How a liberal arts degree can give you an edge in tech

You’ve heard the rhetoric before: Liberal arts majors are broke and can’t find jobs. Their skills are less useful than those with STEM degrees. Even former President Barack Obama took a famous jab at art history majors before apologizing.

But consider this: the potential value of a liberal arts education in the growing tech sector and related industries.

That’s the argument put forward in George Anders’ new book You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. After penning a Forbes cover story on the demand for liberal arts majors at technology companies, Anders received a torrent of responses from readers. He realized he had found a “big, uncovered story.”

 

 

“It just seemed as if there was this tremendous disconnect between public rhetoric that said ‘you’ve got to go the STEM route and there is no route but STEM’ and then all of these interesting new job openings that were coming up for people with liberal arts degrees,” Anders tells USA TODAY College. “It was this hidden strength of the economy that nobody wanted to write about or talk about.”

While researching for the book, Anders talked to graduates who had applied their humanities and social science degrees to careers in digital marketing, user experience and digital design.

Among the success stories: NeKelia Henderson, a Georgia State grad who majored in English and has a job at a digital ad agency, telling stories with numbers. And Josh Sucher, an anthropology major who now works in user experience for companies like Etsy.

 

 

Anders says companies are looking for five key qualities in potential employees:
– an eagerness to tackle uncharted areas,
– the ability to solve murky problems,
– well-honed analytic methods,
– keen awareness of group dynamics,
– and an ability to inspire and persuade others.

These traits are often elements of a liberal arts education, regardless of what field you’re pursuing, Anders says.

“Liberal arts in any dose can take you to interesting places,” Anders says. “But going the full distance for a major and particularly doing some of the larger projects that you’ll do later on will get you to the point where you’re really good at these kinds of things.”

Tech workers — from investors to engineers — are also speaking out about the value of employees with liberal arts backgrounds.

Tracy Chou, a software engineer and co-founder of Project Include, recently wrote in Quartz that she regrets not striving “for a proper liberal arts education” and not learning to “think critically about the world we live in and how to engage with it.”

Chou, who graduated with engineering and computer science degrees from Stanford, added: “It worries me that so many of the builders of technology today are people like me; people [who] haven’t spent anywhere near enough time thinking about these larger questions of what it is that we are building, and what the implications are for the world.”

Chou tells USA TODAY College that the “condescending attitude” toward liberal arts “is not uncommon” in tech circles.

“It is of course quite harmful, in that it dismisses a lot of relevant thinking and context that can dramatically improve the products and services we are building, and the impact that they have on society,” Chou wrote in an email.

Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist who studied political science at Stanford, says the narrative around Silicon Valley’s obsession with STEM studies is “at odds” with what he saw during his time as an investor on Sand Hill Road, an area known for its concentration of VC firms.

“I was hearing all this talk about, ‘If you have soft skills, you’re doomed’ and ‘If you have an English degree, you’re going to become a barista,’ and it was running counter to what I was seeing day to day,” Hartley says.

The companies Hartley was most interested in were often created by people with less technical backgrounds who had pinpointed a problem and used their creative thinking to find a different angle to address it, he says.

“A lot of times, I think that was because they had a background in something other than just trying to deploy … a product before they had really found a problem,” Hartley says. “So many of these companies that we were finding interesting were people that maybe had a degree in economics or political science or theater, and they were super convincing and charismatic and able to build a whole team around them.”

Hartley’s experiences prompted him to write The Fuzzie and the Techie, a reference to the monikers often used at Stanford to describe people with liberal arts and STEM backgrounds. He wants tech workers to embrace elements of both disciplines.

“Whether you’re an engineer who has never taken a philosophy or literature class, join a book club. And if you’re somebody who loves English literature or psychology, take a night class where you have to deal with Excel or data science,” Hartley advises. “Break down those barriers so you don’t feel intimidated by the other.”

 

 

Anders says the ability to “work in both worlds is valuable,” especially when creative workers are communicating with people on the technical side. In the future, he hopes to see the liberal arts respected for their contributions to tech and other industries – though he says some criticism “will always be there.”

“I’d like to see it so that we’ve got much more of a recognition that these are valuable skills and this is a valuable program, and if there’s a little bit of controversy attached to it, that’s fine,” Anders says. “Usually if you’re doing anything interesting, it’s a little controversial.”

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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