IT

With computers now such a major part of our everyday lives, we examine the career opportunities offered by Information Technology – from hardware repair and maintenance to software design and management.

Even experts can get it wrong. Back in 1943, IBM founder Thomas J Watson supposedly stated: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Some 34 years later, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) co-founder Ken Olsen quipped: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Even Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, allegedly remarked that 640k of memory “ought to be enough for anybody”. To this day Gates denies having ever said that, which is just as well considering that today’s average home PC has at least one gigabyte of memory – over 1,500 times that apocryphal definition of ‘enough’.

Computers – once just the clunking threat in corny science fiction stories – now permeate our daily lives. Aside from the home PC, computing power is likely to be found in our automatic washing machines, mobile phones and cars. From the control of traffic lights to the efficient restocking of supermarket shelves, and from the operation of hospitals to buying a lottery ticket, we are cocooned by the application of Information Technology (IT) – and it is rare indeed to find any medium or large-sized company that doesn’t have its own IT support department. No wonder that, in global terms, computer processing power has grown by around 1,000,000,000 times in the last 40 years.

HM Armed Forces are no exception to this spread of IT; indeed, according to Brigadier Alan Pollard, who was in charge of the Army Logistics Information Systems Agency during the 1990s, computers are fundamental to British military operations. As he puts it: “Being technologically “up with the Hunt” is critical to today’s Forces.”

CAREERS
According to e-skills UK (the sector skills council for IT and telecoms) there is such a wide range of jobs in IT that, whatever your background, it is likely you could find a role that would suit you: “Different jobs have very different skills requirements, so it is almost impossible to generalise. However, most jobs, particularly the ones where you are working with customers, will need good interpersonal skills, team working and problem solving ability.” As anyone who frequently uses a computer can tell you, sooner or later some problem will raise its head; as a result, troubleshooting lies at the heart of many IT careers – that is, facing up to and understanding problems and having the knowledge and flexibility to work out quickly what solutions can work. Those are, of course, attributes commonly developed during your time in the Services.

Career opportunities in the IT sector include:

The design, writing and testing of computer software, either for specific products (such as mobile phones) or to support and develop business processes (such as the management of accounts or the manipulation of databases)

The creation, installation, repair and maintenance of computer networks, in terms of both the actual hardware and the software that runs on them

The management of IT staff and resources

The analysis and provision of customers’ IT requirements

The design, development and editing of websites for both public and private sector organisations and companies

The provision of IT support for either the public or colleagues

All IT jobs have some technical content which, according to e-skills UK, ranges from “the deep technical skills of a software developer through to roles that may need much less detailed knowledge – for example in some project management roles, communication, organisation and the ability to gather together the people who do have technical knowledge may be more important than what you know yourself.” But whatever type of job you choose in this sector, you will have the challenge of working in a fast-changing industry – after all, the internet has become almost ubiquitous inside of a decade, and who knows what developments are to come in the future?

ALREADY QUALIFIED?
Moving from the military to civilian world of IT is much easier than it once was, according to Alan Pollard, since the Services now largely use off-the-shelf, military-adapted products rather than developing their own bespoke products from scratch. “There’s a lot more commonality between what goes on in terms of IT and technology. Previously, there was less of an opportunity to go into mainstream computing. That’s not the case now; most military people involved in IT will have had a lot of association with private sector industries and suppliers.”

Yet regardless of your experience and capabilities, it’s wise to update and adapt your skills to the civilian world. “In the private sector, training is geared towards either your own career or the needs of the company who are employing you. In the Armed Forces you have to be a solider, sailer, etc first and a technician second. Indeed, you will be likely to be rotated between a regimental job and your technical job, so you might have done something else for two or three years. That is a long time in terms of technology.”

LOOKING FOR QUALIFICATIONS
If you’re looking to enter the world of IT without any experience of the sector, you will inevitably need to learn to use specific applications or computing languages. Available qualifications range from National/Scottish Vocational Qualifications (N/SVQs) in IT Services and the new ITQ qualification in IT user skills, right up to vocational foundation degrees and more academic-focused honours degrees. For more details on the options available, contact e-skills UK or the British Computer Society (BCS).

IS IT YOUR FUTURE?
There’s certainly a lot of opportunity in IT, according to Alan Pollard, but you have to accept that this is an industry where Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is a must. “Technology changes by the day,” he told us, “and one thing we can’t do in technology is sell yesterday’s skills – that’s why you’ve got to keep up to date. It’s the people who move with the changes that will actually capitalise on the market. There’s also an increasing emphasis now on professionalism. From that point of view, ex-military people – who generally go through training and achieve a whole list of qualifications and courses – do have a solid background.”

SALARIES
A recent survey by the National Computing Centre suggests the average IT salary in the UK is £31,654 (ranging from £28,445 in the north of England to £36,853 in Greater London), and that they have risen by an average of 3% in the last year. Individual bonuses of between 5.6% to 9.3% of basic salary are increasingly common, with IT managers most likely to receive the higher rate.

Brigadier Alan Pollard FBCS CITP is currently the Vice-President (Member Services) of the British Computer Society. While his career in the IT industry has included consultation work for some of the UK’s biggest private sector names, it is grounded – as his rank suggests – in his earlier career in the British Army.

“I spent 32 years in the Army and started getting involved with IT in the very early 1970s,” Alan told us. “I’ve done most jobs from basic programming right up to senior staff strategy. During the 1980s and early 1990s I had responsibility in the Ministry of Defence for Army computing policy and strategy, while in my last job I was chief executive of the Army Logistics Information Systems Agency, providing all the IT for Army logistics worldwide.”

Alan accepts that his resettlement was remarkably smooth. “I’m probably not typical because my last job, for about four or five years, was leading a major outsourcing programme. I felt more like a civilian in uniform than a solider, because I spent half my time in and out of different companies.”

That said, Alan knows his military background has helped him move successfully into the private sector. “What you are able to bring is some sort of structure and order to a complex situation. People in industry like you to come in and say that this, this and this need to be done, so let’s get on with it.”

FURTHER INFORMATION

The British Computer Society
www.bcs.org
0845 300 4417

e-skills UK
www.e-skills.com
020 7963 8920

CompTIA (Computing Technology Industry Association)
www.comptia.org
020 7743 6150