Computer Information Systems vs. Computer Science
Which Path Is Right for You?
- Although similar, computer information systems and computer science are distinct fields.
- Depending on your interests and professional goals, CIS or CS careers might be a better fit.
- CS tend to be more technical, whereas CIS focuses more on practical applications.
- CIS can be thought of as a very specialized application domain of CS.
Few industries offer students a more promising outlook than those in the computer and information technology field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 11% job growth between 2019 and 2029 for computer and IT professionals — nearly three times faster than the national average. Moreover, the field's median annual salary of $88,240 is more than double the median annual salary for all occupations in the U.S.
Computer science (CS) and computer information systems (CIS) represent two popular educational pathways into this industry, but many people struggle to differentiate between these two disciplines. With the help of Chirag Shah, an associate professor at the University of Washington's Information School, we break down what separates these two fields.
Table of Contents
What Is Computer Information Systems?
CIS training focuses on the business and solutions-based applications of various computer systems. "You can think of CIS as a very specialized application domain of CS," Shah says. Students often take courses in networks, systems, and database administration, along with some business analysis and support training classes.
Most programs teach learners how technology can improve organizational processes and decisions. Since these professionals interact with different business levels and personnel, they usually need strong business, communication, and organizational skills, as well as leadership, decision-making, and analytical capabilities.
The practical nature of this program means that internships often play a large role. Students should consider this potential work experience when evaluating programs.
What Is Computer Science?
CS emphasizes the theoretical side of computer hardware and software, providing a comprehensive study of "computational systems from their conceptualization to implementation," according to Shah. Learners study various programming languages and algorithm analysis techniques, preparing to design and develop effective, reliable, and secure software. Many programs begin with systems fundamentals and then move on to programming, data structures, testing, and user experience.
In general, computer science programs teach students about computation and information analysis methods and technologies. Professionals rely on their ingenuity and logic, and they need strong communication, mathematics, and critical thinking skills.
The broad nature of computer science allows learners to choose from many specializations and career paths, including those related to mobile computing, artificial intelligence, data analytics, and cloud computing.
Computer Information Systems vs. Computer Science
When deciding between computer information systems and computer science, students should consider their personal and professional interests and choose a program that best meets them. Shah highlights the programs' key similarities and differences.
CS professionals create the programs and applications that CIS managers implement and supervise for their organizations.
"In CS, one can learn about designing a new algorithm," he says. "Whereas in CIS, one can learn about how a system that uses such an algorithm can fulfill specific purposes in a real-life situation."
CIS professionals work with a variety of technologies, looking for programs, devices, and applications that can improve business operations. They use their programming and design expertise to integrate and maintain technologies, while employing project and administration management skills as they oversee each component of a project. They primarily focus on how technologies operate within a business environment, choosing the most effective option based on their organization's needs.
By contrast, the CS discipline deals with computational system design and development. Workers in this field improve the applicability, power, and effectiveness of various devices. Professionals create the programs and applications that computer information systems managers implement and supervise for their organizations.
Which Path Is Right for You?
To choose the right discipline, students must think about their interests and career goals. While graduates from both disciplines may pursue similar career paths, the concentrated training in each program prepares learners for specific opportunities. Students may also pursue coding bootcamps or industry certification to support or diversify their professional pursuits.
CS careers tend to be more technical, whereas CIS careers are more practical.
Computer information systems professionals usually work as part of a team, implementing and managing computer-based business solutions. In addition to possessing hardware and software knowledge, they must have a solid business foundation and interpersonal skills to provide the best support.
Shah suggests that the field best suits "those who want to deploy and support computational systems in business settings without having to learn about the fundamentals of what drives those systems."
Computer science requires great attention to detail and patience. Careers in this field tend to be more technical, whereas computer information systems careers are more practical. According to Shah, computer science best suits "those who have a strong passion for technology, are interested in going deeper in conceptual understanding, and are looking for more choices going forward."
Computer Information Systems Careers
- Computer Information Systems Manager
Computer information systems managers oversee an organization's technology and computer-based activities. They analyze and assess business needs and then identify or develop a solution and implement it. These professionals may also manage the budget, maintenance schedule, personnel, and support related to computer information systems.
- Database Administrator
Database administrators manage data for organizations, ensuring security, access, and ease of use. These professionals implement and create systems and applications that help organize data. They also create backups and performance upgrades.
- Network Systems Administrator
Network systems administrators oversee network systems for organizations. They identify system needs and establish the right network for the job, while also testing the performance and training new users. They then protect and maintain the network, making necessary upgrades and improvements.
- Computer Systems Analyst
Computer systems analysts evaluate the performance of an organization's computer systems. They also suggest and implement improvements, working with management to determine an organization's needs, budget, and limitations so they can conduct their own assessment. Once these professionals identify and implement system upgrades, they may offer training and support.
- Computer Network Architect
Computer network architects develop various networks for organizations to help improve communication. They assess an organization's network needs and goals before finding or creating a network system that satisfies them. These architects may also secure networks and train users and administrators.
Computer Science Careers
- Computer Scientist
Computer scientists research and develop new technologies and make improvements to existing technologies. They seek solutions to various computing problems or inefficiencies through experimentation, testing, and analysis. They may work with complex algorithms, programming languages, robotics, and computer hardware.
- Computer Programmers
Computer programmers create code for various computer programs and applications. They work with developers and engineers to take designs into the development stage and then test, evaluate, and improve projects as needed. Programmers may also work in design, thinking up new program ideas and improving existing designs.
- Software Developers
Software developers create software that satisfies the needs of organizations, individuals, and consumers. They identify needs and areas of opportunity in marketplaces, as well as ways to improve existing programs and inefficiencies in various industries. They then design applications and programs and work with developers to bring ideas to fruition.
- Web Developers
Web developers design websites for organizations and individuals, tailoring specifications and performance capabilities to best accommodate users. Developers must evaluate traffic and visitor demands, working with designers and programmers to deliver effective products. These professionals may handle the entire site or specialize in back-end or front-end development.
- Information Security Analysts
Information security analysts assess an organization's security needs and recommend appropriate protection and backup strategies. They may monitor systems for suspicious activity, investigate breaches, and test for vulnerabilities. Analysts may suggest improvements and/or help organizations develop and implement them.
Interview With an Expert in Computer Information Systems and Computer Science
Chirag Shah is an associate professor at the Information School at the University of Washington. He is also an adjunct associate professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering. Before working at UW, Shah taught at Rutgers University.
Shah's research interests include intelligent search and recommender systems, which try to understand the task a person is doing and then provide proactive recommendations. In addition to creating task-based IR systems, he is focusing on making such systems transparent, fair, and free of biases.
Shah spent his sabbatical in 2018 at Spotify working on voice-based search and recommendation problems. In 2019, as an Amazon Scholar, he worked with Amazon's Personalization team on applications involving personalized and task-oriented recommendations. Most recently, Shah was a visiting researcher at MSR AI, working on creating intelligent task management in search and productivity apps.
- How are the subjects of computer information systems and computer science similar?
Computer science (CS) is a discipline that includes studies of computational systems from their conceptualization to implementation. Typical topics include algorithms, computer architecture, artificial intelligence, database, and networking.
Computer information systems (CIS), on the other hand, is a very specific field that focuses on networked computers being deployed in various business situations. You can think of CIS as a very specialized application domain of CS. Both fields cover subjects like databases, computer networking, and security.
- What are the main differences between these two subject areas?
CIS is application-driven. While CS provides a comprehensive education ranging from very theoretical topics to those that are application-oriented, CIS is very much situated in applications in different businesses.
Studies in CIS tend to be more hands on, large-scale, and in situ (think about case studies). In CS, one can learn about designing a new algorithm, whereas in CIS one can learn about how a system that uses such an algorithm can fulfill specific purposes in a real-life situation. Some examples of CIS include office automation, payment systems, and health technology systems.
- What skills are taught in computer information systems classes or courses?
CIS students learn about technology (databases, security, programming, networking) as well as business (management principles, finance and accounting, business laws, economics). Invariably, most CIS programs (bachelor's or master's) also include a capstone project or internship to gain real-life experiences.
- What skills are taught in computer science classes or courses?
CS starts with computational thinking, which means being able to understand, represent, and solve problems using a systematic process that can be scaled and mapped reliably. CS courses include algorithms, data structures, programming, computer architecture, networking, databases, and artificial intelligence.
- What kind of individuals are best suited to study computer information systems? Why?
CIS is a good choice for those who want to deploy and support computational systems in business settings without having to learn about the fundamentals of what drives those systems. CIS provides a clear and strong career path for various kinds of administrators (system admin, database admin, network admin).
CIS is an attractive option for those with a technical inkling and an eye on management roles, as the field allows them to focus on and practice specific skill sets and move quickly on their career path.
- What kind of individuals are best suited to study computer science? Why?
CS offers a comprehensive curriculum that covers a variety of career paths. The field is a good fit for those who have a strong passion for technology, are interested in going deeper in conceptual understanding, and are looking for more choices going forward.
- What industries and jobs align with these fields of study?
CS graduates can work in all kinds of industries, including software development, finance technology, healthcare, automotives, and defense. Often, those who are majoring in CS complete a minor or a second major that gives them an edge for specialized roles. For example, a CS major with a minor in business can go for a role in fintech.
CIS, on the other hand, offers a more specialized set of career choices, mostly at managerial or administrative levels. These roles include project manager, database admin, network admin, and system admin.
- What advice would you give to someone pursuing a degree in computer information systems?
Stay true to your program goals. I am surprised by how often I see a student being in one program but wanting to do what some other program does because they think somehow that's better.
You are in CIS and that comes with certain expectations, risks, and perks. Your goal should be to gain enough skills and experience to qualify for an administrative or managerial position in a tech firm or an industry with a tech branch.
It's quite beneficial to do an internship while in the program. This will not only give you practical experience, but may also open up an employment opportunity.
- What advice would you give to someone pursuing a degree in computer science?
CS education is more important than ever before, but it is no longer what our previous generations went through. Being a CS major does not mean a software engineer job. CS has become a lot more diversified with the inclusion of areas like human-centered computing, human-computer interaction, and ethics in AI. And there are lots of career opportunities for those who do these things.
So as you move through the program, explore beyond algorithms and computer architecture. If you have a secondary interest (a minor or another major), you may be in a unique position for your career path.
There is a big push in academia and industry for C+X, in which "C" stands for CS and "X" represents any other field, such as computational biology or computational social science.
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