
Other IT Roles
There are two other types of IT role that do not fit precisely into either of the two categories above:
This is advising businesses about how they can use technology to help them work more efficiently and productively, and therefore earn more. By its very nature, it is a transient requirement: businesses call in a technology consultant, who provides recommendations and advice, and then moves onto the next business.
A specialist type of technology consultant is a systems analyst, who examines IT systems and makes sure that they work efficiently. Systems analysts may work as consultants or be employed full-time in large businesses.
Technology consultants, like other IT workers, need good technical skills and a broad technical knowledge. They must keep up to date with the field, and be aware of new solutions for old problems. Perhaps even more than IT support staff, they must have excellent communication skills, and also good customer service skills.
Project management work
Managing projects is a huge part of IT work. IT projects have a reputation for going over both time and budget. IT executives are therefore often highly aware of the need for good project management in these projects—and likely to bring in external project managers if they think they do not have the skills within the company. IT project managers need some broad technical knowledge, but their project management skills are more important.
You can find out more about the skills required to manage projects effectively in our page on Project Management.
A Broad Field—But Very Technical
The field of IT therefore offers a broad range of jobs. However, they generally share some common features. In particular, they require strong technical knowledge. Perhaps more surprisingly given the image of the ‘lone computer nerd’, most roles in the field also require good interpersonal skills. If this is an area that interests you, there is likely to be plenty of employment—and for many years yet.