In the world of technology jobs, a computer science degree at the bachelor’s level (almost always a BS or bachelor of science) generally moves you a step up from the person who goes around the office fixing individual computer problems. Computer science degree holders get hired for a wide spectrum of more senior jobs, from designing content systems for websites to closing security holes in company networks and even creating online business plans.
A generalized BS in computer science, which you can get from many online schools, can be an excellent foundation for lots of different career specialties in IT or development and can also be a good foundation for managerial positions. But if you love a particular tech specialty, schools nowadays offer specialized computer science degrees that can give you a running start. Here’s a look at five specialties that are particularly hot right now, and the computer science degrees that will qualify you for them:
Information Technology: A ton of different jobs in the IT sector exist under the heading of “developer” or “programmer.” Every industry that earns significant money or provides services through a consumer-facing website will have a strong need for information technology specialists. The jobs they perform include building and maintaining software platforms for subscription websites (media companies), financial management (banks, financial advisers that offer stock trading accounts to end users) or ecommerce (digital retailers from Amazon.com to Toys R Us).
Many developers specialize in a particular system or programming language right at the start of their education if they know which industry they want to have a career in. Java, for example, is a language frequently used to transfer secure information to mobile devices. That’s a function that’s extremely important in the financial industry, and a whole lot of programmers have build nice careers in investment banks or brokerage companies but mastering java and java scripts.
Many colleges have long offered online computer science BS degrees that focus on information technology. In most cases, they arm you with great knowledge for media and other information industry jobs, but actually provide enough general tech knowledge so that you won’t end up locked in to any one industry. A typical degree of this type will involve a core curriculum in operating systems, project management, programming and database systems, followed by more specialized courses in information security, wireless technology, telecommunications and specialized software development. Some even include courses in game development. Information technology specialists are likely to prosper in the future as computing and communicating via wireless and the web gradually merge more and more into a single function.
Web Development: Web developers work on both the architecture and the effectiveness of websites. In other words, they implement the code the runs the content management system on sites and also work with creators of content (editors and others) to make sure the site draws visitors from Google and other search engines. This is a terrifically important role at media companies in particular, but it has grown in importance as many other types of companies have taken their businesses online.
This role should not be confused with that of a web designer, a much lower paid function that focuses almost entirely on the graphic layout of a site. Web developers will pay attention to the “look” of a site, but they tend to view websites in more of a functional perspective: how effectively the design gets readers to click on certain things, find the right information or buy whatever the company is trying to sell online. On top retail sites like Amazon.com or Buy.com, web developers have spent a huge amount of time arranging every offer and category heading to get you to stay on the site and complete your purchase there. Ever notice that when you go into a good job site and click on an IT job, for example, every time you go a page deeper into the site it keeps showing you more and more IT jobs in the side columns. That’s because of the kind of high-end content management system that get’s put in place by smart web developers. Some of the top systems in this area come from IBM and Interwoven.
The best web developers have both technical and marketing skills. In media companies, they need an understanding of fairly complex content systems like Drupal and WordPress, and also a high skill level at using applications like Omniture and Google Analytics to do very in-depth analysis of who the site’s audience is and what types of content they are consuming. On retail sites the top CMS products generally come from IBM and Interwoven. This can be a fun specialty that gets you working with online video, wireless applications, social networking, streaming technologies and all sorts of other cutting-edge applications that companies are always racing to put into their sites. It can also involve a certain amount of stress when problems arise on a company website that are visible to end users. Even huge sites like Facebook and Twitter have outages once in a while, and when they do their web developers have to scramble to get them working again in a hurry. Quite a few colleges and universities are now offering online computer science BS degrees specialized in either web development or web design and development.
Business & Computing: A growing specialty that involves just what the name implies – a combined knowledge of computer technology and the ways they can be used to drive profitability for companies. Job titles that incorporate this skill set can include Director of Product Development, Product or Project Manager or Director of Technology. At some companies, people who bring both technology and financial skills may simply become the head of a division that operates a tech based product – a title like publisher of an online information or data site, for example. At other companies, it may put you in a position to work as a “sales engineer,” selling a software or other technology product, a specialty that can be quite lucrative.
Generally, the best way to prepare for these types of jobs is to get one of the more general computer science degrees such as a BS computer science or BS information technology, and either make a point of taking elective business courses along the way or follow through by getting an MBA after you finish your bachelor’s degree. This is a specialty that’s expected to grow dramatically, in part because many businesses are no longer developing their technology in-house but going out and buying it in bits and pieces from third party suppliers. The job of looking around for the right supplier of, say, a content management system, is an important function that requires technology understanding and an ability to negotiate contracts. Alternatively, many companies today are looking for “business process modelers,” who look at the way they are using IT to solve various problems. Many large corporations in particular have realized that their various divisions are using technology in very disorganized ways. A business process specialist can save them a great deal of money by designing a system to analyze technology problems and get standardized solutions created across the company rather than “redesigning the wheel” for each new problem or business idea that comes up.
Network and/or Information Security: A degree in this specialty that can stream you into large businesses of almost all types, or can qualify you to actually work in the technology side of law enforcement. Security is, perhaps, a less “sexy” specialty than web development. As a result it tends to attract fewer students. But it’s an absolutely critical job function in a world where more and larger financial transactions occur online, and where privacy issues are a major concern to almost everyone. The almost never-ending efforts of “black hat” programmers to hack into various systems practically guarantees that companies will always want to have lots of digital security experts working to protect them. Some schools actually have “ethical hacking” contests to prove that their students are as smart as the bad guys.
Jobs of this type tend to be very stable. Some popular job titles in this area include network auditor, information security manager or consultant or even network scanner. The federal government is a significant employer of computer science degree holders who specialize in security, particularly for military and law enforcement applications.
Game Development: This is a specialized area that makes sense if you have a tremendous love of computer and video games. It’s a volatile sector where developers with an entrepreneurial streak can make a great deal of money, but where many games are flops from a sales perspective. Generally, that’s true of many types of application development. Every famous application from Google to Twitter generally came originally from the head of a developer, and probably one with a computer science degree. In the past, many game architects or developers had only general computer science degrees. But more schools are now offering degrees in game design specifically.
This is a specialty where a combination of technological knowledge and some artistic skill will serve you well. The good news about game and other types of application development is that even if some of the things you design don’t sell, there always seem to be other companies and investors out there in a hurry to develop new products who will need your services for a new project.