So You Want to Be an IT Major

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In today’s competitive job market, IT candidates are beefing up their resumes, brushing up on their soft skills and constantly in search of ways to set themselves apart.

What these students might not realize, however, is that the No. 1 consideration for employers when recruiting college graduates is academic majors, according to a survey conducted by job site CareerGrad.com earlier this year.

Selecting an undergraduate major therefore is an important decision for any aspiring IT professional. Yet, students should not feel limited or locked into traditional choices. While information systems and computer science programs remain the most popular, employers recruiting IT professionals have indicated the need for well-rounded individuals — students who go beyond the traditional technical training and opt for programs that also hone their business skills.

To get a better understanding of the state of IT degree programs today, let’s take a look at their evolution through the years.

IT Education Through Time

Back in the early 1970s, computer science was the only option for students interested in IT as an academic major, said Kate Kaiser, an IT professor at Marquette University.

Kenneth Wagner, an IT network manager and part-time lecturer in the U.K., can confirm this firsthand. When Wagner was in college, he considered a number of degree programs all related to computing.

“I wanted to go into software engineering, [but] within the first year, all of the part-time degree courses were merged into one, and everyone that was left ended up on the general computing degree course,” he said.

These traditional computer science programs focused on math, hardware engineering, hardware orientation, software engineering and application orientation, said Kevin Gallagher, assistant professor at the Department of Business Informatics at Northern Kentucky University (NKU).

Today, however, since information technology has become one of the fastest-growing industries, educational institutions can no longer afford to offer computer science as the only option for students who want to enter the IT profession. Colleges and universities now offer a wide variety of IT-related degree programs that cater to different interests within the field.

For instance, take the master’s degree in health informatics at NKU.

“Hospitals are now trying to adopt electronic medical records and prescription order systems, and they need people who understand both the information related to delivering health care and the information systems that can enhance that process,” Gallagher said.

There also has been a dramatic shift over the years in the way IT degree programs are structured, said John Estes, vice president of Robert Half Technology.

“Back in the old days, [colleges would] have computer science degrees that had [students] programming Pascal and Cobol,” Estes said. “Those programs are around, but they’re not exactly leading-edge. Colleges had to get smart about not just teaching the basics of programming, but giving people more of the real-world skills.”

In the late 1970s, business schools started to offer management information systems (MIS) and IT programs, which filled a need in many firms, Kaiser said. Today, the information systems programs offered by business schools have become an obvious alternative to computer science programs, Gallagher said.

“You’ll find other ‘information schools’ at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, Penn State, Syracuse and many others,” he said. “Many of these schools grew out of library science, but are today focused in various areas of computing and communication technologies and their role in the collection, organization and dissemination of information.”

However, use of the term “information systems” often varies from school to school.

An example of this can be found in the difference between Gallagher’s experience as an undergraduate information systems student at Cleveland State University and his experience as a graduate student in the Information Systems Department of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

While the degree programs at both schools were offered under the same name, the focus was distinct.

“In part because my undergraduate program was housed in computer science and the faculty [consisted of] computer scientists, [the program] was focused on the technology,” Gallagher said. “My graduate programs were focused much more on understanding business processes and the organization and people side of the problems.”

That said, information systems programs today generally sit at the intersection of technology, people and process.

“[Students interested in] designing, building and managing information systems in organizations will need to understand how all three — technology, people and process — play out in redesigning how people and organizations work, given the possibilities and constraints of new technologies and the business processes they enable,” Gallagher said.

A Growing Need for Business Knowledge

The programs that will be most beneficial to students as they look for jobs are the ones that discuss technology in the context of business processes and organizational or people issues, Gallagher said.

He backed up his claim with research conducted by the Society for Information Management — a senior-level IT professional network — that reveals that the critical skills that companies look for in a candidate relate to business knowledge, project management and problem-solving skills, such as analysis and design.

Even though problem-solving capabilities fall under the banner of technical skills, they differ from other technical skills such as programming because they require interpersonal, client-facing skills, Gallagher said.

“Research shows that these skills are most sought after in mid-level hiring, which means IT workers need to make sure they develop these skills if they want to remain marketable to IT departments,” Gallagher said.

That’s because success in IT today requires both technology and business prowess, said Robert Keefe, president of the Society for Information Management (SIM).

“We focus on the technology for most positions, but we also want [candidates who demonstrate] business skills [for] those positions that interface with our internal and external customers,” he said.

Indeed, when Stephen Pickett, chairman of the SIM Foundation, sifts through a pile of resumes, what really stands out to him is a curriculum with a heavy dosage of IT that’s peppered with business courses.

“It shows me that particular individual has an interest in studying outside of their comfort zones,” Pickett said. “Take an MIS student with a good strong dose of the economic courses: That individual is likely to be more productive than somebody who’s just had a pure IT curriculum.”

Kaiser reiterated the employment advantage of a curriculum mixed with business and IT. “The [IT or MIS major in] business school suits what most companies are looking for in their IT departments if they are non-IT firms, or for service provider firms that have non-IT firms as clients,” she said.

But students don’t have to bend over backward to make sure they have business knowledge right off the bat. They can major in computer science, engineering or do a combined or double major and enroll in a more business-oriented graduate degree, Keefe said.

Mark McFadden, who is completing his master’s in business informatics at Northern Kentucky University, said he chose the program because he wanted a sound grasp of business principles and the knowledge of how IT can impact business solutions.

“The understanding of how to properly utilize IT in the business domain is, in my view, a common need,” he said.

The knowledge that students get from broader degree programs also open the door to many different career options, said Candace Spears, an IT graduate from Marquette University.

“I’ve learned [that] IT has innumerable paths,” Spears said. “After graduating, I’ve seen the career option of combining marketing and IT to help a company with customer segmentation; helping clients understand the database capacity they require; designing infrastructure solutions that allow critical business systems to be highly available; and understanding business intelligence to properly assess how to adapt to changes in data in our environment.”

Building a Foundation

Students should thoroughly research a degree program before settling on it, but of course, it isn’t uncommon to discover new interests in the course of study or to experiment with or switch majors.

Such was the case for Belton Flournoy, a recent IT graduate from Marquette University.

A few years ago, Flournoy was a marketing and finance major who said he viewed IT as a major that was reserved for “‘Star Trek’ fans and supersmart computer nerds.”

One day, though, one of Flournoy’s professors explained that IT today isn’t just about computers. It’s about managing information, and, the professor said, it just so happens that using a computer is one of the easiest ways to accomplish that.

Since then, as part of his coursework, Flournoy has worked with teams in India and Australia to gain exposure in the IT field.

He fondly remembers working on a software development project during which he served as project manager and was trained in project scheduling, risk management, international communication, quality plans and managing project conduct in a virtual environment.

The hands-on approach of the various courses provided Flournoy with the competitive advantage he was looking for, and he ultimately received multiple offers from top employers.

Keefe said it’s important for students to ensure the focus of the program they choose meet their desired outcomes and provide a solid technical foundation.

“This foundation is so important in enabling us to adapt our skills to different industries, environments, positions and cultures,” he said.

Economic Considerations

It’s also important to consider salary requirements when preparing to enter the workforce. The way workers are compensated may vary from company to company. But Gallagher said stated salaries often are misleading and opportunities for advancement and growth in the company also should be taken into consideration.

“[In general], it is the students who have the right foundational skills in their particular field who will be the most successful and make the highest salaries over time,” he said.

Regardless of their majors, however, students should focus on preparing for a career, not a job, Gallagher said.

In that respect, while a sinking economy and shrinking budgets might spark concern over the possibility of offshoring, gifted and dedicated IT pros shouldn’t have much to worry about.

“Talented individuals will move into and continue to grow into positions that can’t be offshored, such as senior analyst and project manager,” Gallagher said. “Even if a company can offshore some of its development or maintenance of its information systems, [it] will always need [employees] who can manage the work that is being done and [the] relationships with the vendor and their personnel.”

In fact, system architects, project managers and senior analysts all are in high demand, Gallagher said.

“The [people] who are successful in these positions have sound technical skills, but they also have knowledge and experience that goes way beyond the technology, allowing them to understand business problems and propose, design and manage the delivery of those solutions to their organization,” he said. “That makes them very valuable to their organization.”

– Deanna Hartley, dhartley@certmag.com

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Deanna Hartley

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