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Why Liberal Arts Majors May Take Over the Tech World

These experts say that an education in the humanities develops a set of skills that may be more valuable to a tech company than strict STEM-only programs provide.

We talk a lot about the rapid pace of change in the tech industry, and how it’s resulting in a skills gap that will be challenging for next-gen workforces to overcome.

There is a growing cadre of voices, however, arguing that focusing on practical technical skills such as coding or data science to the exclusion of the “softer” skills taught in the humanities is a big mistake. Dave Anders' just released You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a "Useless" Liberal Arts Education, for example, challenges the idea that only a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) will mean anything in the knowledge economy of the mid-21st century.

Anders is one of many business analysts using their voice in support of a classic liberal arts education. Tim Herbert, senior vice president of research and market intelligence at industry association CompTIA, has long-espoused the value of the critical thinking skills learned as a sociology or anthropology major for fields such as data science. As more and more people gain the number-crunching and coding skills necessary to mine the vast amount of data being collected in Internet of Things (IoT) applications, there is a real need for workers who have the critical thinking skills necessary to know which questions need to be asked. Knowing how to scrape data is one thing, but knowing which particular trains of thought are worthy of investigation is another.

Shelley Schexnayder heads up content marketing initiatives for Apptricity, a provider of IoT M2M mobile supply chain and spend management software solutions in Dallas, Texas. If you had told her when she was a creative writing major seven years ago that someday she’d be writing about enterprise software applications, she’d have laughed in your face. But she also credits her liberal arts education with the very skills that make her a valuable asset to a tech company. She may not be able to code, but she can translate between the development team, business development and the end user to craft a message that drives Apptricity’s business forward.

“I think you'd be hard pressed to find an industry where an English degree isn't an asset. Regardless of what you're doing -- selling, creating, stocking, analyzing, whatever -- you're using words to do it.”

Schexnayder explains that the tech world can be very insular, and the industry has a tendency to use business and technical jargon that is inaccessible to most people outside of the sector. She sees her English degree as a huge asset because she can understand the value proposition and competitive differentiators from a technical standpoint while also knowing how to get that message across to potential customers.

“Here's an example: my company offers asset geolocation through RFID tagging. In plain English, we can help you track the movement of a company laptop from one room to another from the other side of the world. Which do you think helps us get our point across more easily?” she asks. “In short, having an English degree makes the technology industry accessible to non-techies.”

Indeed, communication skills are one of the most valuable assets a liberal arts graduate can bring to a tech company, says Bill Stover, chief financial officer of hyperconverged infrastructure provider Pivot3. As technology continues to become ever-more complex, providers like Pivot3 have to be able to quickly and clearly explain their value proposition to potential customers, most of which don't have a technical background. 

“With today’s ever-increasing complexity of technology, we need team members with highly developed communication skills. Liberal arts graduates are often most effective in explaining technology and relaying its use in a way that consumers understand and react to," says Stover.

And in the channel, where sales pitches are made less and less to the IT department and more to the line of business buyer, the ability to communicate how you can use technology to solve for a customer's business outcomes is absolutely critical to success.

Anders isn’t the only writer to have published a treatise arguing for more classical education in tech. Earlier this year, venture capitalist Scott Hartley’s book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World made waves for its assertion that a strict STEM-only education hampers graduates’ ability to evolve their skillsets in pace with the industry. Since technology changes so quickly, people who are trained only in the scientific minutiae of technical applications are at a real disadvantage over the long-term. It’s only through education that teaches how to develop a critical approach toward human behavior that students learn how to ask the right questions and follow them through to an innovative answer—a skill that never goes out of style.

This theme is repeated in Christian Madsbjerg's Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, also released this year. Madsbjerg takes Hartley’s thesis a step further, arguing that humans are losing the ability to think because machines do the thinking for us. Too many companies are losing their connections to their customers because of an inflated emphasis on data.

Clarisa Lindenmeyer, a business consultant specializing in tech startups, says that all too often she sees brilliant tech company founders who possess an almost uncanny ability to apply technology to a specific consumer need, but who lack the awareness necessary to build a solid business around that application. 

“They understand how to solve an issue through technology, and they know almost like a futurist that this is what’s next. They can see it clearly, but they may struggle to raise money or to surround themselves with a really good team or to know when someone is taking advantage of them.”

The most important skill, says Lindenmeyer, is the ability to problem-solve on a broad level. If you can’t pinpoint what you don’t know, and then develop and execute a plan to educate yourself or supplement your knowledge in a way that continues to drive the business, it doesn’t matter how great of a coder you are. It’s a difference between tactical and strategic thinking, and Lindenmeyer says that courses of studies within the humanities by their very nature ingrain a problem-solving approach to critical thinking within their students.

Dr. Darryl Dickson-Carr, professor and chair of the English department at Southern Methodist University, says the very skills that define liberal arts majors are what make them such an asset to tech companies, which are often trying to push the envelope in developing creative applications.

“In general, humanities degree holders have been well-suited to technology jobs because of their training in critical thinking and creativity,” says Dickson-Carr. “Both of those assets are valuable in Silicon Valley. In addition, being able to conceptualize and frame tech products is invaluable.”

It isn’t that the need for highly technical skills is going to go away. As our world increasingly moves to a paradigm in which every company is a tech company, specialized workers will be needed to collect, aggregate, mine and manage the vast troves of data coming in from the IoT that drives much of the decision-making within businesses. But if every company is a tech company, then that also means every company needs individuals capable of critical thinking, creative problem solving and written and verbal communication.

So the next time you hear a young person talk about majoring in philosophy or 19thcentury French poetry, refrain from asking how in the world they’ll make a living with such a degree. The philosophy major of today just might be the tech superstar of tomorrow. 

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