Information Technology (IT). Computer Science (CS). Terms which can be, and often are, confused with one another. Even specialists with tertiary education in a Computer Science/Engineering or related field sometimes have predetermined (and quite possibly incorrect) ideas about what each of these terms mean. This article will give you the low-down on what the differences are, why you’d want to pick one over the other, and what these topics even mean in the South African market.
The dictionary defines “information technology” as the study or use of systems (especially computers and telecommunications) for storing, retrieving, and sending information. “Computer Science” is simply-put, the scientific and practical approach to computation and its applications.
The Definitions: IT versus Computer Science
IT, simply put, is the collection of hands-on technician-type activities that range from network troubleshooting, hardware setup and maintenance, and installation and management of specific software packages. These activities are certified under a number of short part-time qualifications such as the ‘Microsoft Platinum Affiliate’ and ‘Gold Dell Reseller’.
Computer Science, contrary to popular belief, is not “just theory”. It’s a higher-level science, but there’s just as much practical application here as in IT – mainly through the development of software. Computer Science also involves the study of the fundamentals of hardware, software, and the essence of computation itself. This study, and the theoretical backing of important concepts along with plenty of software development, allows computer scientists to design and build the most complex technologies in the modern world.
By saying the essence of computation, words such as algorithmic complexity, (the study of how time-efficient an algorithm is to sort, search or iterate) black-box vs white-box testing (software testing methodology considering outputs and/or inner code workings) and software DLC’s (how to design, maintain and manage software) come to mind.
In South Africa, there is a strong tendency to confuse IT with Computer Science, and lack of clarity on where software development fits in. Google has recently stepped in to try help solve this.
The Nuts and Bolts of CS
A huge part of CS is the nuts and bolts, if you will, of going from conceptual UML diagrams scribbled on a napkin at your local coffee shop, to 3am caffeine-fueled coding sessions, to debugging endlessly (and thanking your lucky stars for Git) and finally, to producing a software product that will be used by many happy clients. In fact, it’s your abstract concepts, theories and concepts you probably wanted to blow off during lectures that will help you overcome that one critical hurdle to get your project done. So if you end up studying CS, there’s a high probability you’ll be a software developer, but you’ll have key further knowledge that extends beyond just the code typed from your fingers. That key extra ‘why’ knowledge is where the advantage lies. There’s thus no merit in saying that IT is more practical than CS, and that’s an important idea to grasp.
Let’s keep remembering that CS is a science, which means you’re likely to pioneer all sorts of advanced technologies, new algorithms, and operate at a research-level as well as a ‘let’s implement code practically’ level. It’s the art of thinking in a certain way, understanding, as noted before, the ‘why’ beyond the ‘how’ of the workings of code, algorithms, and research methodologies. That’s great abstract-speak, but let’s solidify it a bit: natural language processing, speech recognition tools, cybersecurity, robotics, artificial intelligence: all these doors are opened with a CS degree in hand. Again, just because it’s a science, don’t for a moment think that you’ll be lost in the world of abstract concepts all the time!
Lastly, if you’re worried about CS perhaps not propelling you into an ‘industry’ position based on what you’ve seen IT grads achieve, the good news is that in the long run, a CS degree gives you the ‘open doors’ to step up to that position anyway. IT degrees aren’t prerequisite, in fact, CS degrees are arguably more useful in achieving ambitious goals.
The Comparisons: Where’s the Overlap?
Computer engineering is Computer Science with a hardware/software integration slant, and Software Development (or software engineering if you prefer, the terms are essentially the same) is more focused on the coding aspects of CS. Where does that leave IT? While computer engineering, software development and computer science are fairly close siblings, to use a family analogy, IT isn’t really related as a field to Computer Science at all. It’s the organizational needs approach, versus the whole concept design to implementation found in CS.
The Career Prospects: How far will each get you?
A career or degree in IT seems achievable; most South African universities offer it, and it seems that recent IT graduates could stand a chance to get into upper management positions. Typical positions for those with IT qualifications includes roles such as IT managers, IT systems managers (LAN maintenance and other similar tasks), and software systems managers (Working with Git and managing developers)- roles that focus on the management of computer labs, computer equipment and networking. Notice again that IT careers are much more business-focused than its counterpart in the sciences.
The perhaps uncomfortable reality, however, is that Computer science, not IT, is in high demand in South Africa right now. This fact is more important, especially now as the mobile revolution really takes hold, and there is definitely no shortage of jobs available, from Jozi to eKapa. The advantages of choosing a CS or dev career are that if you make the choice, it’s highly probable you enjoy programming; and if that’s true, good news! You’ll be programming as a career! Applications (excuse the pun) of Software Development as a discipline, also, are endless, a quick Google will reveal a vast array of potential specialisations and options.
Computer Scientists are also in greater demand, and you could find yourself working with anything from Artificial Intelligence, to being at the cutting edge of global tech research. CS will drive you further than IT can, as well. Overseas employers are jumping at the chance to employ skilled CS grads, and that’s a springboard to success. IT on the other hand, may serve you well within South Africa, but since the international definition of the qualification waters down a bit, it’s much tougher for potential South African job-seekers to find what they’re looking for overseas, with an IT degree.
Software development, in closing, shares much if its DNA with a Computer Science degree, although in the former’s case, you can be, and a surprising majority are, employed without a formal degree, just it’s something we’d advise strongly against, for the previously discussed reasons. Software developers can also play important management roles in software projects, as they have the technical coding skill as well as the understanding of how to manage a software project. (there are plenty of odd terms to refer to how this gets done.)
Hopefully, usage of the term IT in South Africa will start to match international norms over time, and the distinct status of Computer Science and software development made clear. Comment below if you need help making the choice between IT and CS – it’s important you make the right choice when it comes to careers, industry expectations, and your future in technology.
If software development and computer science is of interest to you, and you’d like to know more, you can study a career-leveraging bootcamp or a short course through Hyperion Development! Comment with your views on this article in the comments section below, and follow Hyperion Hub developments in the future if you’d like to see more articles like these for the South African market.
Author: Riaz Moola
Date originally published: 27/11/15