IT Professionals: The Nerds You’ve Been Looking For

September 17 is National IT Professionals Day. The third Tuesday in September annually celebrates the contributions of the often unsung heroes of any enterprise: the people who keep the organization’s systems collecting, processing, and communicating the data that gives the organization its purpose.

IT professionals perform so many different tasks that it is sometimes hard to describe their work succinctly or accurately. Their responsibilities run the gamut from the mundane chores of fixing paper jams and connecting ethernet cables to planning, building, and maintaining all aspects of a sophisticated data center. Practically every organization has so many diverse needs when it comes to technology that IT professionals often find themselves doing a little bit of everything, or least being expected to do so.

The range of roles in Information Technology is so wide that colleges and universities have had a hard time agreeing on what components are essential to an IT program. At Lewis, we employ a “problem-solve-first, code-second, take-on-the-world-third” approach. We teach all our technical computing programs through the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences, specifically out of the Computer Science and Engineering side of the department. That includes our Information Technology coursework. While we are a progressive Computer Science program that seeks to prepare students for practically any career in computer technology, from software to hardware to integrated mission-purposed systems, we haven’t lost that classical focus of computer science: that abstraction and algorithms are paramount, because they empower you to solve any problem you confront. Once you have designed a solution by abstracting away its non-essential elements and devising a detailed plan to corral its essential ones into harmony, then you can apply your ability to express solutions in a programming language to give the solution life on your computing platform of choice.

Every technology professional, whether they be a software developer or a networking specialist or a cybersecurity engineer or an IoT designer, must know how to simplify, plan, code, test, and repeat. The degree to which different students – and, by extension – the professionals they’ll become – focus on the “code” part of that cycle depends on their specific focus. Some code a lot, and some code a enough to be dangerous. But every graduate of a Lewis technology program will graduate skilled in all aspects of this essential workflow. Simplify, plan, code (at least a little), test, and repeat.

At Lewis, then, every student we prepare in the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences is a future IT professional. Some will write software, others will design hardware, and others will take off-the-shelf hardware and software and integrate them into a system that meets organizational requirements. Integrating systems in this way requires the ability to simplify, solve, and code, but it also requires a thorough knowledge of how computers and communication systems work, including the functions performed by various kinds of hardware and the protocols followed by various network appliances. Not all students will study these latter topics in depth, as people who want to develop software for a living don’t need to know as much about these topics as someone who wants to help design, build, and maintain a computing infrastructure. But every graduate will have at least a functional understanding of all sides of the computer technology puzzle so that they can solve technology-related problems in as informed and wide-viewed way as possible.

If you investigate our undergraduate Computer Science curriculum, you’ll gain a sense of how many opportunities exist to work in and with information technology, and you’ll hopefully come to appreciate the lengths to which we’ve gone to open doors to students in all the various areas of focus within IT. We offer seven distinct concentrations that enable students to take courses that lead to certain knowledge and, when practiced, particular careers. Some of the concentrations focus on the software side of computing and information technology:

  • Software Engineering
  • Game and Simulation Development
  • Computational Theory

Some focus more on the infrastructure portion of the IT space:

  • Networking (Cisco Academy)
  • Digital Forensics

And two more concentrations are offered as balanced marriages of the two sides, because even modest attempts to separate program from platform will provide an incomplete picture:

  • Cybersecurity
  • Data Science

We offer a similar array of Concentration options on the graduate side.

How can one department offer students so many different options for becoming an IT professional? It’s simple. First, we have to. We would be selling students short if we didn’t offer them every opportunity within Information Technology that might interest them, and we’d fail further if we didn’t show them how interconnected all these sub-fields really are. So, it is incumbent on any Computer Science department of quality and means to reflect the scope and diversity of the profession. To accomplish this year-after-year, though, we have remained focused on the mantra I quoted earlier: “Problem-solve first. Code second. Then take on the world.” Fundamentally, we prepare problem solvers who know enough about technology to understand what’s possible now, what can be possible with a little bit of ingenuity, and how to make it all happen in code.

To summarize, an IT professional is a problem solver who has a wizard-like command of the language of technology. An IT professional has a well-rounded, comprehensive view of how computers work, how they turn data into information, and how to get computer technology to do whatever the current task requires. An IT professional, in other words, is a doctor whose patients sport transistors instead of cells.

Remember that the next time you ask him to fix the paper jam!

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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