For me, one of the funniest things about working in information technology is the stock photos. If you were to base your impression of us IT professionals solely on Google Images, you’d think we were all Computer Ninjas, spending our days hunched over Teeny Tiny Laptops as we stealthily roam the expansive server farms we call home.
While that does sound like fun, it’s obviously not accurate (although the hunching part is somewhat true). Even though I’ve spent my entire career working on web and server infrastructure, I’ve actually never been to a data center. For the record, servers are EXTREMELY LOUD and not super fun to be around, so I’m not exactly looking to change that. When most people think of IT, they think of computers and servers (which are just giant computers). And, yes, we do use computers a lot. However, the true focus of IT is the information being stored and manipulated.
Information Science and Information Systems
Information science is the heart of IT, and is probably one of the most boring-sounding types of science (along with library science, which is actually very interesting). Raw, unstructured information (A.K.A. data, which actually does mean something different) is probably just about the most boring thing you could have. There’s absolutely nothing interesting about a list of product prices, or a pile of shipping addresses. I’m actually getting slightly bored just writing about it. But, information is extremely important to business people, who can reverse the boring by organizing and deciphering this information to generate value, which is a primary function supported by IT. This is probably why we usually think about IT in the context of business.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure.
That’s what was written on the only poster in the break room of my last office building (the poster attributed the quote to Peter Drucker, although Google casts doubt on whether he actually said that). I’m not going to think too hard about that statement, because it’s a pretty big generalization. But, the point still stands. Information is necessary on both an operational and a strategic level, and it’s much easier to manage when it’s digital.
Information systems are the actual hardware, software, firmware, freeware, middleware, and Tupperware that store the information. These components are necessary, but they don’t (well, shouldn’t) drive IT. That’s where we (IT people) come in. It’s our job to know the business and apply our technology skills to meet the information needs of the business. It’s important that we know our way around computers, but it’s just as important that we know our way around the business. This marriage of the I and the T is a unique and important skillset that is different than both operations and computer science.
Computer Science Is a Different Thing
When I was applying to college, I wanted to major in computer science because it’s The Degree to Have These Days, Baby (or so I thought). The general consensus of the articles I read (which seem to have been written by computer science graduates) was that IT degrees are basically easy, business-focused CS degrees. That’s obviously an untrue, biased perspective, and you can generally perform most tech jobs with either degree. But, it does beg the question: what’s computer science?
I’m so glad you asked. While IT is driven by information, computer science is driven by technology. Computer scientists develop the technology that information scientists apply. They also occasionally write mean articles about how easy IT is. They don’t, however, spend their days slinking through rows of server cabinets. There’s a large gray area between IT and CS, and they tend to exist as different mindsets rather than different professions. The one group of people pedantic enough to draw a hard line between the two is (surprise surprise) academics, hence the segregation between the degrees and the accompanying rivalry.
Of course, there is absolutely a physical aspect to IT, since all that information needs to live somewhere. If you’re still wondering about the giant data centers in the stock photos, I can confirm that they do, in fact, exist. Most organizations don’t have enough infrastructure to fill up a big shiny data center. Instead, they limit their physical server footprint to a few hypervisor hosts in a locked closet somewhere, where they live in relative solitude, save for the very occasional visit from a sysadmin. It’s not uncommon for these organizations to host their applications in the cloud (which is really just borrowed space in someone else’s data center).
Large organizations often do operate their own data centers. The server farmers who actually tend to the physical hardware are generally a group of people known as data center technicians, who maintain, repair, and replace the actual hardware under the supervision of the individuals responsible for the architecture of the system. However, they’re an extraordinarily small subset of the IT field, even though they do receive their fifteen minutes of stock photo fame.