Types of IT work are numerous
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.
78 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: development, service provision, business change, strategy and planning, procurement and management support and ancillary skills.
To widen 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 it may commission a software development firm to do so.
For more information on IT service provider and user companies, see the article 'Selecting an Employer'. You could also work for yourself, although that is more likely after you have gained some experience.
When you are starting out in your career in IT, you are likely to be in a development or service provision role. As you become more experienced, you may then wish to consider more strategic or management positions.
Development: roles are widely available
Programming, also known as software development or software engineering, is a function required by most industries and many organisations, and one where many IT professionals start out.
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 programmes 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 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.
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 whether they can breach organisations' systems to check the level of their security.
The next step, installation, can be a straightforward 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.
Service provision: keeping everything ticking
Once hardware, programmes, 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 organisation'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, develop software and be responsible for supporting it.
Business change: where technology meets strategic needs
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 an 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.
Project management is one area that falls in the business category under SFIA.
Strategy and planning: moving away from technical coalface
People working in strategy and planning roles are likely to have good technical knowledge but not be using it hands-on. They tend to be more senior roles, which, for example, a programmer could progress into.
A continuity manager, for example, looks at how IT services would continue to run in case of an emergency such as a fire destroying an organisation's infrastructure.
Architect roles, one of the industry's current career buzzwords, also come under this category. Architects give guidance and direction-setting on large products, including writing policy document, managing contracts and advising on the technical elements of a project.
Procurement and management support: relationship building
Similarly to above, procurement and management support roles require some technical knowledge combined with other general management skills. Procurement managers, for instance, need technical knowledge about what they are buying but also need to have skills to build relationships with suppliers and be financially savvy.
Ancillary skills: other know-how is equally important
Finally, there are roles where IT plays a part in what you do but the role normally requires another set skills and knowledge as well - know as the ancillary skills under the SFIA categories.
These are roles in marketing, sales, technical documentation, education, or training. If you wished to go in one of these directions, technical knowledge would 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: www.bcs.org/sfiaplus. 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.
If you are a BCS member, on the BCS secure pages, you can access and browse the full SFIAplus skills, training and development standard to help you plan and evaluate your career.
A decision now is not for life
One important thing to remember is that your first job need not be your role for life. There will be opportunities to move into different roles and, as IT is a fast-moving area, new opportunities are always appearing.
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 too much yet, though. Just work out what you fancy now. Good luck!