Computer Science

Information Technology and Computer Engineering: What’s the Difference?

Information Technology and Computer Engineering: What’s the Difference?
These two disciplines seem *very* different at first glance, but there is some overlap where coursework is concerned. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry June 8, 2020

IT and computer engineering are very different areas of computer science. Even so, pursuing a degree in one discipline or the other needn't lock you into a single career path for life.

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Considering a career in computers? Then you're probably looking at computer engineering and information technology degrees. Which one is right for you?

Technology jobs tend to fall into a few silos, including development, engineering, and business. Computer science degrees typically fall into the same categories. They emphasize hard skills or soft skills, depending on the kinds of careers they're preparing students for. Some are highly technical and include classes in advanced mathematics and programming. Others devote more credit hours to business concepts, information security, and working with existing information management systems.

Almost all computer science degrees require students to be able to do some programming. If, however, you've been operating under the assumption that working with computer science primarily means coding, it's time to take another look at the various academic pathways, including information technology and computer engineering.

These two disciplines seem very different at first glance, but there is some overlap where coursework is concerned. It's no coincidence that colleges and universities known for their computer engineering programs also tend to have well-regarded information technology programs.

In this article about the differences between information technology and computer engineering, we cover:

  • Why are there so many kinds of technology degrees?
  • What makes information technology and computer engineering programs different?
  • What do students in information technology degree programs study?
  • What do students in computer engineering degree programs study?
  • Is there any overlap between information technology and computer engineering programs?
  • Can you do the same types of jobs with these degrees?
  • What are the best schools for information technology?
  • Which colleges and universities have the best computer engineering programs?
  • How can I decide which degree is right for me?

Why are there so many kinds of technology degrees?

Computer science is a broad field that encompasses many technical and non-technical roles. Students interested in technology can pursue any of several degree pathways based on those roles. Depending on whether you want to work in software design, programming, information systems management, hardware design, research, management, or hardware engineering, you might pursue any of the following degrees:

  • Computer engineering: These programs teach students about software, networks, operating systems, and programming languages, and hardware components like microprocessors and fiber optics. Some Master of Science in Computer Engineering programs also dive into electrical engineering.
  • Computer science: At the bachelor's degree level, computer science degrees tend to be designed for generalists and cover a lot of ground (software, hardware, and information systems). At the master's level, students can choose from among concentrations like software development, computer networking, computer engineering, software theory, robotics, and cyber security.
  • Information technology: Sometimes referred to as information systems management or just information systems, IT programs teach students about the practical applications of software and hardware systems and how to manage those systems.
  • Master of Business Administration: Traditional MBAs aren't technical, but today there are many MBA in Information Technology and dual MBA/MSCE degrees that give students a firm foundation in business fundamentals and computer science concepts.

What makes information technology and computer engineering programs different?

In two words: curricular focus. Information technology master's and bachelor's degree programs exist to teach students how to:

  • Build, maintain, and protect computer networks
  • Use tech infrastructure effectively
  • Build and manage databases
  • Identify the best hardware and software solutions

Students in these programs might specialize in health informatics, enterprise computing, network security, or information management.

Computer engineering degree programs, on the other hand, are highly technical. Students are trained to solve computing problems by tweaking existing hardware or creating entirely new hardware, preparing them for careers in the research, design, and development of computer equipment. Both programs require students to take programming courses, but the programming languages students are required to learn will typically be different.

What do students in information technology degree programs study?

Students in information technology bachelor's degree programs learn programming skills and the fundamentals of systems analysis, software testing, information technology infrastructure, and database systems. The answer to this question at the master's degree level is somewhat complicated because there are so many types of information technology degrees. Students enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University's Master of Science in Information Systems program, for example, take courses like:

  • Analysis and Design of Database Systems
  • Business Data Analytics
  • Data Communications
  • Developing and Implementing Forecasting Methods for Business
  • Information Systems for Business Intelligence
  • Information Systems Management
  • Principles of Computer and Information Systems Security
  • SAP, ERP, and Supply Chain Management
  • Statistical Analysis and Modeling
  • Systems Development

You might also pursue any of the following information technology degrees, in which case you might take very similar classes or spend more time learning about business fundamentals or technical systems design.

What do students in computer engineering degree programs study?

The curriculum in computer engineering degree programs is typically focused on hardware design and development. While students learn about programming software systems, they also take courses in physics, logic design, circuits, computer architecture, and microprocessor systems at the bachelor's degree level.

It's not uncommon for computer engineering students to pursue master's degrees, and so advanced degree programs in computer engineering often skip over foundational coursework. Students in the Master of Engineering in Computer Engineering program at the University of Tulsa's Tandy School of Computer Science and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering take courses like:

  • Computer Architecture
  • Compiler Construction
  • Computer and Network Forensics
  • Computer Networks
  • Computer Security
  • Embedded Devices Reverse Engineering
  • Enterprise Security Management
  • Hardware Reverse Engineering
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Information and Text Retrieval
  • Information System Assurance
  • Information System Security Engineering
  • Malware Analysis and Creation
  • Network Security
  • Risk Management for Information Systems
  • Robotics
  • SCADA Systems Security
  • Secure Electronic Commerce
  • Secure Systems Administration
  • Security Auditing and Penetration Testing
  • Software Reverse Engineering
  • Theory of Computing

Is there any overlap between information technology and computer engineering programs?

That depends mostly on which colleges and universities you're looking at. Some information technology and computer engineering programs are extremely different. Then there are universities where the gulf between these two academic pathways isn't as vast as you might expect.

Computer engineering degree programs are generally focused on hardware and software, while information technology degree programs are focused on software and/or running software systems. However, IT programs that touch on more technical topics—like theory of computation and algorithms and computer engineering programs—require students to learn about data management and information security. At some schools (George Mason University, for instance) information technology programs are offered through the school of engineering.

The takeaway is that when you're researching information technology and computer engineering differences, you should carefully read program guides instead of relying on program names or degree names to drive your academic choices.

Can you do the same types of jobs with these degrees?

Information technology and computer engineering degree programs prepare students for very different careers, and the requirements regarding highest level of education are also different. It's entirely possible to launch a career and advance in information technology with a bachelor's degree. To advance in computer engineering, however, you'll probably need to have a master's degree.

Information technology degree holders are prepared to step into roles that involve building, protecting, and evaluating computer networks, like:

Computer engineering degree programs, on the other hand, prepare students to become computer engineers. Graduates have the skills and knowledge to step into other technical roles (including many of those above). However, they can also work in more lucrative hardware engineering positions, developing components for computers, smartphones, cars, and other IoT-connected devices like smart TVs, thermostats, and refrigerators.

What are the best schools for information technology?

Colleges and universities with vigorous and highly-respected IT programs typically offer an array of different bachelor's degrees and master's degrees related to information technology. There are strong information technology bachelor's degree programs at the following schools: -Brigham Young University - Provo

Some of the top information technology master's programs can be found at the following schools:

Which colleges and universities have the best computer engineering programs?

There's a great deal of overlap between lists of the top information technology programs and the top computer engineering programs. Some of the best computer engineering programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels can be found at:

When you're looking at bachelor's-level and master's level information technology and computer engineering differences, the distinctions between these programs at the curriculum level may matter more than which college or university you ultimately choose. A top technology school will most likely have a strong information technology program and a strong computer engineering program.

How can I decide which degree is right for me?

Career pathways in information technology and computer engineering tend to be quite different, but that doesn't mean the degree path you choose will lock you into one trajectory or the other. You should consider your interests, talents, and long-term professional and financial goals when choosing between information technology and computer engineering programs. Still, you needn't worry about choosing the perfect path. Your aspirations may change as the years go by, and having one degree or the other doesn't mean you can't transition into a different type of career in tech.

Bryan Gough is a site reliability engineer at Google who didn't choose the computer engineering degree. In a Career Village thread about information technology and computer engineering differences, he wrote: "In general, it's what you do after school that counts the most. My degree was business/IT focused, and I now work in a very technically demanding job role."

If you've read this far and are still unsure whether you want to pursue an information technology degree or a computer engineering degree, there's a third option you should consider. Look for customizable programs on either side of the divide that will let you learn as much as possible about both the technical side and the business side of computing. That way, when you graduate, you'll have twice as many doors open to you.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle. He has been managing editor of the Noodle.com website for over four years.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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