Here’s What You Can Do With Your Useless Liberal Arts Degree
This morning I saw this very intriguing story at Forbes, with a catchy little headline.
In less than two years Slack Technologies has become one of the most glistening of tech's ten-digit "unicorn" startups…www.forbes.com
The basic premise, which is, of course, catnip to those of us with “useless” liberal arts degrees: that Slack, which is doing very well for itself, has a lot of people in senior positions who are not traditional Silicon Valley material (read: they do not have CS degrees or MBAs).
But this story was particularly interesting to me because the lead example happens to be my wife, who is Slack’s editorial director.
She is introduced in the second paragraph:
…Such creativity can’t be programmed. Instead, much of it is minted by one of Slack’s 180 employees, Anna Pickard, the 38-year-old editorial director. She earned a theater degree from Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University before discovering that she hated the constant snubs of auditions that didn’t work out. After dabbling in blogging, videogame writing and cat impersonations, she found her way into tech, where she cooks up zany replies to users who type in “I love you, Slackbot.” It’s her mission, Pickard explains, “to provide users with extra bits of surprise and delight.” The pay is good; the stock options, even better.
What kind of boss hires a thwarted actress for a business-to-business software startup?
I’m going to be blunt: I was pretty fucking annoyed. I looked at a line like “dabbling in blogging, videogame writing and cat impersonations” and I thought… what? She was a full-time writer at The Guardian and elsewhere for five years (sorry, “blogger”). After that we set up a consultancy together, where she worked with a range of clients, which included advertising agencies. That “cat impersonations” thing? Yeah, that was actually the job where she was the writer for an award-winning ad campaign. And videogames? Well, yeah, those little things. One educational game she wrote the script for got nominated for a BAFTA award. Another? Glitch, the game produced by Tiny Speck, and the thing that was the precursor to Slack.
So, I mean, yeah. You can go ahead and characterize it as dabbling in blogging and pretending to be a cat, if you want to minimize somebody’s achievements.
But then… “The pay is good”? Well, Anna actually took a pay cut to join Slack because she enjoyed working with the team so much. “The stock options, even better”? Sure, but anyone who knows Anna will realize that her aversion to all things financial means that stock options are not a huge motivation. She is at Slack because she loves the people and she’s demonstrably great at what she does.
(There are, as it goes, many many people working in technology companies who do not have CS degrees or MBAs, because — and this may shock you — a great deal of the work that goes on inside companies isn’t engineering or business development. I am one of them! I’ve even heard about a few pretty famous tech founders who don’t even have degrees *at all*.)
So when I read “what kind of boss hires a thwarted actress,” I was pretty much done. And we were barely even at the third paragraph!
Sure, only a crazy person like Stewart Butterfield would hire my wife, right? Well, yeah, Stewart did hire my wife (and he is crazy). But the fact is: anyone who wants to hire beyond-competent, incredibly talented, kick-arse people who have a tried-and-trusted career in creative, inventive, ambitious work online would hire my wife. It wasn’t an out-there bet — it was an entirely logical and sensible pathway for somebody with talent and verve and proven skills.
(I’ll point out: Anna was interviewed officially by Forbes for the piece, Slack’s PR people were involved. She knows I’m posting this, but she hasn’t read what I’m writing here.)
There’s been a little meme recently, in the journalism world, about how poorly journalists actually understand the things they write about. It was partly inspired by the goings-on at Gawker, when Hamilton Nolan tweeted:
Think of all the people who end up not being quoted at all, or who are only quoted anonymously, and remember that in journalism, what you leave out can be much more important than what you put in… Journalists know full well how deeply wrong journalism can be and often is, but we try to put that out of our minds. There’s even a name for that self-deception: the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.
But the reason journalists are wrong is not always because the facts aren’t correct. Oftentimes it’s because the facts don’t fit the narrative. So, the actions and agency of a successful creative person gets eaten up by the more seductive and interesting idea: that people with liberal arts degrees can be productive members of the technorati too!
Not entirely coincidentally, this drive to fit the messy chaos of the world into an existing frame is one significant reason I produce the journalism I do— a job, by the way, which has put me in and around the tech industry for the past 15 years, achieving success and stability, and has allowed me to put my own useless liberal arts degree to good use. Turns out you don’t have to bend people’s stories to your own requirements, you can just be honest and tell their stories, and it still works.
So, for everyone out there crying into their degree, here’s what I’ve got to say. Don’t even accept the framing of articles like this.
The tech industry is generations old. The web industry is a solid 20 or more years in now. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of us working who have liberal arts degrees, or no degrees at all — the industry is made of huge numbers of people who are not engineers, didn’t go to Stanford, don’t have MBAs, and still do things that help businesses be successful. This is not new.
Some of us are starving artists who lucked their way into piles of filthy lucre, but many of us are careful, successful and stable, and we live happy, fulfilling, productive, interesting lives. This is not new.
Having a liberal arts degree isn’t the hottest ticket in tech. Being amazing at what you do is. We don’t need to fit your narrative. We’re quite fine making progress, building things, having ideas, being real people with real achievements and ambitions, and not cardboard cutouts.
Written hurriedly on July 29, in the wake of a tweetstorm.