Building your STEM career on fiction books

Abigael Donahue
4 min readJul 16, 2020
Stack of old books on an empty table with a blank backdrop
Photo by Monika Sojčáková on Unsplash

What does STEM mean to you?

Programming? Development? Engineering? Chances are, one (or more) of the above. And, chances are, fiction books might not come to mind at all.

I work in STEM—UX to be precise—and I live for fiction. I spent four years as an English major in college, studying all sorts of literature by writers who have perfected the art of human understanding: Toni Morrison, Jane Austen, Junot Díaz, Ian McEwan, and more. I dreamed of living in the city and building a wordsmithing career in tech.

If you’re a current or aspiring techie, it’s easy to feel pressured into reading every programming book and taking tons of coding classes (which isn’t a bad idea!). But you might be overlooking something that can really help you thrive in the tech space: fiction books.

By picking up a fiction book here and there, you’ll tap into new skills and earn your place as the most well-spoken, empathetic, self-aware book-toting technical professional there ever was.

You’ll learn to read and write—WELL.

Communication is a skill, an art, and a science. You can always improve your spoken and written communication, and fiction is a great way to do that. As a UX content strategist, I focus quite a bit on writing microcopy. Microcopy refers to the words in the user interface, like error messages, confirmation dialogs, welcome messages, button text, and so on.

Clear, concise, and plain language is my secret weapon, but I learned how to simplify my writing by reading the winding sentences and vibrant imagery of authors like Emily Brontë and Charles Dickens. The elaborate wording strengthened my grasp on grammar and expanded my vocabulary. I learned how to play with syntax, tense, point of view, rhythm, style, and flow. As a result, my spoken and written communication quickly became the sharpest arrow in my quiver.

When you’re a strong communicator in the tech space, you have the power to do a lot of good for yourself and others, like:

  • Break down complex technical concepts into simple terms for customers to grasp.
  • Work with a range of communication styles and personalities.
  • Articulate your thoughts and establish buy-in for your ideas.

Fiction books have the power to slowly shape how you speak and write. Good communication skills set you apart in a world of clouds, cookies, and containers.

You’ll understand the most complicated species on the planet.


We’re a curious bunch full of complications and contradictions — kindness and cruelty; evasion and candor; joy and heartbreak. No wonder why we’re not naturally gifted with the ability to flawlessly connect with one another.

Technical responsibilities like writing code, designing interfaces, creating product content, and providing technical support requires you to continuously work toward understanding people’s opinions and needs. Luckily, fiction immerses you in the human experience.

Think about all the dates and events you hear about every day. What’s behind all of it? Human experiences — relationships, families, love, loss, curiosity, courage, perseverance, fear, and so on. Fiction captures those human experiences and shares them through stories.

I discovered my favorite novel during my junior year of college: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. A scientific breakthrough — a medical miracle! — saves lives at the cost of torturing others. The characters are equally dichotomous. The mean girl is a broken child robbed of life. The cold benefactor is a voice for the voiceless. The complicit carer is a fighter for a better future. All these experiences lie beneath a fictitious date and event: 1970s — 1990s, Human Cloning.

It’s the epitome of the sociology of science, where humanities and STEM cross paths. In the tech industry, you always have to think about the people who use what you create—interfaces, documentation, hardware, and so on. If people find your top-notch, perfectly engineered product too complex, then what’s the use?

Fiction helps you build empathy and adopt a people-first mindset in whatever technical role you take on. There are a lot of tech areas that rely on connecting with people…

  • Programmer: Can you build software that’s easy for everyday PEOPLE to use?
  • Designer: Can you design interfaces that are intuitive, seamless, and enjoyable for the PEOPLE interacting with them?
  • Product marketer: Can you convince PEOPLE that your product is worth their time and money?

You need empathy to make it in tech. You have to understand people. Reading about them is a great place to start.

You’ll open your mind.

When you read fiction, you might find yourself forming opinions of characters right when they’re introduced, before you even “get to know” them. You picture what they look like, who they are, and whether they’re like you. You’re probably not even aware you do this.

Now you are.

Fiction helps you realize how often you might judge people and experiences in real life. The tech space is full of people with all different skills, working styles, preferences, and backgrounds. Your mind needs be open to new ideas, ideas that are probably—hopefully—better than yours. This way, you grow as a person, your team builds useful products, and your company continues to help more people.

By keeping an open mind, you also open yourself up to new experiences. No matter how dull a new project sounds, you learn to keep your personal judgement out of it and tackle your work with a positive attitude. You’ll build new skills and develop tolerance for things you don’t like. After all, your opinions aren’t all that important when you have a team and customers to put before yourself.

Reading fiction = Reading people

Fiction books aren’t just fun weekend reads or class discussion topics. They’re tools for reading people. That’s something you’ll continue to see the benefits of no matter where your STEM career leads you.