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Computer and IT

One million people are estimated to work in IT in the UK. Not surprisingly, they are involved in a huge number of different activities. Some have a large technical element such as ethical hacking, programming, software testing and systems analysis. Others have a greater business emphasis, for example project management, quality assurance and client relationship management.

Jobs in IT vary from developing interactive TV to teaching students about technical forensic science to risk management. Some roles are highly technical while others have a greater focus on business objectives, strategy, communication, people management or finance. Helen Boddy, assistant editor at BCS, explores the various options. For further information on IT Careers see British Computer Society, www.bcs.org

Types of IT work are numerous
Seventy-eight different types of IT jobs have been defined in the government-backed Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). These are divided into six categories: strategy and planning, development, business change, service provision, procurement and management support, and ancillary skills.

To complicate career choices further, IT professionals are found in almost all industries due to the all-pervasive nature of computers. They are used for tasks as diverse as positioning cargo on ships, measuring patients' heartbeats at hospitals, controlling lifts, and ordering stock in supermarkets.

Some of these user organisations (so-called because they use IT to meet their business needs) look after their IT needs in-house while others employ specialist IT service providers to perform some or all IT functions. Almost any role could be outsourced in this way, for instance a market research company may develop their own specialist software to track results or they may commission a software development firm to do so.

Development roles are widely available
Programming, also known as software development or software engineering, is a function required by most industries and many organisations. Programming includes very high-profile roles such as designing computer-generated characters for Hollywood films. Less glamorous (but also less competitive) jobs could be developing specialist trading software for investment banks or writing programs to control the running of a steel plant.

Development work is not restricted to programming; there are also opportunities to develop hardware, databases, networks, systems, and websites.

There are fewer jobs developing hardware than software as organisations often buy computer equipment as standard and then adapt software to meet their needs. Examples of hardware development could be to make more robust computers to be used in schools or to design computers that could withstand forces when taken into space.

Website designers, a well known role, continue to be in demand as companies start to really embrace the use of websites and the internet to conduct their business.

With computers and e-commerce becoming increasingly sophisticated and part of daily life, the role of ergonomics is growing in status. There is an increasing number of people specialising in the ease of using IT, be that systems, software, databases or websites.

Checking it all works and installation
Once software or hardware has been developed, testers check that everything is working correctly before it is handed over to the installation team and the customer. An up-and-coming role in testing is that of ethical hacking, where IT professionals see if they can breach companies’ websites to check the level of their security.

Installation can be a straight-forward task or an enormous one, depending of course on what is being installed. For example, integrating new hardware across a chain of supermarkets would be a very time-consuming and complex procedure.

Roles that keep everything ticking
Once hardware, programs, databases, systems, networks and so on are installed, a team usually takes on the role of supporting them. There are a large variety of roles in this area of service provision, supporting users, operations or infrastructure.

Most large companies will have a helpdesk which staff can contact for help with computer problems and queries. Behind the scenes, other IT professionals are ensuring the organization’s network is functioning correctly. Others could be administering a database, which could, for example, list all the company’s contacts, or collate market data needed by staff.

One person in a company does not necessarily concentrate on just one of the above tasks, particularly in smaller firms. An IT professional could, for example, both develop software and be responsible for supporting it.

Away from the technical coalface
The above roles are ones where technology takes up the majority of the person's time. In many of those roles you would still need to have an understanding of business requirements and be able to interact with customers, but your main focus would remain technical.

There are, however, numerous other roles where the focus is in varying degrees less on using technical know-how and more on strategy, communication or finance.

Project management is a good example of where some technical knowledge is combined with financial and communications skills. Project management is about working out timescales and resources needed for a project, for example installing all the IT necessary for a new oil rig, and then making sure the project keeps to budget and meets the deadline.

People working in strategy and planning roles are likely to have good technical knowledge but not be using it hands-on. For example, a continuity manager looks at how IT services would continue to run in case of an emergency such as a fire destroying a company's computers.

The same tends to be true for procurement and management support roles. Procurement managers need technical knowledge about what they are buying but also need to build relationships with suppliers and be financially savvy.

Finally, there are roles where IT plays a large part in what you do but is not the most important of your skills - the ancillary skills. These are roles in marketing, sales, technical documentation, education or training. If you wished to go in these directions, technical knowledge could be very useful, but you may also have to train in another skill, such as teaching.

More about different roles
To find out more about different IT roles, have a look at SFIA - http://scripts.bcs.org/sfiaplus/sfia.htm. BCS has created a product called SFIAplus, which goes into more depth about what skills and training are necessary for each job at each level.

A decision now is not for life
Furthermore as your career progresses, more choices will open up. Many IT professionals move into management, go down the project management route or into an ancillary activity such as sales or education. No need to worry about that yet, though. Just work out what you fancy now.