12 Reasons Why Silicon Valley Employers Should Hire Liberal Arts Majors
It should come as no surprise that some well-known CEOs of technology companies have arrived at their leadership positions via the liberal arts route. Not computer science, math or physics, but history, English or fine arts.
Take Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett Packard CEO, who graduated with a medieval history degree, or the founder of AirBnB, Brian Chesky, who majored in fine arts, or Anne Mulcahy, former Xerox CEO, an English and journalism major, and, too, Steve Jobs, Reid Hoffman, Stewart Butterfield and the list goes on.
According to a LinkedIn study, between 2010 and 2013, there were 10 percent more liberal arts majors joining the tech industry than computer science and engineering majors. The industry has already begun to cotton to the employability of liberal arts majors. But there are still some bastions of reservation.
More Liberal Arts Majors?
When I posed the question of whether Silicon Valley should hire more liberal arts majors, serial entrepreneur and investor John Sanguinetti, responded saying, “I’m not sure I believe Silicon Valley should hire more liberal arts majors, but I do think engineers should have more education in the liberal arts.”
This is not an unusual way of thinking. And it dives off the springboard of why liberal arts skills are valuable in Silicon Valley.
If having an individual be versed in STEM and liberal arts skills is good, then by extension, having a unit, like a technology company, have a healthy combination of STEM and liberal arts majors would be equally empowering.
Here are 12 reasons why Silicon Valley employers should hire liberal arts majors:
Technology Is Created for the Common Person
We innovative to make life convenient for the masses. From light bulbs and phones to search engines, kindle and self-driving cars, inventions have changed the way most of us live. Being attuned to social behavior patterns of the world is what takes an idea from good to great.
Understanding the psyche of the common person informs the invention of that next cool device or app. At the nexus of psychology, sociology, science and engineering this understanding comes to fruition.
Armed with a psychology and a computer science degree, Mark Zuckerberg’s simple idea has grown to affect 2.07 billion users in the world. That is driven from an understanding of what is behind the human experience.
Connecting to the Room
When developers are intent on conveying the uniqueness of their product, the brilliance of their design and the infallibility of their code to customers, they often end up not reacting to subtle cues in the room.
An observant, emotionally aware individual looks for cues when addressing a group: raised eyebrows, narrowed eyes, a quick smile, a slight shifting of the body. These cues can help redirect a sales pitch to put more or less emphasis on a bullet point.
The hyper-sensitivity to people in a room, establishing rapport with decision makers, and presenting products in a way that the lay person understands is imperative to lassoing that next big customer. It comes from evaluating a product from what it can do for the customer rather than how great the invention is. This might be a soft skill that comes from a liberal arts background, but it’s one that will lead to increased sales.
Liberal Arts Thinking Informs Engineering Decisions
Creativity is not the exclusive domain of any one discipline. A philosophy major — Steward Butterfield — can create a cloud-based set of team collaboration tools and a physics and economics major — Elon Musk — can create electric cars.
In a Harvard Business Review article, author JM Olejarz talks about the importance of combining liberal arts creativity with a rote engineering approach to produce novel ideas.
Dr. James Chang, a Stanford professor and hand surgeon, once told me that he was so inspired by Auguste Rodin’s realistic depictions of the human anatomy that he uses the sculptures at the school’s Cantor Arts Center as a learning tool for his students. This is a case of art informing science.
If a discerning manager put an engineer, a writer, a musician, a sculptor, a philosopher and a mathematician in the same room and gave them a company problem to solve, the result is likely to be pure alchemy.
Communicating Clearly and Confidently
The ability to stand up in front of a critical audience and speak clearly and without hesitation, the ability to field questions, to anticipate objections, and to answer coherently is part of the core liberal arts training.
To be able to articulate thoughts, ideas and points of view in small and large group settings is invaluable at sales meetings, customer pitches or at company-wide addresses.
Whether it comes into play while formulating strategies, creating work plans or discussing new ideas, the confidence to speak up is a much-needed asset for any company. These are the skill sets of a manager or that of the chief executive officer and they come from liberal arts disciplines like English, philosophy or medieval history.
Making Technology More Ethical
While the engineering mind invents, it is the humanistic mind that looks at the ethics of inventions.
Tim Bajarin, an analyst and consultant for the technology industry, admits in an essay for Time, that he’s been involved in many technology products, but “seldom in our design or business discussions do we spend much time on the potential negative impact of our work on the world.”
What are the implications of working on a pack of 1,000 robots or kilobots that require no human direction? Is it right for Google to build artificial intelligence for drones? These are questions that ethicists and moralists would grapple with.
Any new technology manufactured for the masses weighs revenue yielding strategies against the larger question of what’s right for our society. A liberal arts major is trained to confront these kinds of thorny issues. This comes from a distinct awareness of the world that we inhabit.
Design thinking is touted as the new wave of doing business. Design thinking is critical thinking with cross-purpose analysis. Contrary to popular belief, design thinking is not the exclusive purview of technology. It requires the kind of insight that has a liberal arts slant.
Much of the essence of design thinking involves solution-oriented philosophy, repeatable sequences of logic, structural and rule-based processing as well as dealing with exception cases within logical scenarios — one seen in many liberal arts subjects, including languages like English, Latin and Sanskrit.
It’s been said that the rule-based grammar of Sanskrit lends itself to understanding natural language processing (NLP). The reverse is also likely to be true. A Sanskrit speaking brain is capable of quickly grasping the rule-based systems of code that are the underpinnings of raw programming.
Students versed in design thinking can work in any industry. Their skills would create collaborative working environments, which would eventually drive product development and sales for the company.
Fine arts majors have internalized skills that are suited for design jobs in the tech industry.
Interactive design, digital product design, user experience design, mobile design jobs require bucket loads of creativity, user behavior knowledge, design thinking, and pattern processing.
A music theory major trained in the ability to construct, analyze and deconstruct note patterns has the skills to abstract tasks like site mapping, user flows or analysis and research.
Summarizing and Making Persuasive Arguments
Being able to summarize an argument is indicative of being able to think critically with long, broad strokes.
While the engineer does the detail-oriented tasks, the philosopher is able to analyze and deconstruct problems without getting caught in the reeds by the details.
Making persuasive arguments, choosing precise words, not being overly verbose are skills of quick thinkers. It is learned through much reading, writing and debating — skills attributable to a liberal arts classroom.
Carly Fiorina wrote her own speeches when she was standing for elections. In an interview with Elle magazine, Fiorina explained, “When I write things down, it tends to help me clarify them in my mind. When I put pen to paper, it helps me think more clearly.”
A student of English and government at Wesleyan University tells me that she usually reads three books and writes at least two essays ranging 1,000 to 2,000 words per essay, most weeks during a school term.
This consideration for the written word is not alien to many people, however, the liberal arts major has more experience with critical analysis of texts. A good writer is also a careful reader who pays attention to little details that many might miss.
Writing poorly is like a speech impediment. It takes time and effort to communicate. Writing well comes into play while creating company documents, updating slides and crafting inter-communication memos.
Technology Needs Regular Updating
When I graduated with a computer science degree in 1992, I entered the software industry armed with Pascal, COBOL, Lisp and C. Those have disappeared from our programming lexicon. Today’s computer science majors learn Java, C++, Python and Go.
Technology is fluid and keeps advancing. Coding and scripting have become easier to replicate. Entry level engineering tasks can now be performed with GitHub. Soon mid-level programming tasks will be automated with plug and play code. And the engineer will be left with higher-level processes and tasks to innovate with.
Liberal arts graduates are generalists. They adapt quickly to fluid environments. Since a liberal arts education is not vocationally oriented, like engineering, the individual is cross-functional and can work in various different scenarios, whether in project management, human resources, corporate communications, marketing, data analysis, research, design or technical writing with remarkable and interchangeable facility.
Critical thinking and creativity are liberal arts skills. As a result, they have permanent shelf life. There is no end date to it. The technology is never going to be outdated.
Bang for the Buck
It is an unjust world. Most liberal arts majors start off at a salary much less than their STEM counterparts. But they add tremendous value to the bottom line of a company.
If value is determined by the monetary investment society puts on education then one would believe that an undergraduate study in a liberal arts field is not worth its weight. However, value is determined both by the products created, and the marketability of those products.
The best ideas sometimes fail because company leaders cannot convince the market to adopt break-through ideas. Take Silicon Graphics. This was a company that had state-of-the-art technology, but where is it today?
Diversity of Thought
The technology industry needs thinkers and doers. Engineers are doers, liberal arts majors are thinkers. It is true that in order to “do” you need to “think” and in order to “think” you need to “do.”
Books, paintings, poems and performing arts conform to rigid parameters while constantly ideating. For a reader to turn the page in a book there must be something anticipated on that next page, something unexpected, something hitherto unseen, unexperienced. This is the language of liberal arts.
Sarvesh Mahesh, CEO of Tavant Technologies, believes that “liberal arts majors are better suited to anticipate ‘what’ our customers need, the STEM majors are better suited to figure out ‘how’ to build it,” cautioning that “this not to say that there is no overlap/crossovers amongst the two groups.”
With liberal arts hires, companies get people who believe in the freedom to create, regardless of the medium, and regardless of prevailing value judgments.
Given that most liberal arts majors decided to major in fields like calligraphy and fine arts, despite society’s misgivings about their choice, intrepidity and a spirit of innovation are what they render and deliver for companies that have vision.