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If a computer appeared in a film from 50 years ago, it would be less a single “computer” that we know today than a battery of cabinet-sized machines filling a room (or a suite of rooms) with the steady din of clicks, hums, and buzzes. Back then, data was commonly entered into computers via punch cards, which were, literally, flexible cards in which holes were punched to represent data. Because each card usually contained a single line of code, a complete program could require a stack of cards.Times have changed—even though punch cards are still in use today, notably in some voting machines—but there is still a need for collecting, analyzing, and reporting data in order to make strategic decisions in a wide range of applications and businesses. If you’re looking for find the career output of a degree that involves data processing, read on. No punching required!

Degree or certificate?

Degrees and programs related to data processing, which fall under the umbrella of information technology, take various names and forms, such as data science, data analytics, or information processing. If you’re not ready or you lack the grades and background to apply for a full associate’s or bachelor’s degree, a certificate program is a possible alternative.

And you might be able to get that degree from the comfort of your own computer, because many programs—for certificates, bachelor’s degrees, and even master’s degrees—are offered online.

Knowing the numbers

Your coursework will include classes in mathematics, computer programming, and (surprise!) data, subjects that are all rooted in numbers, formulas, and statistics. Business courses will also pepper your experience, and you’ll choose electives that may touch on related subjects such as accounting, finance, marketing, and economics.

But data processing is more than just being a kind of human calculator. Data science requires the ability to use analytics for both storytelling (for current insight) and decision-making (for the future health of an organization or business).

This means you’ll be taking a deep dive into different data science techniques, including:

  • Data mining, the prediction of trends and behaviors in large sets of data
  • Machine learning, an application of artificial intelligence that allows computers to “learn” and “act” without being specifically programmed
  • Data visualization, methods of explaining data, usually as a graphic or picture, usually to people who don’t have a background in data processing

Excel beyond Excel

If you’ve ever used a spreadsheet like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets—or even a pad and pen to crunch some numbers for your weekly allowance or summer job—you’ve already dipped your toe into data processing. The kind of data you’ll be processing during your career will be far more complicated, so you’ll have to be comfortable learning programs that do much of the heavy lifting and sifting, including Python and R, which are currently among the most widely used programs for being fluent in data analysis.

Big opportunities in big data

A degree in data processing provides a foundation for a career at any company that handles a lot of data, which is, well, almost any company. And the sets of data in use by many companies today has become so large and so complex—driven by the increase in methods to collect data, in addition to the increase in kinds of data available—that the term “big data” was coined to describe the concept.

Analyzing all that data will take more than a room full of machines. Skilled workers are needed every step of the way, from collecting the data to developing the programs to analyze specific kinds of data to communicating what the data means and which data-based decisions should be made.

Data processing opportunities abound in fields as varied as e-commerce, healthcare, telecommunications, and government at all levels, and in applications as traditional as inventory management and as cutting-edge as social networking.

Your earning potential will vary based on industry and role, but a general database administrator earns a median of almost $84,950 per year as of 2016, with faster-than-average job growth of 11 percent between 2016 and 2026.

In terms of an optimistic outlook for careers in data processing, you can’t argue with those numbers.