How I went from liberal arts to tech

Almost two years ago, I left my ethnic studies readings and stacks of essays on 18th century literature in central Connecticut for the fast-paced and innovative tech scene in San Francisco.

Gone are my college days of sitting in on small seminars where I discussed topics ranging from 19th century American economic history, to Baroque art symbolisms, to the problematic consequences of the social construction of race and other identities. My classmates and friends read Karl Marx and Judith Butler, taught English to non-English-speaking university staff employees, fought for food justice in the local community, and wrote senior essays and theses on topics of education, race, Brazilian music, and reproductive health justice.

Those days have been replaced with client meetings in a skyscraper in downtown San Francisco, where we discuss how to build profitable web applications that people will use. I talk to my co-workers about practicing the best design patterns in our HTML and SASS code. I’ve picked up technical jargon regarding databases, DNS, CDN, continuous integration. I’ve learned about Series A fundings, angel investment, company valuations, and such. If I am at a coffee shop in San Francisco, I’ll inevitably see at least a few people sporting a sweatshirt branded with a startup logo, coding furiously behind their Macbooks.

During my last two years of college, I spent my weekends learning the skills I needed to join the glittering San Francisco Tech Scene. I diligently researched what skills I needed to acquire: UI and UX design, HTML/CSS/Javascript, and such. I juggled my time between reading chapters on Mao’s revolution in my Modern China textbook to reading how to build a Ruby on Rails application. Sometimes, it was difficult figuring out what was my biggest priority; acing my midterm, or successfully implementing a jQuery function to create a cool animation. I knew that after college, I wanted to work on creative projects in an interesting city. The pipe dream was to work as a designer at a tech company in San Francisco.

With engineers and designers in high demand at tech start-ups in the Bay Area, I was fortunate enough to find stable employment after graduation. But my circumstance is an anomaly; we all know how difficult it is to find a job these days. It’s particularly hard for recent college graduates, where our work experience is sometimes measured by the work experience, which we don’t always have a lot of because we just came out of school. Thus, people have always been urged to study business, engineering, or medicine to get a leg up in finding a job after college.

While there was a brief stint where I considered majoring in business because my parents urged me too, I’m glad that I didn’t. I’m glad that I got to tap into my curiosity to learn about the intersections of race, gender, and class in the context of modern history and events. Granted, I don’t talk about identity formations everyday with my clients who want me to build web applications for them, but studying interdisciplinary disciplines taught me how to think critically and connect the dots. The higher-level skills I gained in my college education — the critical thinking skills, communication skills, and holistically-minded thinking — are invaluable to my work as a designer today.

Technology is the set of tools and systems that humans have created to enhance their lived experiences in their environments. From the tools that hunter-gatherers constructed to hunt livestock, to the construction of the transcontinental railroad that connected one coast to the other in mid-19th century America, to the smartphones in all of our pockets proliferating today, we strive to optimize our experiences in the world. If we merely try to study how to create a thing without thinking of the broader landscape, we’re merely thinking of concepts in a vacuum without consideration of their meanings and consequences at large.

Sometimes during college, my friends and I would joke about how we wouldn’t find a place in the “real-world” to apply our knowledge of critical race scholarship. While people may view humanities as irrelevant knowledge with no practical value, I wholeheartedly disagree. The humanities studies what makes humans feel more whole. To study the humanities is to learn how to serve your role in society. The humanities encompasses not only English and history, but philosophy, religion, sociology, biology, astronomy, and economics. The humanities is inherently interdisciplinary. I truly believe that the humanities teaches you how to become a better citizen. Studying the liberal arts has made me a more informed designer.

If you want to work in tech, don’t hesitate to study the liberal arts if that is what will fuel your curiosity. You don’t need to major in engineering or business to enter tech.

I love how innovative the tech scene is, but I will also say that the industry would benefit from greater diversity; we need more women, people of color, queer people, and humanities-trained thinkers. We need to get away from trying to solve first-world, privileged, straight-white-male problems (which sometimes aren’t real problems anyway), and figure out how to use technology to (attempt to) solve larger problems like income inequality and a broken public education system.

Study the humanities if you would like. Read and write words. Discuss ideas. Learn how people, societies, relationships, systems, and the world work. And lastly, see what you could do to be apart of the bigger picture.