As a recent college grad with a journalism degree, my top priority right now is finding my first real, adult-paycheck-level job. But when I look at all the "best jobs" lists out there, part of me thinks I may have picked the wrong field.
That's because all the rankings from top career sites like Indeed, LinkedIn and Glassdoor seem to be sending the same message: If you work in tech, you're hiring gold. Not only are technology and engineering jobs in high demand, these positions also come with good pay, high job satisfaction and decent opportunities for growth.
But as an admittedly non-techie person, I couldn't help but wonder: What is it that these people actually do?
Titles like "data scientist" or "cloud engineer" don't mean much to people outside the field. Luckily, I didn't have to go far to find the answers. I took a look at five jobs making a frequent appearance on these lists, then asked members of our own tech teams at LearnVest to help explain, in layman's terms, what they entail — as well as offer some advice for those interested in pursuing them. Here's what I found out.
1. Data Scientist
Indeed.com Average Base Salary: $129,938
What They Do: Data scientist Michael Walker says a broad definition of his role is someone who takes raw data, cleans it up and analyzes it, with the intention of trying to glean useful information or predict an outcome.
“Data in the original format is somehow always terrible,” Walker says. “You’d think that because computers generate this, it should be very regular. But all sorts of things can happen. You need to understand how the data was created in order to build a data model that’s going to be reliable.” Data scientists can be used for everything from marketing to product development to operational efficiency. In Walker’s role specifically, he analyzes user data to help develop and improve future products and services.
Pro Tip for Job Seekers: Although data scientists typically have a mix of computer science, math and statistics backgrounds, it’s common to see people with other science backgrounds enter the field, particularly those with Ph.D.s. “In most scientific fields, they end up doing statistics and data analysis,” Walker says. “They’re studying something else, but they just happen to be using data and statistics to understand that, so they have a good understanding of [data science] as well.”
2. Dev Ops Engineer
Indeed.com Average Base Salary: $123,165
What They Do: This was by far the hardest job to grasp on this list, especially as there isn’t a clear-cut definition on the internet. The role can be interpreted differently by company, but in a nutshell, a development operations engineer is someone who has the skills to both develop software and configure the infrastructure it eventually runs on — in other words, “an engineer that gets infrastructure,” says dev ops engineer Bryan Pfremmer. Generally, a desirable dev ops engineer would have a mix of experience, including coding, IT operations and data management skills, and be comfortable across teams.
Pro Tip for Job Seekers: Aside from being certified in certain platforms (e.g., Amazon Web Services) there isn’t much formal education required for dev ops engineers. Personally, though, Pfremmer found it helpful to start his career as a software engineer before adding on dev ops responsibilities.
It’s also good to have a natural curiosity and be an independent learner because you’ll have to keep up with ever-changing technology. “I have always found [with] new technology, that having a use case with a concrete implementation always adds extra motivation when learning,” Pfremmer says. “If work doesn’t provide these, I’ve tried finding them at home as well.”
3. Cloud Engineer
Indeed.com Average Base Salary: $118,878
What They Do: I’ve used the cloud on my iPhone countless times, but ask me what that means and I wouldn’t have a clue. Cloud engineer Benjamin Jaffe explained the concept: It’s a data center or network of servers that is generally owned by a third-party company to provide software and services. So if you’ve ever used an application that isn’t run on your hard drive (Google Docs; Dropbox; any web-based email provider), then you’re using the cloud.
It’s a cloud engineer’s job to design a company’s systems to run smoothly in the cloud. This could include making sure network connections work correctly and quickly, or that there is enough storage to hold all the data a company needs now and in the future. “Our goal is to have an even infrastructure across all [engineering] teams,” Jaffe says. “We don’t want to architect a different infrastructure for one team, and [a different one] for another team because it’s a waste of time.”
Pro Tip for Job Seekers: The technical knowledge aside, Jaffe believes communication skills are really important to be a successful cloud engineer. “Everyone’s stuff works on our infrastructure, so if there’s an issue we’re generally the first people they come to,” he says. “We’re sort of like the glue that holds everyone together, because a lot of teams don’t necessarily need to talk to each other — but everyone needs to talk to us.”
4. Full Stack Developer
Indeed.com Average Base Salary: $110,770
What They Do: To fully understand what a full-stack developer does, you first have to know what front- and back-end developers do. Front-end developers work on the code that creates the elements of a software, application or website that users can directly see and interact with. Back-end developers, on the other hand, work on code that helps everything function behind the scenes, like what’s going on the web server.
Combine the two and you get a full-stack developer — sort of. “As a full-stack developer, you have a great breadth [of knowledge], but maybe not as much depth,” says tech lead Tony Tran. “It’s a jack-of-all trades versus a master of one area.” The breadth, however, is what makes full-stack developers ideal for helping to troubleshoot problems. “A full-stack developer is able to determine where that bug is going through the whole software application, front end and back end.”
Pro Tip for Job Seekers: You may see more full-stack developer job openings in smaller companies or startups because those companies may have fewer resources to spend on hiring separate front- or back-end developers. “They want someone who can cover everything because they want to be able to build something quicker and get things out faster,” Tran says.
5. UX Designer
Indeed.com Average Base Salary: $96,688
What They Do: A user experience (UX) designer's job is to make user-centered design decisions that enhances a customer's satisfaction with a product. This can include improving accessibility, ease of use and all around delightfulness for a customer. The design process could include creating user flows, architectural diagrams, wireframes and prototypes — basically anything that helps shape the overall experience for the end user.
"At the end of the day, our job is to represent the customer's needs and expectations in the room with the business, product and technology partners," says Billy Snow, senior UX designer. Decisions for UX are heavily based on customer research. "Analytics show what users are currently doing, quantitative data tells us what they're likely to do, and qualitative data tells us why they do it."
Pro Tip for Job Seekers: UX designers should be familiar with commonly used design software (think Sketch or InVision), but having a basic understanding of coding doesn't hurt. "This is always a benefit when working with your development team," he says. Also, until recently, formal UX design wasn't taught, so having a degree in the field isn't necessarily a requirement to get a UX job, says Snow, who has an architecture background.