Computer Science Career Field Structure
Many different types of companies hire computer professionals. Computer manufacturers and software companies hire the whole range of professionals. Many of these employers are clustered in certain geographical areas, like northern California, Seattle, and parts of the East Coast. Living in an area with many potential employers increases the likelihood of being hired (or rehired) by an employer relatively quickly.
Computer companies range from huge market leaders to small start-ups. In addition, there are thousands of small- to medium-sized companies that create specialized products, such as software to be used specifically to run corporate human resource departments.
Large corporations are major employers of computer professionals as well. Many maintain information systems (IS) or information technology (IT) departments, which hire people for the many different positions previously described. The number of in-house information systems departments has grown with the increased usage of computers in the workplace. Almost all companies, including banks, insurance companies, consumer products firms, and government agencies, have IS or IT departments.
Other employers of computer professionals are consulting firms, such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young. They hire college graduates with majors in computer science to help them integrate the latest technology into their clients’ business. Most of these jobs are headquartered in large cities and require a lot of travel.
Hardware firms produce every piece of equipment used to build a computer system. This includes the equipment inside a computer, such as memory chips, microprocessors, network cards, and motherboards. It also includes the equipment mostly found outside the computer, called peripheral hardware, such as keyboards, monitors, printers, fax modems, scanners, digital cameras, Zip drives, and CD-ROMs.
Internal hardware makes the difference between a slow, hard-to-use computer and cutting-edge technology. Memory chips store data and programs, while processors follow program instructions to manipulate the data in a desired manner. For example, when a secretary uses a word processor to type letters, the microprocessor transforms the keyboard input into electrical impulses that are stored on the memory chips. Many companies specialize in improving the speed, accuracy, and overall quality of these devices.
Secondary storage devices, such as floppy disks, Zip disks, portable memory devices such as flash drives and recordable CD and DVD drives, are used to store information and transfer it physically to another computer location. Another type of storage is the hard drive, which is generally installed inside the computer. Hard drives hold a tremendous amount of information. External hard drives are also available to increase computer storage space.
Input devices are another type of hardware and include keyboards, scanners, and video cameras. Scanners read printed material (such as photographs) and convert it into electrical impulses to be stored in the computer. Then, systems operators can change them in any way desired. They can also use them to prepare formal presentations in different media, including 35mm color slides, videotape, or computer presentations.
Output devices, such as a monitor, allow users to access and change data and information. Some television manufacturers specialize in making monitors with higher resolution and better graphics capabilities so that more complex applications can be run and displayed successfully on the systems. Another output device is a printer. Dot matrix printers of the early 1980s soon gave way to ink jet printers, bubble jet printers, and laser printers. Color printers have become as common as the black-and-white printers.
Communications devices, such as modems, enable computers to connect to other systems via cables or telephone lines. The modem allows the transfer of information between computers. Wireless broadband has recently been developed in response to the strong demand for fast access to data on the Internet. This technology allows connection to the Internet via a ground-based antenna system or via satellite signal. A modem or wireless broadband technology is necessary for users to access the World Wide Web and online services like America Online and others. Internet service providers provide users with access to the Web through dial-up phone lines, or increasingly high-speed services through DSL or cable connections.
Programming is a vital part of the computer industry. Without detailed, precise programs, computers would be useless since they only do exactly what they are told to do. Several programs are necessary to make computers operate properly. Systems programmers write instructions for how hardware pieces should function with one another. This task includes configuring printers, hard drives, and memory chips. Programmers must be proficient in several programming languages and are greatly aided by commercial prepackaged programs.
The software industry is unique within the business world in that very little overhead (equipment, office space, or personnel) is needed to get started. When an individual or group of individuals comes up with a good idea for new software and can convince financial backers to invest in their idea, a start-up is born. Many start-ups have tried to make a name for themselves with innovative and creative software applications. Often, these companies are so small and have such limited resources that they operate out of garages or basements. Industry leaders, such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google, all came from such humble beginnings. However, many start-ups never make it and go bankrupt. It is a good idea for individuals interested in working in software to be flexible and keep their technical knowledge up to date. In this way, if a company folds, programmers and designers can more easily find other employment.
Most software companies approach software design in a similar fashion. First they identify a client or consumer need, such as organizing home finances. This process can last many months, depending on the intended user and the company. If a mass-market product is being considered, companies must evaluate many different factors, including the specifications of average in-home computers, competitive products already on the market, costs of development and customer service, and potential market for the product.
When the decision is made to go ahead with the application, programmers write the code. (In the past, writing code for a major project could take months. Today, new technologies have eliminated the need for some routine programming work.) Each subsection of the program is tested and retested and then usually tested many times again. Just imagine the amount of coding required by a word processing program; features like the spell check, dictionary, and thesaurus alone could constitute millions of lines of commands.
There is much more to the computer business than research and development, however. Many people are employed by computer companies to market and advertise their products to the right people. Sales representatives must be trained, promotional brochures must be developed, and price schedules must be determined.
Within the hardware and software branches of the computer industry, there are a number of different types of jobs. Many positions overlap and not every company hires people in each functional area. These basic areas are design, programming, administration, service, and sales.
For our purposes, designers include researchers who evaluate the market or existing technology to find windows of opportunity for improvements or new product design. Researchers have considerable freedom to explore uncharted areas of computer technology. Often, their ideas are not implemented for years to come until the market catches up to the theory.
Designers usually work on a project that has already been defined in some way. For example, an accounting department might request a special system to improve its operations. A software designer is assigned to handle that problem. Generally, designers use their knowledge of hardware and software to design a computer system and set of applications that will solve a business or scientific problem. More specifically, designers can specialize in databases, networks, or software applications.
Computers, whatever their function, are based on the principles and processes of mathematics. The design process remains similar regardless of position. The problem is defined, equipment is analyzed and upgraded if need be, software is customized, and new programming fills any gaps.
Programming is much more detail oriented and less abstract than design analysis. It can involve hardware, software, or both. In any case, programmers write the coded instructions that make computers do what we want them to do. Systems programmers write the instructions that make different computers and peripherals perform well together. Software programmers write instructions for how computers should respond to various input and what on-screen displays should be generated. Programmers are required to know at least one, but usually more, computer programming language, including BASIC, COBOL, FORTRAN, and C++. Computer programming languages change as the capacities of computers expand, so programmers must continually update their skills.
Computer administrators are in charge of daily operations of different kinds of computer systems. The most common areas of specialization are database, network, systems, security, and quality assurance. Administrators are responsible for a variety of tasks. They help install new systems and train new users. They also address user problems as they arise. For example, a user might not be able to gain access to certain files on a network server. The administrator verifies first that the user is inputting the correct password and following the right procedure. If the problem is not due to user error, the administrator checks the security files, making sure the user is granted access. Administrators are also involved with backing up the system regularly. They also ensure good systems communications. If a network server goes down, for example, a network administrator attempts to isolate the cause of the problem and fix it. If it is too complicated, the administrator must call in higher-level systems people.
Computer service is another broad category of careers in the computer industry. Systems set-up specialists, technical support specialists, and computer repairers are included in this group. Systems set-up specialists install new hardware and software either at the client site or in a service center. Large installations at major corporations can take days or even weeks to properly install. Set up work requires solid knowledge in the basics of computer technology as well as strong manual dexterity skills. Sometimes systems are so complicated that specialists are called to help plan the layout of the computer room, both of the multitude of wires and the physical equipment.
Technical support specialists can also specialize in either hardware or software. They work in large corporations or for computer companies that offer technical support to end users. For example, a large bank probably has a technical support person on staff in the information systems department. This individual is responsible for helping users when they encounter problems as well as fixing problems with the machines when they break down or crash. Technical support specialists who work for a computer manufacturer may answer phone calls from frustrated users who cannot get their computers or applications to run properly. These specialists talk consumers through the problems and attempt to solve them over the phone.
Computer repairers are called in when the hardware breaks down physically. Transistors can blow, for example, or motherboards or other internal hardware can be defective from the start. Computer repairers analyze the hardware, determine the cause of the problem, and fix it by repairing the equipment or replacing certain parts with new ones.
The computer industry would not exist without a sales force. Computer sales representatives work for computer manufacturers or retail stores. They are very knowledgeable about the wide range of products on the market and must be good at persuading consumers that their company’s product is better. Their work requires technical expertise as well as strong interpersonal communication skills.