A Tech/Humanities Peanut Butter Cup

“Hey, you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!”
 “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”
Yums?

What does a vintage candy commercial have to do with tech employment? Plenty.

A recent Forbes article described the hot new trend of tech companies hiring newly-minted holders of liberal arts degrees. In my 20+ years of experience, this is neither new nor hot — I’ve worked on amazing dev teams full of people with multiple advanced degrees in the humanities who felt like earning an actual salary — but it’s worth talking about. While it’s absolutely true that there is a vast shortage of people with STEM skills in the US, and plenty of well-paying jobs sitting vacant for them at tech companies large and small, the notion that you ‘need’ a STEM degree to land one of these jobs is damaging, both to jobseekers and to companies. At the same time, there is an extremely tired idea that studying the arts or humanities is a waste of time, because it doesn’t ‘prepare you for the workforce’ — and that’s simply untrue as well. Both sets of skills are necessary in the modern workplace — and getting beyond that initial entry-level engineering job may be easier for those with liberal arts background, as we’ll discuss in a moment.

But the basic premise of the article maintains a strict tech/non-tech divide: a new Slack employee with an arts background was briefly profiled, but it emphasized that she was so useful because she was non-technical:

She’s been at the company for barely a month but she’s already helped a construction company assimilate Slack’s software to keep track of things as varied as plaster shipments and building regulations via employee smartphones. Lee says she’s in awe of her technical colleagues who write Slack’s code. They, in turn, respect her because of her untechnical ability to “connect with end users and figure out what they want.”

And this is the point that is often misunderstood: you can absolutely succeed in a technical role with a humanities or liberal arts background, as long as you’ve also got the technical chops, and even if you are in a purely non-technical role, remaining ‘in awe’ of your technical colleagues isn’t particularly helpful — you should have at least some understanding of what goes into what they do, and know that it’s hard work, not magic. Many new non-engineering graduates gained solid technical skills as they studied Proust or philosophy (which does, to be fair, get a mention in the article), but it’s not always a given.

On the flip side, moving into a management or leadership role with a purely technical background is a different sort of challenge. For those looking to brush up on their technical skills, there is a burgeoning industry of boot camps and self-directed learning. If you’re an engineer who needs to learn to write, present and influence decision-makers in a new role, the path forward is rather murkier, even if someone is on a strict principal-engineer path. Good code isn’t enough to get you there, and some of the more theoretical aspects of an engineering degree program (which in itself is not exactly ‘vocational’ education, though that’s something that could be much more highly-valued in tech) are fabulous in helping you develop ways to approach a technical problem; being able to lead a team and explain to your leadership why you’ve chosen a particular path forward isn’t as straightforward.

The Forbes article also included this leftover from Stereotype Salad:

People with balanced strengths in social and math skills earn about 10% more than their counterparts who are strong in only one area. In fact, socially inept math whizzes fare no better than go-getters who struggle with numbers.

While I’d be more than happy to introduce you to some equally-introverted historians (they’d totally hate that, of course), there is a useful point buried here: a basic understanding of both technology and the liberal arts gives you adaptability; fluency in both can give you career superpowers. Understanding how to wrangle data is important. Being able to contextualize and tell a story with that data, to multiple audiences, is equally critical. And having the ability to pivot to an entirely new role, vertical or industry is more realistic if you simply have more tools in your toolbox; being able to switch back and forth between technical and non-technical positions as business or life conditions change gives you options you might not have otherwise.

This is not to say that specialization is a bad thing, or that all engineers are lacking writing and management skills — far from it. But developing expertise in one or more areas is what happens on the job, as you gain more experience, and technical degrees become ‘stale’ far more quickly than those in the humanities: a programming language you spent several months, or even perhaps a few years, learning as an undergraduate is most likely almost useless ten years down the line — if you’re still in the field, you’ve learned new languages and skills through work. But the ability to research, synthesize and present arguments, whether those are about the Corn Laws or stylistic pottery variations at Mohenjo-Daro, are still valuable skills when differently employed. The subject may be far removed, but the skills around critical thinking, thoughtful skepticism and time management are vital.

And arts/humanities graduates have another leg up when it comes to tech job descriptions: ‘comfort with ambiguity.’ You’ll see a similar phrase in nearly every job description from a tech company, in both tech and non-tech roles, and yes, it’s an extremely useful quality to have in this (and many other) fields. Fortunately, if you’ve spent several years gathering data, writing research papers and debating complex issues that don’t have a clearly-identified ‘solution,’ congratulations — you’ve got the right mental training for this career. I’ve seen some young engineers struggle with just this aspect of the field — you can’t always engineer your way out of the problem (well, often you can build something, but it leaves significant technical debt that you — or someone else — will need to deal with eventually), and there may be multiple paths forward. Having experience of referring to historical precedent goes a long way.

In my own tech career, I’ve never had to reproduce any of my shaky college algebra (turns out it wasn’t even useful early on as a front-end and back-end web engineer), but I write research papers, give presentations and analyze strategies and processes; these are things I was quite well-prepared to do as both and undergraduate and graduate student of archaeology — and that’s especially true for the data analysis skills I learned there, though the technologies and techniques are now quite different.

So, where do we go from here? I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time as a self-taught techie; early on in the dot-com era, the skills were the important thing; it didn’t matter where you’d acquired them. To a certain extent that’s becoming true again — boot camps and coding challenges are offering other paths in to the profession. But there’s a fundamental disconnect in the way we approach teaching both technology and the humanities, at least at the high school and college levels (there seems to be a little more room to experiment in the elementary years, though that seems largely driven by the STEM-only crowd). A newly-minted engineer, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, needs coursework and experience writing. New English or Art History grads may have had some exposure to technology through text mining or other digital humanities projects, but ensuring a solid exposure to ‘real’ coding is just as important for them. Internships would also ideally include both coding and writing experience — and many more are starting to do just that.

We also need to do a better job as a profession helping people from purely technical backgrounds move into senior roles — a few hours of ‘management’ or ‘business writing’ training isn’t especially impactful in most cases, and there aren’t equivalent writing ‘boot camps’ to help hone those skills. Having a foundation as a matter of course, even if it wasn’t the key focus of a degree program, would go a long way toward setting people up for success — testing out of English 101 isn’t the same thing.

While many larger tech companies have figured out that an ever-broader population has tech skills as well as what we might term ‘business’ advantages, startups and smaller companies aren’t always aware that they should cast a wider net in tech recruitment. Librarians have often been forced to become software development managers, just by the nature of modern work in the field. PhD historians often outpace new data science grads — many of those skills are part and parcel of modern academia, they just pay very poorly in that setting.

There is an artificial barrier between these two broad skillsets that needs to disappear; having a foundation in both is critical for success in tech, and in many other businesses. Putting the two together brings out the best of both, just like the commercials said.

Eat up!

This article also appears at LisaGrimm.com.