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Interested in majoring in computing, but not quite sure where to begin? In this section you will find overviews of traditional and specialty computing majors and the similarities and differences among them.

Click on each of the majors on the left to learn about possible career paths, what to expect during undergraduate studies, what skills are needed, and how to start preparing now.

Computer Engineering

Computer engineers analyze and develop computer systems, both hardware and software. They might work on system such as a flexible manufacturing system or a "smart" device or instrument. Computer engineers often find themselves focusing on problems or challenges which result in new "state of the art" products, which integrate computer capabilities. They work on the design, planning, development, testing, and even the supervision of manufacturing of computer hardware -- including everything from chips to device controllers.

They work on the interface between different pieces of hardware and strive to provide new capabilities to existing and new systems or products. The work of a computer engineer is grounded in the hardware -- from circuits to architecture -- but also focuses on software and how it interfaces with hardware. Computer engineers must understand logic design, microprocessor system design, computer architecture, computer interfacing, and continually focus on system requirements and design. It is primarily software engineers who focus on creating the software systems used by individuals and businesses, but computer engineers may also design and develop some software applications.

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Computer Science

Computer scientists impact society through their work in many areas. Because computer technology is embedded in so many products, services, and systems, computer scientists can be found in almost every industry. Design of next generation computer systems, computer networking, biomedical information systems, gaming systems, search engines, web browsers, and computerized package distribution systems are all examples of projects a computer scientist might work on. Computer scientists might also focus on improving software reliability, network security, information retrieval systems, or may even work as a consultant to a financial services company.

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Information Systems

Information systems (IS) professionals blend business and technology by transforming data into knowledge to keep their organizations on the cutting edge. IS professionals are responsible for defining, designing, implementing and maintaining an organization’s information systems, which may include a combination of information, processes, people, software and technology. These professionals may work in a wide range of industries from the government, to the military, to the private sector.

Additional responsibilities of the IS professional may include developing new business and multimedia solutions; configuring and integrating, e-learning, e-business, and database products; and managing the organization’s web presence. IS professionals may also have responsibility in modeling, designing, and configuring an organization’s databases. IS professionals may train others on topics such as how to use word processing software, databases spreadsheets, and information systems. At the management level, IS professionals may be engaged in resource management including resource planning, budgeting, and selecting database products or network components.

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Information Technology

In today’s information-driven world, organizations depend on Information Technology professionals to ensure they have the technology needed to achieve their goals and be successful. IT professionals are the “go-to people” when it comes to planning, installing, and maintaining an organization’s technological backbone. These professionals may take on many roles within an organization from working on the front line assisting customers with technological problems, to managing an entire company’s computer network. IT professionals may work in business, healthcare, education, or non-profit institutions.

Information Technology professionals ensure that the computer networks within an organization are in good working order, secure, and updated or replaced as needed. IT professionals may be responsible for developing and maintaining an organization’s website, intranet, e-commerce applications, databases, phone systems, e-learning platforms, and multimedia assets. IT professionals may take on the role of trainers to teach employees how to use software, databases, applications or systems. IT managers may be responsible for planning and overseeing large scale technology projects and the teams of people that support them. They may be also be tasked with managing and planning an organization’s technology budget and purchasing equipment, software, or technological products.

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Software Engineering

The explosive impact of computers and information technology on our everyday lives has generated a need to design and develop new computer software systems and to incorporate new technologies into a rapidly growing range of applications. The tasks performed by workers known as computer software engineers evolve quickly, reflecting new areas of specialization or changes in technology, as well as the preferences and practices of employers. Computer software engineers apply the principles and techniques of computer science, engineering, and mathematical analysis to the design, development, testing, and evaluation of the software and systems that enable computers to perform their many applications.

Software engineers working in applications or systems development analyze users' needs and design, construct, test, and maintain computer applications software or systems. Software engineers can be involved in the design and development of many types of software, including software for operating systems and network distribution, and compilers, which convert programs for execution on a computer. In programming, or coding, software engineers instruct a computer, line by line, how to perform a function. They also solve technical problems that arise. Software engineers must possess strong programming skills, but are more concerned with developing algorithms and analyzing and solving programming problems than with actually writing code.

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Specialty Degrees

With new advances in technology being made every day, the realm of possibilities for specialization in computing is ever growing. Specialty computing degree areas extend beyond traditional computing majors, which include computer science, computer engineering, information systems, information technology, and software engineering. Specialty computing degrees may combine elements of traditional majors or intersect with non-computing disciplines such as medicine, criminal justice, or art. These degrees present a unique opportunity for a career that combines computing with other personal interests.

There are hundreds of different specialty computing degrees, a few of which will be discussed here. To explore the full spectrum of specialty computing degree areas, please visit TryComputing.org’s university search feature. Specialty computing degree areas can include programs such as bioinformatics, forensic computing, internet engineering, artificial intelligence, or gaming. There are boundless opportunities with regards to what can be done with a degree in a specialty computing area. For example, a forensic computing professional may be responsible for protecting an organization and its customers from cybercrime. A bioinformatics professional’s work may include mapping DNA or protein sequences. Game designers might be responsible for developing games for mobile devices or gaming consoles. Internet engineers might work on projects such as developing the next big e-business platform. Computing professionals working in artificial intelligence might design robots for use in the home, industrial settings, or even healthcare. As can be imagined, specialty computing degree holders can work in a wide array of settings including healthcare, criminal justice, education, or business to name just a few.

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Router
Sandra Lerner

It is difficult to imagine a time when computers were not capable of sharing information and resources with great ease. Sandra Lerner pushed the boundaries of network computing as one of the co-founders of Cisco Systems, which introduced one of the first commercially viable routers. The router was born while Sandra was working at Stanford University in the 1980’s after earning her Master’s degree there in Computer Science. To avoid the tedious task of transferring information between computers using floppy disks, she and co-founder of Cisco, Leonard Bosack, created a local area network, or LAN, between their campus offices using a multiprotocol router that Bosack developed. Shortly thereafter the pair started Cisco Systems, and began selling the router which was a success, because it could work with so many different types of computers. After Leaving Cisco in 1990, Lerner started the trendy cosmetics company Urban Decay and became a philanthropist and avid activist for animal rights.

Turing machine
Alan Mathison Turing
Alan Mathison Turing

Did you know that computing has been used in military espionage and has even influenced the outcome of major wars? Alan Mathison Turing designed the code breaking machine that enabled the deciphering of German communications during WWII. As per the words of Winston Churchill, this would remain the single largest contribution to victory. In addition, he laid the groundwork for visionary fields such as automatic computing engines, artificial intelligence and morphogenesis. Despite his influential work in the field of computing, Turing experienced extreme prejudice during his lifetime regarding his sexual orientation. There is no doubt that computers are ubiquitously part of our lives due to the infusion of Turing’s contributions.

RISC processor
John Hennessy
John Hennessy

Have you ever wondered how computers can execute complex commands in mere seconds? John Hennessy is a pioneer of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architecture which employs small, highly-optimized sets of instructions to greatly enhance computer performance. He was instrumental in transferring the technology, specifically MIPS RISC architecture, to industry. He co-founded MIPS Technologies and co-authored the classic textbook with David A. Patterson, on Computer Architecture.

As Stanford faculty he rose to be the Chairman of the Computer Science Department, Dean of the School of Engineering, then Provost and finally the President of Stanford in 2000 (and till date). Hennessy holds a Master’s and Ph.D. in Computer Science from SUNY Stony Brook. He is an IEEE Fellow and was selected to receive the IEEE Medal of Honor in 2012. Hennessey also launched significant activities that helped to foster interdisciplinary research in the biosciences and bioengineering at Stanford.

CGA palette
Mark Dean

If you have ever used a PC with a color display you have been acquainted with the work of Mark Dean. After achieving a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee, Dean began his career at IBM. Dean served as the chief engineer on the team that developed the first IBM PC, for which he currently holds one third of the patents. With colleague Dennis Moeller, he developed the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) systems bus, which enabled peripheral devices such as printers, keyboards, and modems to be directly connected to computers, making them both affordable and practical. He also developed the Color Graphics Adapter which allowed for color display on the PC. Most recently, Dean spearheaded the team that developed the one-gigahertz processor chip. Dean went on to obtain a MSEE from Florida Atlantic University and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and is the first African-American IBM Fellow.

Liz Gerber - Image credit Lisa Beth Anderson
Liz Gerber
Liz Gerber - Image credit Lisa Beth Anderson

Liz Gerber earned her MS and PhD in Product Design and Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. She specializes in design and human-computer interaction, particularly how social computing supports the innovation process. Her current research investigates crowd-funding as a mechanism for reducing disparities in entrepreneurship.
Gerber's work funded by the US National Science Foundation and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance has appeared in peer-reviewed journals, including Transactions on Computer Human Interactions, Design Studies, and Organization Science.
As an award-winning teacher and researcher, Liz has touched the lives of more than 6,000 students through her teaching at Northwestern's Segal Design Institute and Stanford University's Hasso Plattner's Institute of Design and through her paradigm-shifting creation, Design for America, a national network of students using design to tackle social challenges.

Image credit - Lisa Beth Anderson

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