Computer Science vs. IT: What’s the Difference?

To most who’ve spent some time working within the technology and computing field, the difference between computer science (CS) and IT might be well-explored territory. However, someone who’s either just beginning their career in information systems or might be looking to pivot into the industry may still be a bit confused as to which discipline they’d like to pursue, or even what comprises these fundamentally different branches of technology.

Computer science and IT present two entirely different career paths to those well-versed in computing and programming, but they both involve similar skill-sets. Both demand a high level of technological aptitude and the ability to work not just with single machines, but also broad networks of data storage and usage. Where they differ is in practice, as one crucial word separates them from one another: the “Science” in computer science.

CS specialists are, in fact, scientists, experimenting with computing methods and programming tools to try and understand the fundamentals of information processing. IT professionals, on the other hand, apply their practical knowledge to the management of data for an organization, supervising server use and technological needs to help companies and government agencies meet their objectives. The fields certainly blend a great deal, and professionals can move between the two industries with proper training. The fundamental skills required of either provide a solid working base. The fields are naturally connected in other ways, as well, as the results of a computer scientist’s research often influence the tools used by IT professionals to monitor an organization’s data usage and create effective network solutions.

But, more specifically, what can someone traveling down either career path expect from their day-to-day job functions? And what, in particular, separates the two fields?

Computer Science

Despite popular belief, the field of computer science doesn’t necessarily revolve around software development and building computer networks. Largely, the discipline can be defined as, “the study of the storage, transformation, and transfer of information.”

Basically, computer science is a process that involves the analysis of programmed interactions between data across various computing environments. As a result, computer scientists need a strong base in mathematics and computational theory to understand the ways in which pieces of information and programming commands interact. Once they evaluate these algorithms, CS experts can work to make them more efficient or practical, optimizing computing processes.

If a computer scientist, in examining an established system, discovers a means of improving it through revisions to the current algorithms – or recurring patterns of data interaction – then they may develop an application to refine a given computational process. However, armed with advanced programming knowledge, computer scientists can often make any desired changes without the need for a completely new piece of software. Where you might see a dedicated computer scientist’s work is in the programming-heavy work of robotics, or in the process of data mining: searching through massive streams of data to find and extract relevant patterns.

That said, since students in CS learn a great deal about the inner workings of computation, they form a base of skills that can be applied to a number of different fields. For some, the brand of in-depth, sometimes theoretical knowledge acquired through CS programs won’t suit their career goals, or their desired skill-set. Studying CS, though, provides an incredible foundation for continued coursework in technology, allowing graduates to expand into diverse fields and discover a practical application for their skills.

Information Technology

Information technology (IT), on the other hand, focuses on the use of contemporary devices (servers, networks, etc.) to the requirements of a business or other organization. Instead of analyzing the theory behind computation, IT professionals apply the principles of computer science to the real world, installing and monitoring data servers to store a company’s information, upgrading technical infrastructure as needed, and ensuring security across all networks.

This is what makes IT such a practical, in-demand occupation. As modern technologies expand in their capabilities – particularly the possibilities of cloud computing – businesses are always on the hunt for new tools that can give them a competitive edge and increase their efficiency. Creating open flows of information between various branches of an organization can potentially foster greater degrees of collaboration and productivity. Beyond that, a company’s information storage platforms have to be able to keep up with capacity, allowing for employee’s to access and store all of the information they need.

Building and maintaining these information systems is the task of the IT professional. Given the projected growth in the field, it’s likely that this applied discipline, as a subset of CS, will remain a highly practical choice for those seeking a technical, dynamic career path.

To gain specialized knowledge in IT or build on your existing skills to prepare for a leadership role, explore the online Master of Science in Information Technology at Lawrence Technological University.