Pros and Cons of a Career in Information Systems
Information systems (IS) is similar to information technology (IT) but incorporates the user as a fundamental component of the IT ecosystem, considering the human element in addition to hardware, software and data. Compare common careers below:
|Computer Repair Technician||Systems Administrator||Software Systems Developer||Systems Analyst|
|Career Overview||Computer repair technicians troubleshoot and maintain PCs and business computer systems, and may do basic network repair.||Systems administrators install and maintain an organization's computer systems and networks.||Software systems developers design computer operating systems and proprietary programs for business operations, and provide instructions for programmers who will write the code.||Systems analysts assess a business' IT needs and oversee the development of technology solutions and procedures to meet those requirements.|
|Education Requirements||High school diploma required, but employers may prefer a vocational certificate or associate's degree||Bachelor's degree||Bachelor's degree||Bachelor's degree|
|Program Length||1 year, full time, for a vocational certificate; 2 years, full time, for an associate's degree||4 years, full time||4 years, full time||4 years, full time|
|Certification||Employers may prefer or require A\+ certification or vendor-specific certifications.||Vendor-specific certification such as Red Hat Certified System Administrator or Citrix Certified Professional (CCP) may be required by employers.||Optional certifications include the IEEE's Certified Software Development Associate (CSDA) and Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP), as well as product-specific certifications from vendors such as Microsoft and IBM||Optional Information Systems Analyst (ISA) certification available through the Institute for the Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP)|
|Experience Required||None; entry-level||1-4 years with the type of systems administered||1-5 years of programming and project management experience||Practical experience with software testing and development|
|Job Outlook for 2012-2022||5,100 additional jobs expected for all computer, ATM and office machine repair technicians (4% increase)*||42,900 additional jobs expected (12% increase)*||82,800 additional jobs expected (20% increase)*||127,700 additional jobs expected (25% increase)*|
|Median Salary||$36,560* (2014)||$75,790* (2014)||$102,880* (2014)||$82,710* (2014)|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
PC Repair Technician
When a call to tech support doesn't solve a problem, PC repair technicians step in to diagnose and repair problems in laptops, desktops, smartphones and other electronic devices. Field technicians make repairs on location, and bench technicians work in a centralized location on systems that the user brings or ships to the repair center. These are not always separate positions, and you may find yourself working in the shop on some systems and traveling on service calls for others. Excelling as a repair technician can lead to supervisory positions.
Employers for PC repair technicians are usually more concerned that you know how to repair computers, not with whether you learned that through a college program or by tinkering on your own systems. However, half of technicians have some college coursework, and an additional 29% have associate's degrees, according to O*Net Online. On-the-job training is typically limited, though you may learn more complicated repairs from higher-level technicians after landing a job based on your basic repair skills.
If you choose a vocational diploma or associate's degree program for PC repair technicians, courses may cover networking, hardware, software, information security and electronics. These programs may also prepare you for CompTIA's A\+ certification, which employers often prefer, if not require. Based on August 2012 job ads, some employers looked for the following:
- An electronics repair company in California advertised for a laptop technician with experience working with all major brands of laptops and the ability to troubleshoot computer problems and make repairs without schematics.
- A real estate brokerage in Louisiana sought a PC technician for repair and maintenance of computer systems throughout the agency network. Candidates were expected to have a high school diploma and three years of field service and support experience.
- An IT services company in Connecticut looked for a technician with some college coursework and 1-2 years of experience, who was willing to become certified as a Mac technician.
Although postsecondary education is not required for PC repair technicians, prospective employers expect you to already have the technical skills. Developing competency with many hardware and software systems, either through practice or a vocational program, opens you up to a broader swath of prospective positions. Many temporary or short-term contract positions are advertised, and these may allow you to accrue the experience that many full-time permanent positions demand.
As a field technician, you interact with users to diagnose the problem before repairing it, and users may explain problems in ways that someone with more technical expertise would not. Communications courses in high school or college can help you develop active listening skills and verbal skills necessary to tactfully explain when the problem is due to user error.
Networked systems are ubiquitous in business, and system administrators keep them running smoothly by troubleshooting problems and making timely upgrades. Systems administrators are found in all industries; only about 20% work in IT-focused industries, like telecommunications and computer services, according to the BLS. With the drive to computerize medical records, health services is expected to be a growing sector for employment of systems administrators.
Working evenings, nights and weekends may be required, since some maintenance and upgrades require taking systems offline, which would disrupt business operations if done during normal business hours. System administrators may also need to be on call for systems that have to be up and running 24-7, such as those at hospitals or utility companies.
A bachelor's degree in computer science, electronics engineering or a related major is often the minimum requirement. A Bachelor of Science in Computer Science curriculum covers system architecture, algorithms and multiple programming languages, along with the theoretical underpinnings of computer technologies and mathematics. You may be able to take concentrated electives in databases, systems programming and engineering. If you choose an electronics engineering major, you'll generally study circuits, system design, logic, algorithms and programming.
Prospective employers typically want administrators who have experience working with, if not managing, the type of systems the organization uses. In August 2012, employers advertised for the following:
- A packaging company in California looked for a system administrator with a business administration or computer science degree and experience with IBM iSeries systems to manage its Windows systems.
- A hospital management company in Tennessee sought a candidate with mid-level skills in applications and Active Directory support, as well as expert-level skills in performance management and storage management.
- A university in Kansas advertised for a system administrator with at least an associate's degree and two years of relevant experience with Linux clusters and distributed programming, but indicated a preference for a candidate with a bachelor's degree and experience using scripting languages for system and application maintenance.
Similar to software systems developers, system administrators can use optional certifications to stand out from the stack of resumes. You can earn certification for information systems at a general level, such as Windows or Linux credentials, seek certifications that target particular systems, such as those offered by Cisco or IBM, or show employers your broad skillset with role-focused certifications, like IBM's Certified Systems Administrator or (ISC)2's Certified Information Systems Security Professional. You'll usually need to pass one or more exams, though eligibility doesn't always require specific education.
Software Systems Developer
When a company needs to build an entirely new software system or network, software systems developers design and plan out the new proprietary system, ushering the project through the entire development life cycle. As a systems developer, you might also design operating systems for consumer electronics, like smartphones. In smaller organizations, some programming may be involved, and the systems developer may also maintain the system after deployment.
A bachelor's degree in computer science or a technical field is the typical minimum requirement, but almost a quarter (23%) of software systems developers have master's degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net Online. As with systems analysts, some employers may accept experience in lieu of a degree. While coding is usually the domain of programmers rather than developers, employers typically look for some experience with the programming languages that the systems are based on. Here are some examples of what real employers were looking for in July 2012:
- A hospital in Tennessee advertised for a systems developer with a master's degree and three years of experience.
- An insurance front marketing office in Texas was looking for a systems and applications developer with five years of experience, including experience with C# and ASP.NET.
- An avionics company in Oklahoma wanted an entry-level systems developer with a bachelor's degree and at least one year of object-oriented programming experience.
Though a college degree is typically required, prospective employers place more emphasis on what you can do or have done as a developer. Optional certification provides prospective employers with third-party verification of your knowledge and abilities even before the first interview. The Certified Software Development Associate credential from IEEE is an entry-level certification that does not have any educational prerequisites, so you can earn the certification as long as you have the knowledge base to pass the exam. Once you have a bachelor's degree and 2-4 years of development experience, you can qualify for the Certified Software Development Professional exam. Other certifications specific to particular development environments or products are also available from the companies that manufacture those products.
Systems analysts assess a business' current use of information technology and IT practices, and suggest improvements to the systems and operating procedures that will benefit the company, often through improving productivity or lowering costs. Analysts typically specialize in one or a handful of coding environments or platforms. Many openings for systems analysts are in consulting firms that provide consultants for client companies, so the systems you analyze may not be your employer's. SAs apply software development life cycle (SDLC) principles and may oversee the entire development cycle or focus on analysis, design and implementation. This may require coding and testing expertise.
Employers generally specify candidates with bachelor's degrees. While a technical major like information systems, information technology or computer science is more common, some employers may accept degrees in related fields like math, actuarial science or finance, and a few accept equivalent experience from candidates who do not have a postsecondary degree. Whether or not you have a bachelor's degree, prior experience as a software developer or setup analyst is often required. Following is a brief list of what employers were looking for in job postings from July 2012:
- An IT consulting firm in Minnesota sought consultants with experience in contact center applications and relational databases.
- An employee benefits firm in Maryland sought a systems analyst with prior experience as a setup analyst and familiarity with health data privacy laws to assess and improve clients' procedures for managing defined-benefit and defined-contribution plans.
- An energy company in Tennessee advertised for an analyst with development experience in Windows, .NET, SQL and Visual Studios.
Systems analysts must report the results of their analysis to clients or members of the management team who do not have the same level of technical expertise or familiarity with the lingo, so the ability to communicate clearly and plainly, both verbally and in writing, is valued. Taking communications courses in college can hone your ability to communicate effectively with people working in different fields.