Why Tech Leaders Desire Liberal Arts Graduates


In recent years, we have heard a lot about STEM careers (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) ensuring a secure future in the workplace. STEM programs have been promoted in schools to encourage students to become interested in these generally well paying professions. As a result of this emphasis, Liberal Arts studies and colleges have fallen out of favor and are viewed as a waste of time and money by many. The general sentiment was that getting a liberal arts education was tantamount to “antiquated debt-fueled luxury goods.” as Peter Thiel, PayPal cofounder puts it. Although he studied Philosophy at Stanford, he doesn’t credit his education with contributing to his success.

Recent articles in The Future of Work from FastCompany, Forbes, and US News and World Report argue otherwise.

The late Steve Jobs, the Apple CEO and overall technology guru, stated in this YouTube video (watch the first minute) that the intersection of the liberal arts and technology were in Apple’s “DNA”.

To him, it was this intersection that spurred innovation and thinking of technology in new ways and for new uses. According to Jobs, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” Other tech CEOs across the country agree that liberal arts training—with its emphasis on creativity and critical thinking—is vital to the success of their business. Many in the Silicon Valley corridor are coming around to this point of view, too.

In the article, Why Top Tech CEO’s Want Employees with Liberal Arts Degrees  from the Future of Work, August 28, 2014, top tech CEO’s from MediaAlpha, Carbonite, and ThisMoment reveal their liberal arts backgrounds and the advantages they see for their business. A broader world view, the ability to see problems from multiple perspectives, highly honed research skills, and the social skills to connect and think like the consumer of their products or services were mentioned. The article reports that a third of all Fortune 500 CEO’s have liberal arts degrees – evidence that a broad-based education is good for business.

Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, says that the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white. “In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions,” he says. “There are just different shades of how correct you might be,” he says.

Danielle Sheer of Carbonite agrees: “I don’t believe there is one answer for anything,” That makes me a very unusual member of the team. I always consider a plethora of different options and outcomes in every situation.”

Graph from Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU): www.aacu.org

Women in tech industries with liberal arts degrees have to combat the perception that they are not competent in science and math.

Danielle Sheer says that when she joined Carbonite, her first impulse was to hide her lack of knowledge and retreat at meetings. However, she quickly changed strategy, deciding it was more important for her to ask questions to fully grasp the technology. She’s spent hours tinkering with the software and working with engineering teams to learn about it. “By articulating complicated technical or strategic ideas in plain English, you’d be amazed at how much progress we’ve made solving problems,” she says. “We’ve become very good at assuming that we don’t have the same definition.”

The August 17, 2015 issue of Forbes will have an article on the tech industry hiring those with a liberal arts degree entitled “That “Useless” Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket“. The articulation of the technology in plain English, as Danielle Sheer says, is a big factor for Open Table and Slack Technologies, among other companies mentioned.

The author, George Anders, reports:

Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger. Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant.

Case in point, Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s founder and CEO, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.

“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield… “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

Anders goes on to say:

MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in a recent book, The Second Machine Age, that today’s tech wave will inspire a new style of work in which tech takes care of routine tasks so that people can concentrate on what mortals do best: generating creative ideas and actions in a data-rich world.

I blogged about automation and work in Changing at the Speed of Light – More Workforce Trends a few weeks ago, and quoted an article in the Harvard Business Review that agrees with The Second Machine. As more and more tasks are automated, humans will be necessary to interpret, sell, manage products and services, and connect with customers.

From the Financial Times, 4/25/2011: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/5630aad0-6c37-11e0-a049-00144feab49a.html#axzz3hzPrJqv7

OpenTable, a web site that has crowdsourced restaurant reviews allows users to make reservations at restaurants near and far. To expand their business, they recognized that they had to engage more restaurant owners in seeing the value of using OpenTable software. Enter people who have worked in a restaurant in some capacity (I waitressed through college, for example, so I would qualify), could translate the tech to a human level, and had great people skills.

Shawna Ramona is the human face of the data revolution. She graduated from San Francisco State in 2002 with a degree in English literature. Now she is an iPad-toting “restaurant relations manager” for OpenTable, the online dinner-booking service. She calls on scores of restaurateurs a year, sharing insights that emerge from her company’s data team. There’s nothing technical in her background, but she knows how to connect with the old guard.

Tech companies are realizing that the person-to-person connections are crucial to continued growth. As automation continues, there will be less need for engineers and more for managers and representatives.

Anders says about OpenTable:

The new priority, as sales chief Mike Dodson explains, was to find or train evangelists who could “show how tech can enrich the dining experience.” The influx of some 137 people like Ramona has expanded OpenTable into 32,000 restaurants, with only 14 data scientists needed to run its insight-crunching machinery.

Those with a Liberal Arts degree tend to:

  1. Keep learning, and incorporate some technology skills into their skill lexicon. There are many places online to find communities of learners, information, formal courses or DIY learning. Shawna Ramona is great with customers, but also knows the software she is selling.
  2. Create connections with team members, diverse groups, customers to build or modify a better product, increase customer satisfaction, and manage projects.
  3. Communicate clearly and translate techno-speak into plain language.
  4. Be great problem solvers and questioners, looking at a problem from different perspectives and not rushing to a solution without thoughtful examination.
  5. Embrace openness and exploration, using research, analytic, deductive, and reasoning skills for creative thinking.

This quote from Albert Einstein from an article in The Financial Times, There is More to Business than Analytics, says it all:

“It’s a way of looking at the world, a mode of inquiry. It is what Albert Einstein called “the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” 

Do you have a liberal arts education? What are the strengths you bring to the workforce, volunteer organization, or other venue? Has it paid off for you? In what ways?


Featured image attribution: Because it Matters – http://becauseitmattersprogram.com/whats-a-liberal-arts-education-worth/

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