IS vs. CS: A Comparison

Wise and strategic use of computers (information technology) gives businesses a competitive advantage and helps government agencies and non-profits serve clients efficiently and well. Computer-based information systems have become critical to most organizations, and the strategy surrounding them is integral to any organization's broader strategy.

Because well-educated professionals in the field are typically in such demand, educational programs like our Information Systems major have traditionally enjoyed a strong direct link with the field’s professional community.

Information systems as a field of academic study began in the 1960's, a few years after the first use of computers for information processing by organizations. As organizations extended the use of information technology to operational processes, decision support, and competitive strategy, the academic field also grew in scope and depth. During this 30-year period of growth and change, different names have gained and lost currency and the definition of the field has enlarged. The simple term "information systems" (IS) has become the most commonly accepted, generic term to describe the discipline. Still, in academics, the field goes by a host of labels reflecting its historical development and various perspectives and emphases among information systems experts and teachers.

Here are some of those terms:

As an academic field, Information Systems encompasses two broad areas:

  1. Acquisition, deployment, and management of information technology resources and services (the information systems function)
  2. Development and evolution of infrastructure and systems for use in organization processes (system development).

As an information systems expert you would share a broad responsibility to develop, implement, and manage an infrastructure of information technology (computers and communications), data (both internal and external), and organization-wide systems; to track new information technology and help incorporate it into the organization's strategy, planning, and practices; and to support departmental and individual information technology systems.

What is computer science?

As a science, Computer Science is primarily concerned with discovering new knowledge, with strong foundations in theory and selected application domains.

The field is the basis for software engineering, just as chemistry forms the basis for chemical engineering or physics the basis for electrical engineering. Some important topics in this science are: theory of data structures, algorithms, programming languages, networks, operating systems, compilers, databases, architecture, artificial intelligence, robotics, and graphics.

The computer science program at Saint Michael's has a strong emphasis in software development, or software engineering.  To better understand this emphasis, consider the following definitions: Engineering is building useful products for real people -- the development of solutions to technical problems within economic, social and technical constraints under conditions of uncertainty. Examples include: bridges, highways, skyscrapers, automobiles, dams, nuclear reactors, power grids, airplanes, space shuttles, lunar bases, computers. Software engineering (SE) is the engineering of computer software systems: requirements, design, construction, management and evolution of software for use by others in industry, office and home. SE applies the scientific background acquired in the foundations of computer science to the development, operation, and maintenance of reliable, efficient, large-scale systems.  Examples include: Windows XP, space shuttle launch, flight, and landing software systems, micro-controllers for automobile engines, ATM software systems, C++, Internet/WWW, scanning systems in retail outlets, ordering systems for e-commerce.

Should I major in CS or IS?

There is a close relationship between information systems and computer science. In some schools, students in both areas may take common courses. However, Information Systems is unique in that its context is an organization, and that organization’s information systems. This leads to important differences with computer science as to the work to be performed, the types of problems to be solved, the types of systems to be designed and managed and the way the technology is employed.

Information Systems concentrates on an organization’s mission and objectives and the application of information technology to further these goals. Information Systems and Computer Science are distinct areas of study, but both require a common subset of technical knowledge.

In general, computer science encompasses a larger umbrella of computing knowledge.  Information Systems contains a significant knowledge base, which is derived from Computer Science, in addition to the business/management knowledge base.  Thus, if you want to be a computing generalist, study Computer Science. If you're interested in the implementation of computer-based information systems within business, then study information systems.

As a rule, computer science requires more mathematics and analytical skill than information systems. Also, our experience has shown that it is easier to move from being a CS major to an IS major than the other way around.  Therefore, if you feel reasonably comfortable with the math requirements, then you should start out as a computer science major.