The graduate route
You do not have to have studied IT or computer science for your first degree. Development of business awareness is at least as important as acquisition of technical skills and employers will employ non-IT graduates if they show strong potential and aptitude. Furthermore there are full-time, part-time and distance-learning postgraduate courses in IT open to you, including Open University degrees.
If you have chosen the subjects that you feel happy about, you are most likely to be successful. It will nevertheless be an advantage to provide evidence of some numeracy, for example economics, mathematics, statistics, or certain management modules.
Employers are increasingly interested in the well-rounded graduate, with understanding of the environment in which a computer system will operate. If you are interested in a job in the client-facing end of IT, a theoretical IT degree is a poorer preparation than one with finance, management, or another engineering subject.
With one of these degrees, you will have an understanding of the problems your clients are facing, their attitudes and the language they are using and you will be well placed to act as translator between the client and your in-house team. No longer can the elite IT specialist who shuns the rest of an organisation be a prime job candidate.
Most degrees have a substantial IT content these days and you can consider taking some optional computing modules. IT is becoming pan-European so a second language is nowadays a positive discriminator with large employers; your options in a single honours degree could include another language and European studies. The main function of your employer is likely to be other than an IT producer but IT skills will be valuable in any area.
Your primary aim should be to get the best degree you can. Surveys have shown, however, that employers are as concerned with work experience and extra-curricular activities as with degree content, so make sure you have a good spread of interests to offer.
The accredited degree route
The obvious entry to the profession is to take a BCS-accredited honours degree, probably with computer science, computing, or IT in the title. You could then apply for a graduate development programme.
You will need to look closely at the content of the course rather than its name. Different courses are biased towards different areas of IT. Some of this comes from the research interests of the academic staff and some from commercial pressures.
One university course may give you a grounding in machine vision, another may prepare you for e–commerce and a third might include a commercial qualification from Microsoft or Cisco in its final year.
Any of these would be a good route into technology and the provision of infrastructure, the traditional 'hard IT' jobs in software or hardware development, or a research post in a university, industry or government. However they are less useful if you plan to move into areas like sales or marketing, where you need a wider range of experience in addition to IT expertise.
An accredited degree will have a core of studies seen as the minimum necessary for the foundation of a professional career in the industry, together with specialist content in one or more areas studied in depth; it will include an appropriate mix of basic principles, design and problem-solving and practical work.
BCS accredits degrees for Chartered Engineer (CEng), Incorporated Engineer (IEng) and Chartered Scientist (CSci. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) also accredits degrees in the IT area for CEng. The BCS is currently reviewing accreditation for Chartered IT Professional (CITP) status which will be available in the future.
There are four-year MEng / MSci courses in which the fourth year both broadens and deepens the study. In these, work experience is gained in vacations and the course includes more material on management and costing issues than will a three-year BSc or BEng course.
A placement (sandwich) year spent in industrial training in a company with a computing environment before your final year is useful. Some employers will offer sponsorship for the final year after a successful sandwich placement, with or without a guarantee of employment on graduating. For more information, read the article about work placements.
Graduate development programmes are offered by many employers for newly graduated employees aiming to work in IT. For more information, see article on graduate recruitment schemes.
After graduating with a good class degree you may consider developing your ideas, studying for a PhD or moving into industrial or government research.
Remember that IT is evolving and developing all the time; degrees are subject to annual review and adaptation and options may open up which are not initially available to you, so keep your eyes open.
The training route
This is a popular way to enter IT. A specific training course in a skill which is currently in demand is a quick way to satisfy the ever growing need for trained staff and to enter the industry.
The expansion in the internet has generated the need for staff who can specify, design and implement web pages for a wide variety of businesses and organisations, whilst enterprise resource planning (ERP) skills are in demand not only in manufacturing but also in the financial and human resources sectors.
Organisations such as Microsoft (for Windows), Novell (for networking) and Oracle (for databases) offer certification courses. The Information Systems Examination Board (ISEB) - a BCS subsidiary - offers qualifications in service management, systems analysis design and project management, among others. You can attend classes, or cheaper options are computer-based training or distance-learning.
When considering courses, choose carefully, as some short courses in methodologies and specific computer techniques are intended for the experienced practitioner and are not suitable starting points for the beginner.
Make sure that, as a result of your course, you can demonstrate that you have completed some design exercises for someone other than your trainers or your own use. Employers will be reluctant to recruit you unless you can prove that you are competent; it is not sufficient to have attended a course and passed at the end of it.
The demand for a particular skill may be short-term, so once you have a foot in the door it is wise to broaden your experience as quickly as possible, preferably at your employer's expense of course.
Professional examinations can supply grounding and may be achieved through part-time study. They are offered by the BCS. The Engineering Council also offers papers in the IT area in its examination.
Large organisations sometimes offer opportunities for their employees to transfer to an IT division within the company. Training, education and experience will come with the package. There are advantages for both employer and employee in this route, so it pays to watch for these chances.
A gap year before starting higher education may be well spent on a Year In Industry placement, which can give you a clearer picture of working in the industry and an idea of which particular direction will suit you best.
The European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) is a BCS users' qualification but offers a starting point and evidence that you are prepared to train. It can be built upon with further study. It has the advantage that it is recognised across the EU and elsewhere in the world if you decide to travel.
The routes into a career in IT are various. Despite gloomy predictions in the media of loss of jobs due to offshoring, there is still a shortage of people in the UK with both IT development skills and soft skills such as business awareness, communication and teamwork. The opportunities are there.
This article was written by Aline Cumming, a consultant in IT and education. She is vice-chair of the BCS's Education and Training Expert panel and former chair of the Careers Working Party. She was previously head of the education department at the BCS. Before joining the BCS, she taught mathematics and computing at secondary school with responsibilities for careers advice. She has also worked in data processing as a computer operator and programmer.