Computing fileds of study

A mother wrote to me: “I want my daughter to study “computer” in college so she can get a good job when graduate but she said there are many computing fields of study and she did not know what to choose. I am confused since I think there is only one “computer” field. Please help.”

Answer: Computing area is divided into several fields of study. In general, most people associate “Computer” with “Computer Science” field of study. However there are others such as Software Engineering, Information System Management, and Computer Engineering etc.

1) Computer Science (CS): This field is focusing in both theory and technology solution through programming techniques. It develops graduates who can design and build software product. The programs require good mathematical background and logical thinking as it focuses mostly on the programming aspect such as data structures and algorithms. Students must master at least two programming languages such as C++ and Java. Most CS graduates will work as software programmers, software developers in areas such as web development, applications development, interface design, and mobile computing etc. Most of these jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree and some form of experience. CS students should take advantage of various summer internship opportunities and capstone project to gain experience before graduate.

2) Software Engineering (SE): This field is focusing on developing software systems that are reliable, efficient and satisfy customer’s requirements. Software engineers often work with large software systems which deal with safety-critical applications or embedded systems. It integrates the theories of computer science with the practical aspect of engineering. Although degree programs in computer science and software engineering have many courses in common but software engineering focuses on the entire software development lifecycle that goes beyond programming to include customers’ requirements, architect systems, as well as designing and testing software. SE program focuses on a range of topics that are essential in the software industry such as modeling and analysis, architect, design, verification and validation, software quality, software process, and software management, etc. While both CS and SE programs require students to work in team but SE programs tend to involve students in more teamwork with different roles and responsibilities.

3) Information System Management (ISM): This field is focusing on the managing of information systems that support a business or governmental organization. It is concerned with the processes that a company must implement to improve efficiency. This field integrates the knowledge of computer science with the practical of business aspects to use information technology to automate business processes. ISM graduates learn both technical and business theories and apply them to help company to determine how information technology can improve business performance. They determine what information does the company need? How is that information generated? How does it provide to people who need it? Is it presented to managers in ways that allow them to make decision quickly? Is the company structured to be able to use technology effectively? Are the business processes of the company well designed? Does the company use information technologies appropriately? Is the company capable of changing quickly enough to changing market? These are the important issues that businesses rely on ISM people to address. (Note: Information Systems Management (ISM) may be called by different names such as Management Information Systems (MIS), Computer Information Systems (CIS), or Business Information Systems (BIS). Most ISM graduates have worked as Database Administrator, Information System Manager, and Information Technology Service Manager., Etc.

4) Computer Engineering (CE): This field is focusing on the design of hardware and software systems including communications systems, computers and devices that interfaces with users and other devices. An important area of computing engineering is the development of embedded systems such as cell phones, digital audio players, digital video recorders, alarm systems, x-ray machines, and laser surgical tools all require both hardware and embedded software. Computer engineering is taught mostly in engineering school. This field requires significant study of mathematics and logic and electronics and electrical engineering. Graduates in this program often work as computer engineers in hardware or electronic companies to design computer chips, circuit boards, computer systems, and related equipment such as keyboards, modems, and printers. (Note: The work of computer engineers is very similar to that of electronics engineers but only focus on computer hardware equipment.

Basically, all computing related fields of study consist of two types of skills: Technical skills (programming, problem solving, logic and abstraction etc.) and soft-skills (Communication, presentation, listening, teamwork and leadership etc.) After graduated, most people go to work but some continue to go to a Master degree for specialization in certain domain areas such as Security, Database, and Network, Computer music, Computer in Medicine or Biotechnology etc. Some go to study in a Ph.D degree to conduct research in computing domain areas. According to several studies, Computing areas are considered the fastest growing jobs in the world, ahead of Medicine, Law, and Business. The demand for computing degreed professionals is expected to grow by 35% to 42% in the next ten years (2010-2020). Currently there is a critical shortage of graduates in computing area all over the world, from China, India to Europe and the U.S.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University