What’s in a name? When it involves IT – information technology – many people, including many employers, may assume it is all the same. However, in the world of IT there is a major difference between an IT designer, architect, research engineer, and help desk technician. All of these positions essentially fall under the general category of IT, but this can create problems.

“‘Information technology,’ or just ‘IT’ is often tossed around loosely as an all-inclusive name, and at some level this does no great harm,” said Jim Purtilo, associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Maryland.

“Narrowly though, this would describe the tools and practices you would employ in order to transform data – a collection of raw facts – into useful information, which are organized facts that can be productively applied,” Purtilo told ClearanceJobs. “Someone who works with IT will clearly be using a computer, but might not need to know much about what goes on under the hood; they’re probably pretty focused on the applications and trying to reach some business goal.”

More specific job titles can clarify the role that someone plays within a company.

For example a “computer engineer” would probably know about applications and their chief focus would be on configuring and tuning the “engine under the hood,” suggested Purtilo. That in turn would allow the information technologists to get their jobs done, and in this regard those “computer technicians” could be seen as the first responders the applications folks will call when something breaks.

But job titles don’t always clarify job roles – particularly when comparing technicians to engineers, terms that can also be used interchangeably, even within the same organization.

“Systems professionals need clarification,” explained Mary Brzezenski, a research and design systems engineer, and chapter chair of IEEE (formerly the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). “Is that ‘operating systems’ professional definitely part of IT, or is that ‘systems’ as defined by INCOSE, IEEE or other professional engineering organizations. The latter type of systems engineer includes researchers and designers with advanced degrees in science and engineering – they are not a specific skill set.”

The issue today is that many HR and even technical recruiters don’t understand the differences between various types of engineering disciplines and functions, Brzezenski told ClearanceJobs. “Almost everybody is looking at a computer screen to do work – hardware designers, software designers, research engineers, and operating systems (IT) engineers. My guess is that without understanding what the goals are of various groups of engineers, all technical employees look like IT now.”

Evolution of IT

One of the biggest reasons for all of this confusion is that despite the very different roles, skills, and education required, all too often IT is used as a catch all category.

“Information technology has grown dramatically over the years,” said Jeff Hampson, senior director of IT, marketing and analytics at Sevatec, Inc. “IT has enveloped us at work, at home, on vacation and travel. Because of its scale, IT needs to start being compartmentalized, much like the medical industry, in order to fully appreciate and understand its many disciplines.”

Hampson told ClearanceJobs that IT could be divided into three very important – and very different – areas.

“The first area is those involved as Custodians of Systems and Services, which is the helpdesk, and network and system administrators,” he explained. “They often have an associate’s degree in the tech field and/or certifications. Custodians should generally be focused on ensuring value continues, not so much creating it. But, everyone in IT should be innovating or continuously improving at some level.”

The second area of IT would be the Creators of New Systems and Services, which Hampson says would include systems engineers, architects, developers and data scientists.

“These ‘creators’ usually have a bachelor’s degree in a tech field, and additional certifications,” explained Hampson. “Oftentimes, they are a senior IT level, with a master’s degree in the tech field, and have 10 ‘plus’ years of experience.”

The third area of IT is Communicators of Advanced Technology Concepts, and this group could include data analysts, agilists, marketing, tech writers, and management. Hampson noted that individuals holding these positions will generally have a bachelor’s degree in business and tech. But many may also have a specialty or specialized training, and those at an advanced senior level may have a master’s degree in the business field and 10 or more years of experience.

It is also important to note that for a long time the largest portion of traditional IT was the custodian section, but with the advent of the cloud, more of that work is now centralized, a trend that is not going to end.

“Less is required of traditional IT to ‘keep the lights on’ – unless of course, you work for a cloud provider,” said Hampson.

Moreover, just as with doctors today, advanced training and continuing education will be required throughout one’s career.

“Creators and innovators must endlessly seek new knowledge to continue riding the technology wave,or else expect your wave to crash and someone else to glide over you,” said Hampson. “This is the value generation machine for organizations, and most importantly, it generates competitive advantage.”

tech Team Work

There may be an “I” in IT, but as the old saying goes there is no “I” in team. Gone are the days of the antisocial IT person.

“People with those job titles – and more – work as a team, and just like in sports, you hope each knows the others’ specializations and roles so they can move down the field efficiently and score,” said Purtilo.

Attracting the right candidates is also not unlike a team sport.

“Like a sports team, you need to draft the best players,” suggested Hampson. “The right team, even the right superstar, can launch your business in surprising ways that are often hard to imagine.”

Of course the team – and how individuals work together  – is likely to evolve in coming years.

“The traditional idea of Custodian IT will fade rapidly as the cloud becomes the standard, and the incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) takes hold,” added Hampson. “Innovation technologists will capture the benefit of AI and use it to catalyze solution development. The technology wave will only get bigger and faster. The information translators must become more creative to be heard in the growing noise of everything else, so a closer, symbiotic bond will necessarily form with the innovators.”

The final consideration in all of this is in how it relates to employee compensation. The broadness of the IT category creates difficulty in formulating salaries – and huge pay disparity even within similar job titles.

“The negative part of grouping everyone into IT is that it historically has been a service function to engineering and manufacturing – at least at the defense companies where I’ve worked,” said Brzezenski. “So IT was at a lower pay level compared to design engineers.”

As ‘tech’ comes to replace IT, more companies and candidates will see the need to find methods to make job titles and career qualifications that make sense – to merit both the work that needs to be performed, and the compensation.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.