The technology industry in today’s society is booming. As of 2019, only 10 percent of people in America report not using computers and the internet, and those numbers are even smaller in the business world, where companies have developed a majority of their processes and systems around the various technologies within their industry.
This reliance on technology has led to a substantial increase in the demand for workers who can develop, implement, and maintain such systems. Computing jobs alone have been ranked as the number one source of new wages in the United States, boasting over 500,000 current job openings across the nation.
This promising career outlook has led many students hoping to continue their education with a graduate degree to explore careers in the technology field, yet with so many different options to pursue, it can be difficult to understand which roles correspond with which skill sets, responsibilities, and job titles within the industry.
Read on to uncover the core differences between two common areas of study in the technology field: computer science and information technology (IT).
What is Computer Science?
At its core, a study of computer science includes learning about the “mathematics and the algorithms that are needed to build and solve problems using computers,” says Ian Gorton, director of the computer science master’s programs at Northeastern University—Seattle. It involves an understanding of both the theories and abstract concepts that computing is based in, as well as the use of practical programming skills to build code and develop complex systems.
Students who choose to study computer science at the graduate level will learn about the various tools and practices that go into this technology development process, alongside how to deploy their own systems and consistently update and improve those systems over time.
Within this broader framework of understanding, students are also often able to choose a specialty in the field. As part of Northeastern’s Master of Science in Computer Science program, for example, students can pick from specialties such as Artificial Intelligence, Information Security, Networks, Computer-Human Interface, Game Design, and more.
What is Information Technology?
Unlike computer science—which focuses on the skills needed to build complex systems from the ground up—information technology specialists “configure those systems to solve a business’ problems,” Gorton says.
Individuals in IT roles must take ownership of these systems within an organization and work to ensure that they are not only integrated properly upon introduction, but that they are running correctly and continue to function appropriately over time.
Some of the most common systems IT specialists work with include:
- Industry-specific systems or tools
Although hands-on work with technology is a significant aspect of an IT specialists’ work, it’s also important that these individuals have effective business skills in order to thrive in this field. Additional responsibilities may include technical support duties, analyzing processes, configuring networks, and training employees on best practices for utilizing certain complex systems.
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Computer Science vs. Information Technology: Responsibilities
Gorton identifies that one of the main differences between these two disciplines is that computer science “is more technically-facing, and [IT] is more business-facing.” This means that, in general, the scope of work for individuals working in IT is focused on fulfilling a specific organization’s needs with technical suggestions and support. In contrast, the scope of work for a computer scientist remains focused on the unique product or programs they are developing, without having to consider the application of those programs after they’ve been deployed.
Those who work in computer science and information technology also face a variety of unique responsibilities depending on the industry. Explore the general responsibilities for each discipline below.
Computer Science Responsibilities
- Updating existing hardware and software for efficiency and ease.
- Writing code for new computer programs, websites, applications for mobile devices, and other industry-specific systems such as databases, cloud-based storage, artificial intelligence products, and more.
- Deploying systems, including the installation, configuration, testing, and adaptation of those within a new environment. This is work that is done on a continual basis, as programs update, change, and improve.
- Presenting developed programs to businesses as part of the sales process of a new product. As computer scientists have the most technical understanding of how a program they’ve developed works, these professionals will likely be in charge of demonstrating its functionality to businesses.
- Managing a team when the designing of a program includes many stages, components, or stakeholders. This may require them to step into a more project management or facilitator role, which includes helping guide the group through the development process.
- Publishing industry articles on complex mathematics and computer science theories.
Information Technology Responsibilities
- Working closely with the business they support to understand their goals and implement the systems needed to achieve those goals.
- Integrating various systems, ensuring they function cohesively within an organization. This may include databases, networks, clouds, storage drives, and more.
- Maintaining the function of those systems over time, keeping up with updates, improvements, and new products as needed.
- Programming, but to a much lesser extent than that of a computer scientist. Gorton explains that an information technology graduate can “build basic [programs], just not super complex ones.”
- Working with vendors on cost and efficiency estimates on new products and the processes through which those products can be integrated into existing systems to add new features or value.
- Keeping up with relevant rules and laws regarding products, including licensing and other mandates.
Computer Science vs. Information Technology: Skills
As both of these fields are very technology-heavy, it is easy to assume that the same abilities and interests translate to both. This is not always the case, however. Despite common misconceptions about those who work in the technology industry, there are quite a few personal qualities which, alongside the right practical skills, can set individuals in either discipline up for success.
Common Computer Scientist Traits and Skills
- Advanced programming abilities
- Strong attention to detail
- Basic communication skills
- An understanding of complex mathematics
- Ability to focus for long periods of time
- An innovative mindset
- Fascination with complex technical machines
- Knowledge of programming languages such as XML, SQL, C++, C#, Python, Java, etc.
- Complex understanding of data analytics
Common Information Technology Specialist Traits and Skills
- Basic coding and programming abilities
- Leadership skills
- An understanding of complex systems and how they work together
- A desire to learn and stay on top of changing technological trends
- Strong written and verbal communication skills
- Excellent interpersonal skills
- Complex understanding of business needs, processes, and structures
- Presentational abilities
- Project management skills
Computer Science vs. Information Technology: Common Job Titles and Salaries
Due to the broad nature of these disciplines, there are many distinct roles available for CS and IT professionals. In fact, because technology work falls on a spectrum of theoretical to practical, some of these roles intersect the responsibilities of both the computer science and information technology fields. Below, explore some top roles in the technology industry, average salaries and job outlooks for those roles, and where on the spectrum of computer science to information technology each one falls.
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Average Salary: $105,590 per year
Job Outlook: 21 percent (Much faster than average)
Responsibilities: Software developers—sometimes referred to as software engineers—hold the sole responsibility of using code to build programs with a variety of different functions, depending on the industry they are being created for.
The CS-to-IT Spectrum: On the scale from computer science to information technology, this role aligns more closely with computer science, as software developers often come from a computing background and use many of the same skills and practices to accomplish their tasks.
Average Salary: $71,858 per year
Responsibilities: Individuals who work as test engineers work closely with user interfaces. They manually test programs and products to ensure they are functioning properly, are user-friendly, and that the quality is up to brand standards. Gorton names Microsoft—an organization known for its focus on the usability of its products—among one of the many top tech organizations that utilize tech engineers.
The CS-to-IT Spectrum: This role requires a very technical understanding of programs and basic programming knowledge, but does not require the theory or advanced mathematics skills that come with a computer scientist role. Instead, those with an information technology background are slightly more equipped to handle this work.
Computer Network Architect
Average Salary: $109,020 per year
Job Outlook: 5 percent (As fast as average)
Responsibilities: These individuals create communication networks on a one-to-one scale or in the form of a complex, cloud-based infrastructure.
The CS-to-IT Spectrum: This role also falls closer to the computer science discipline on the spectrum, as it requires coding and a complex technical understanding of programs.
Computer Support Specialist
Average Salary: $53,470 per year
Job Outlook: 10 percent (Faster than average)
Responsibilities: Computer support specialists provide technical assistance to organizations or even individual customers who need help with their devices.
The CS-to-IT Spectrum: Due to the highly practical nature of this role, the work of computer support specialists fall closer to the information technology discipline.
Average Salary: $131,824 per year
Responsibilities: An enterprise architect is the non-technical version of a software architect, according to Gorton. Core duties include maintaining the function of certain IT services and products, informing business teams about new technology and available updates, analyzing the function of current systems, and providing feedback for potential areas of improvement.
The CS-to-IT Spectrum: The work of an enterprise architect falls more within the information technology discipline.
Average Salary: $78,694 per year
Responsibilities: Computer scientists’ main responsibilities include programming and coding, designing complex systems, and exploring high-level mathematical theories that relate to technology development.
The CS-to-IT Spectrum: This role is directly in line with the computer science discipline.
Information Technology Specialist
Average Salary: $57,003 per year
Responsibilities: IT specialists facilitate the technical needs of a business, including configuring systems and keeping those systems running properly over time.
The CS-to-IT Spectrum: This role is directly in line with the information technology discipline.
Computer Science vs. Information Technology: Career Outlook
The career outlook for technology jobs is on the rise, and these two disciplines are no exception.
The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that computer and information technology occupations have an average median salary of $86,320 per year, which is higher than the recorded annual $38,640 median wage across all professions. By 2028, experts expect to see the addition of 546,200 jobs in computer science and information technology—a 12 percent increase that’s faster than that of the average occupation. These positive career outlook statistics are due largely to the increasing exploration of technical systems such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and the collection of big data worldwide.
While both of these industries continue to grow exponentially year over year, research shows that computer science has the edge in terms of average salary and career outlook. On top of being the number one source of new wages in the United States, those with a computer science background are now expected to earn 40 percent more than the average college graduate due to the high demand for their skills and the limited number of employees who possess them. This breaks down to an additional $.48 million in lifetime earnings for computer science graduates, making this discipline a coveted field for professionals looking for a career change.
“There’s never going to be a shortage of jobs in this field,” Gorton says. “So it’s a fantastic career space to be in.”
Computer Science vs. Information Technology: Pursuing an Advanced Degree
In order to land one of the high-paying roles within the technology industry, many individuals are choosing to bolster their credentials with a graduate degree from a top school like Northeastern.
Information Technology Degrees at Northeastern
For those looking to explore operational and system-support roles, Northeastern offers a Master of Science in Information Systems degree. This program prepares IT professionals for success in the field and it incorporates many principles from the Master of Science and Computer Science program, as well.
The master’s of information science program also includes a variety of hands-on projects to hone practical skills, as well as courses designed to offer exploration and solution-designing for issues faced in real-world business settings today.
Computer Science Degrees at Northeastern
For students interested in computer science roles specifically, Northeastern offers a variety of computer science degrees that are worth the investment. These programs are each designed to guide students at different points in their careers toward success in any one of these coveted technology roles.
This program is designed for students who did not study computer science at the undergraduate level, but still wish to pursue an advanced degree in the field. Over the course of this program, students will obtain the skills and work experience needed to thrive in a variety of technology-based positions. “Because everyone comes from different backgrounds, there is a unique diversity of thought in the classroom,” Gorton says, noting that it is this diversity that makes the learning process within this program incredibly unique.
This program—which is offered at Northeastern’s Boston, Seattle, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Vancouver locations—offers what Gorton describes as a “healthy blend of theory and practice” for students looking to pursue a full career in a computer science-aligned industry. This program is designed to allow students to declare one of 11 unique concentrations on topics ranging from artificial intelligence, to graphics, to security, while simultaneously developing the fundamental skills and understanding of computer science theory needed to work in this industry.
Aligning with Northeastern’s overall focus on experiential learning, students pursuing a master’s of computer science at the university will have the opportunity to work professionally in the field prior to graduation, gaining real-world exposure to the practices, tools, and procedures they will utilize once working full-time.
Students across Northeastern’s regional locations also have the benefit of pursuing experiential learning opportunities within some of the top technology companies in America. For example, Gorton explains that, at Northeastern’s Seattle location, “40 percent of students are working at Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.”
This regional alignment with top tech cities is no accident, however—Northeastern has strategically placed its campuses in some of the hottest tech markets in the country in order to provide students with unparalleled access to high-paying roles within the industry upon graduation.
Alongside the positive career outlook and countless job opportunities for students who choose to pursue a degree in the technology field, Gorton explains that this is a particularly exciting time to begin a career in technology. With recent advancements in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, machine learning, and so much more, he believes that “people who embark on a computer science career have the chance to work on projects that can change the world.”
Discover more about the Master of Science in Computer Science and the other computing and IT programs offered at Northeastern University, and make the next move toward your career in technology today.