Top 10 Liberal Arts Skills You Need to Succeed in Tech

James Le
James Le
Oct 24, 2017 · 23 min read

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of my undergraduate education. Nearly 5 years ago, senior year of high school, I had to make some important decisions to choose which colleges to apply to. At the time, I went to a small independent boarding school and I absolutely loved the tight-knit community and friendly vibe of a small school. In addition to the fact that I would need financial aid to fund my education, liberal arts colleges come as no-brainer choice. Out of the 18 colleges that I applied to, 14 of them are liberal arts. I got accepted to 6, and ended up choosing Denison University, a small college in rural Ohio.

4 years later and I was in the process of applying for my first job. I have known that I want to work in tech since freshman year. All the things I did in and out of college have been supplementary to this dream. However, it was tough. And I believe it was tough because of the liberal arts education I received. Tech companies normally prefer the typical candidate profile of someone going to schools in California or the East Coast, majoring in Computer Science, have done a couple of engineering internships, and being an Algorithms junkie who can pass the technical interviews. I had most of these criteria, except for the school name part. It’s almost impossible to stand out amongst piles of resume for entry-level engineering / analytical roles when you went to a liberal arts school in the Midwest that hardly anyone in tech knows about. Thus, I had to figure out to stand out through other ways — networking, online presence, side projects etc.

There have been many times over the past few years when I doubted the real value of my liberal arts education. Was it worth it? Was I satisfied academically? Have I grown as a person? Did it provide enough skills for me to succeed in the tech world? Then I realized I have already answered these questions over the past 4 years at Denison. Classes I took, people I met, organizations I led, experience I made… all have provided the skills, knowledge, and relationships I need to succeed in the tech sector. The purpose of this post is for me to reflect on my education and draw the connections between liberal arts skills and their application to the tech industry. Hopefully reading this post will inspire you to pursue being liberally educated in life in general.

1 — Listen and Hear

Liberally educated people know how to pay attention — to others and to the world around them. They work hard to hear what other people say. They can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotions that lie behind both the logic and the illogic, and ultimately empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.

I first got a chance to practice active listening after participating in a student organization called Sustained Dialogue. The Sustained Dialogue Institute is a national organization whose mission is to help people transform conflictual relationships and design change processes around the world. One of its initiative is the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, which involves students from dozens of campuses in 12 countries who work to improve intergroup relations and campus climates. The focus of any Sustained Dialogue program is relationship building across lines of difference and facilitating honest dialogue between students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Denison is one of the participating schools in this network and is an active chapter with more than 50 members. The way it works is that members are assigned into different clusters so that there are diverse representations of ethnic, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Each cluster then meets up every week to discuss a topic that sparks the group’s interest, facilitated by 2 moderators. I remember having discussions about a variety of topics that are relevant to our campus such as college social scenes, gender and cultural diversity, academic pressure, career orientation, political climate etc. Every discussion initiates participants’ emotional engagement, critical thinking, and social empathy. Because dialogue is defined as “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you learn”, everyone is encouraged to practice active listening and “step into others’ shoes.” After every discussion like that, I always felt so enlightened by others’ ideology and touched by their emotions. Being a part of Sustained Dialogue throughout freshman and sophomore year ultimately transformed me to become a much better listener and empathizer.

If you work in tech, you probably have heard of design thinking. It is a methodology used to solve complex problems and to find desirable solutions. In realm of design, design thinking is rooted in empathy, where you try to see from the perspective of a user of a given design or product. There is a lot more to design thinking than that, but in a nutshell it is about human-centered design where empathy is king. If you want to design better software products, you need to learn to listen and hear — to truly be empathetic. Empathy takes you from designing for utility and convenience, to designing for meaning and value in the context of people’s lives.

“It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ For a design thinker, it has to be ‘us with them.’ — Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO

2 — Read and Understand

Liberally educated people are skilled readers. They know how to read far more than just words. They are moved by what they see in a great art museum and what they hear in a concert hall. They recognize extraordinary athletic achievements; they are engaged by classic and contemporary works of theater and cinema; they find in television a valuable window on popular culture. When they wander through a forest or a wetland or a desert, they can identify the wildlife and interpret the lay of the land. They can glance at a farmer’s field and tell the difference between soy beans and alfalfa. They can recog­nize fine craftsmanship, whether by a cabinetmaker or an auto mechanic. And they can surf the World Wide Web. All of these are ways in which the eyes and the ears are attuned to the wonders that make up the human and the natural worlds. None of us can possibly master all these forms of “reading,” but liberally educated people should be competent in many of them and curious about all of them.

Most liberal arts curriculum requires students to fulfill General Education requirements. At Denison, students must take at least 2 courses from each of Fine Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences academic areas. I took full advantage of this opportunity to enroll in classes that sound interesting to me:

  • I took an Acting class in which I learned the art of improvisation and theatrical expression.

All these courses are outside of my majors, but they broaden my education and expose me to knowledge that I would not have encountered otherwise. I was forced to read different materials and understand different perspectives. My point is this: Liberal arts education makes me insanely curious.

As it turns out, tech pioneers tend to be voracious readers, and they like to apply what they read. Want some proof:

Thus, being insanely curious and making reading a major part of your daily lifestyle will surely pave the gateway for you to succeed in the tech. Start out with this list of book recommendations from the smartest people shaping the tech industry.

“Following your genuine intellectual curiosity is a better foundation for a career than following whatever is making money right now.” — Naval Ravikant, Co-Founder of AngelList

3 — Talk with anyone

Liberally educated people know how to talk. They can give a speech, ask thoughtful questions, and make people laugh. They can hold a conversation with a high school dropout or a Nobel laureate, a child or a nursing-home resident, a factory worker or a corporate resident. Moreover, they participate in such conversations not because they like to talk about themselves but because they are genuinely interested in others.

It’s very easy to get over-involved in a liberal arts environment, especially if you are an active and curious person. A clear side benefit is that you will meet a lot of people with different interests. There are more than 175 student organizations at Denison when I was a student there, and I was part of many of those. To name a few:

  • The Student Government, where people are politically active and passionate about making change.

Do you know what the most influential people in tech have in common? They are insanely well-connected. They know how to become a genuine and highly-connective networker, they know how to propel their career forward with each interaction (while doing the same for others), and they know how to regularly measure their performance in this area so it becomes a competitive advantage. In essence, they know how to talk to anyone. A prime example is Reid Hoffman, one of the best-connected people in Silicon Valley, whose network ranges from his former PayPal boos and fellow billionaire Peter Thiel to actress and entrepreneur Eva Longoria to President Barack Obama. It makes sense that he’s the founder and chairman of LinkedIn, the world’s biggest professional networking site.

“There are more smart people in the world who do not work at your company than the total number of smart people who work at your company. So look beyond your office. If you do… Your team becomes a whole lot bigger.” — Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn and Executive VP of PayPal

4 — Write Clearly and Persuasively and Movingly

Liberally educated people know the craft of putting words on paper. It is about expressing what is in their minds and hearts so as to teach, persuade, and move the person who reads their words. It is about writing as a form of touching, akin to the touching that happens in an exhilarating conversation.

Most liberal arts curriculum have a strong emphasis on writing. In fact, at Denison, every student is required to complete 2 writing seminars during the first year. As someone whose English is the second language, I was determined to take as many writing-intensive courses as possible to improve my English. By chance, my assigned academic advisor is an Associate Professor in the Communication department, and he encouraged me to try out a Communication class. I took one my freshman year, fell in love with it, and declared Communication as one of my majors. What I really enjoy about the Communication courses offered at Denison include active class discussion, various personalities of the students who take them, a wide range of interesting themes and topics, and most of all, a heavy emphasis on written communication. I have written a lot of research papers throughout my time in college — from exploring the role of technological advancement in athletic and sports development, to analyzing Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s campaign websites and gauging their impacts on the 2016 Presidential Election, from criticizing the biases of Google’s PageRank Search algorithm, to examining the importance of human-centered design in the context of environmental psychology. The more I write; the more persuasive my writing skills become.

When it comes to finding work, it can sometimes be difficult to come across new exciting opportunities. However, it’s much easier if you can get people to come to you, or at least make it easier for people to get an insight into what you do and how you work. Writing is a great way to do this, as it can help you build an online presence and become part of a community in the process. Especially if you want to enter the tech industry as a designer, writing regularly will be very conducive to your career. Here are some examples of very well-known writers in the design industry:

  • Julio Zhuo (VP of Product Design at Facebook) had a resolution for 2013: to write. And here is the article where she reflects on that specific year of writing. Today, Julie’s articles are followed by hundreds of thousands of people, and she now even has a unique weekly essay, answering questions from members of the community.

“Write to learn how to write, and write to understand. Write to remember, to preserve the scrap of a voice in a particular age.” — Julie Zhuo, Product Design VP at Facebook

5 — Solve a wide variety of Puzzles and Problems

The ability to solve puzzles requires many skills, including a basic comfort with numbers, a familiarity with computers, and the recognition that many problems that appear to turn on questions of quality can in act be reinterpreted as subtle problems of quantity. These are the skills of the analyst, the manager, the engineer, the critic: the ability to look at a complicated reality, break it into pieces, and figure out how it works in order to do practical things in the real world. Part of the challenge in this, of course, is the ability to put reality back together again after having broken it into pieces — for only by doing so can we accomplish practical goals without violating the integrity of the world we are trying to change.

Studying Computer Science has significantly made me a better problem-solver: from writing my first for loop to access an array in Python, to implementing a hash table data structure in C++, from programming a remote-controlled car hardware with Arduino, to leading a team to create an original RPG-game in Unity. Taking multiple Math classes also helped me a lot: from Calculus — where I differentiate and integrate multivariate functions to study high-dimensional systems that exhibit deterministic behavior; to Statistics — where I collect, organize interpret and present data; from Proofs — where I use deductive and inductive reasoning to justify logic; to Linear Algebra — where I study vector spaces and get interested in machine learning. Indeed, quantitative and technical skills are extremely valuable for liberal arts people to nurture a tech-oriented mindset.

Software development is 100% about solving problems. Without problems, there wouldn’t be a need for software. All software is designed to solve some user problem and within that general solution is a wide array of smaller problems that make it up. It really doesn’t matter what programming language or technology you use, if you can’t solve problems, you won’t be very good at developing software. In order to hired as a developer, generally you need to pass difficult technical interviews, which test a developer’s ability to solve problems. If you can solve problems, you will have a much greater level of success in the long run than you will in specializing in any particular technology.

“The most successful, hardest-working people I know don’t work hard because they’re disciplined. They work hard because they’re having fun solving a problem they really care about. They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball: their eyes go a little crazy and they plow through whatever gets in the way. It’s not about punishing yourself — it’s about finding your tennis ball, the thing that pulls you.” — Drew Houston, CEO and Co-Founder of Dropbox

6 — Respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth

Liberally educated people love learning, but they love wisdom more. They can appreciate a closely resonated argument without being unduly impressed by mere logic. They understand that knowledge serves values, and they strive to put these two — knowledge and values — into constant dialogue with each other. The ability to recognize true rigor is one of the most important achievements in any education, but it is worthless, even dangerous, if it is not placed in the service of some larger vision that also renders it humane.

Connecting knowledge with values is all about entrepreneurship. You take what you learn and apply them to add value to others. One of the best practical experience I had at Denison is being part of Denison Enterprises, a student-led venture that serves as a think-tank, consultation group, and small business incubator. I got the opportunity to work on open-ended projects with a group of talented people, doing things such as:

  • Conceiving of and building an app from start to finish

Tech leaders are entrepreneurial people: How do you know what to work on that’s going to make the biggest difference for the people you’re targeting? How do you size a market? How do you prioritize between a dozen ideas that look good on paper? How do you take technologies, people skills and resources and make something meaningful out of them? They respect the rigor of their work as a way of providing value to society.

“As an entrepreneur, you have to feel like you can jump out of an airplane because you’re confident that you’ll catch a bird flying by. It’s an act of stupidity, and most entrepreneurs go splat because the bird doesn’t come by, but a few times it does. Most entrepreneurial ideas will sound crazy, stupid and uneconomic, and then they’ll turn out to be right.” — Reed Hastings, CEO and Co-Founder of Netflix

7 — Practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism

This is another way of saying that they can understand the power of other people’s dreams and nightmares as well as their own. They have the intellectual range and emotional generosity to step outside their own experiences and prejudices, thereby opening themselves to perspectives different from their own. From this commitment to tolerance flow all those aspects of a liberal education that oppose parochialism and celebrate the wider world: studying foreign languages, learning about the cultures of distant peoples, exploring the history of long-ago times, discovering the many ways in which men and women have known the sacred and given names to their gods. Without such encounters, we cannot learn how much people differ — and how much they have in common.

The epitome of my college education was my study abroad experience during junior year. As an international student in the US, I already have had a chance to experience the Western culture and contrasted that with my Eastern origin. However, I want to step out of my comfort zone even more and decided to spend a semester in Europe to experience a different environment. 4 months in Copenhagen truly opened my perspective and made me a more global citizen. Besides academics and cultural integration, the best part of this experience is the fact that I did a pretty extensive array of travel throughout Europe, visiting 17 cities and 12 countries. Each place I visited is unique, and I felt truly blessed to have experienced the magical feeling of seeing famed attractions multiple times: from the historical Plaza de Mayor in Madrid, to the magnificent Colosseum in Rome, from the beautiful Charles Bridge in Prague, to the gorgeous Eiffel Tower in Paris. For every hostel and Airbnb I stayed in, I got the opportunity to meet travelers and locals from diverse backgrounds, learning foreign cultures and understanding how much people differ. Overall, it was a humbling experience.

Humility is one of the most important attributes for startup businesses, which are predominant in the tech sector. For startup leaders, humility is vital because it helps them recognize weaknesses in the company and what needs improvement to make the business run better and more efficiently. A humble leader is invested in the company’s well-being and success through the right channels. As the company grows, a humble leader will try to grow and develop along with it. Humility is not just important in bosses, it is also vital for good employees. A large part of humility is maintaining a sense of gratitude, and employees of a startup business must realize what a great opportunity it is to work within a new company. It allows them space to share ideas, be part of the growth, and have room for promotions. One of the best books I’ve read about the topic of humility in the workplace is Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” Openness to new ideas seem to be a central tenet of Sandberg’s philosophy. Rather than being a single-minded and focused on only her vision, she is humble and works hard to gather honest and open feedback from everyone around her.

“The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” — Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook

8 — Understand how to get things done in the world

Learning how to get things done in the world in order to leave it a better place is surely one of the most practical and important lessons we can take from our education. It is fraught with peril because the power to act in the world can so easily be abused — but we fool ourselves if we think we can avoid acting, avoid exercising power, avoid joining the world’s fight. And so we study power and struggle to use it wisely and well.

I learned quite a bit of power and struggle through doing hands-on community service in college. Winter breaks during freshman and sophomore year, I did a program called Break Away. Break Away is a national nonprofit organization that promotes the development of quality alternative break programs through training, assisting, and connecting campuses and communities. The organization has chapters on about 200 college campuses throughout the US. An alternative break consists of a group of college students who serve a community with a focus on a specific social issue for a specific amount of time. I went to a trip to Selma, Alabama my freshman year with a focus on civic engagement and another trip to Springfield, Missouri my sophomore year with a focus on social health. Ultimately, these trips made me an active citizen who is aware of social issues in the world and who commit to resolving those issues.

The best startups are mission-driven, when they have a sense of purpose to solve big problems and leave enormous impact on the world. A few examples in the healthcare, government, and energy space:

  • Healthcare:
  1. Freenome, headquartered in San Francisco, uses a patient’s DNA, rather than a tissue sample, to diagnose cancer. Freenome says its tests do better than the current options for diagnosing prostate, breast, colorectal, and lung cancers.
  • Government:
  1. OpenGov has accomplished what top tier tech firms have struggled to do for years: It’s taken the complexities of government finance and simplified them into easy-to-read charts. The startup has invented a cloud-based platform that enables officials and citizens to analyze budgets historically, by year and into the future.
  • Energy
  1. German startup Sonnen develops and produces the smart storage system that has enabled more than 10,000 households worldwide, to meet their energy needs with self-produced renewable energy. Households can share their self-produced energy with other people and can become completely independent of conventional suppliers.

“It’s an obsession about the mission of the company. Employees believe something is wrong with the world if the company doesn’t exist. Employees would rather be employees at this company than founders at a different company because the mission is that important and interesting.” — Joe Lonsdale, Co-Founder of Palantir and Addepar

9 — Nurture and empower the people around self

Liberally educated people understand that they belong to a community whose prosperity and well-being are crucial to their own, and they help that community flourish by making the success of others possible. If we speak of education for freedom, then one of the crucial insights of a liberal education must be that the freedom of the individual is possible only in a free community, and vice versa. It is the community that empowers the free individual, just as it is free individuals who lead and empower the community. The fulfillment of high talent, the just exercise of power, the celebration of human diversity: nothing so redeems these things as the recognition that what seem like personal triumphs are in fact the achievements of our common humanity.

An outstanding element of my college experience is the community aspect. The Denison community is unique and special, largely because of the relationships emerged between students, faculty, and staff. It is a place where people care about each other. It is a place that is filled with students who have integrity. It is a place that has an unusually large percentage of students with excellent leadership skills. Every member of the community commit to making it a place where people make good decisions for themselves, and where everybody steps up and intervenes when they see other members of the community getting ready to make a bad decision for themselves or for others. To quote our president Adam Weinberg, “In our best moments, members of the Denison community provoke each other. We inspire, demand and challenge each other to get out of our comfort zones, move away from our myopic views of the world and take a chance on believing we might have more to offer to ourselves, each other and the world than we think we do. We do self-discovery and excellence well.” The quote resonated with me because it captured the spirit of my experience so well.

A prime example of a community-driven tech company that is doing so well in the current sharing economy is Airbnb. The brand of the company is associated with a fundamental driver of humankind: Belong Anywhere. Airbnb stands for something much bigger than travel; it stands for community and relationships and using technology for the purpose of bringing people together. It is the one place people could go to meet the “universal human yearning to belong.” Belonging anywhere wasn’t a single moment; it was a transformation people experienced when they traveled on Airbnb. It goes like this: When travelers leave their homes, they feel alone. They reach their Airbnb, and they feel accepted and taken care of by their host. They then feel safe to be the same kind of person they are when they’re at home. I can attest to this as a traveler using Airbnb myself: belonging means driving around and enjoying New Year Eve with my Dallas host, having a drink in a local bar with my DC hosts, or getting an intro to deep-dish pizza eating with my host in Chicago. More than anything else, it is this aspect of Airbnb that distinguishes it from Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit and any other of its sharing-economy peers.

“I traveled city by city and our hosts would get so excited to meet us and they would tell their friends. We tracked the stats and we saw hosts got more engaged after they had met us. Building a community worked for us.” — Brian Chesky, Co-Founder and CEO of Airbnb

10 — Only Connect

Being a liberally educated person means being able to see connections that allow for one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. Every one of the qualities described here — listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes, leading, working in a community — is finally about connecting. A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.

The liberal arts education at Denison has made me a well-rounded person. Many friends of mine wonder why I chose to study Computer Science and Communication, two completely distinct majors. I have had this vision since freshman year. Studying Computer Science exercises my left-brain, which is more logical, analytical, and objective. Studying Communication, on the other hand, exercises my right-brain, which is more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective. Normally, people prefer one type of thinking over another; but I find it equally enjoyable to utilize both systems. Matter of fact, I was able to connect the dots and bring many cross-over knowledge across these disciplines. In Computer Science courses, I could write engaging lab reports and articulate technical concepts fluently; while in Communication classes, I could develop solid rational arguments and contribute to the discussions from a logical frame.

My dream career is to work as a Product Manager developing an Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning-focused software technology. PMs are key members of the teams that build software products, working alongside software engineers and designers. They are responsible for setting the team’s strategy, defining goals, determining the roadmap, representing the customer, and shepherding / cat-herding the team to a successful launch. Over the past couple of summers, I have spent significant amount of time learning about this discipline and having conversations with lots of Product Manager professionals. As a PM, you might spend your day talking to customers about the problems they have, analyzing data about how people are using your product and looking for opportunities, working with marketing to prepare for an upcoming launch, brainstorming new features, going over designs with a designer, discussing tradeoffs of a technical issue with engineers, leading a retrospective discussion with the team, testing early versions of the products before they go live, or planning a fun launch celebration. The Venn Diagram of PM skills include both technical skills and communication, along with other tangible (analysis & synthesis, product design, prioritization, action oriented) and abstract (customer focus, strategy & vision, project management, leadership) qualities. A successful PM know how to connect the dots between designing a great product and shipping it.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” — Steve Jobs, ex-CEO of Apple; creator of the Apple II, Macintosh, Pixar, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad

The future will be shaped by people who can embrace rapid change, thrive in diverse environments, and creatively problem solve as part of their everyday lives. Liberal arts skills — the ability to communicate, persevere, embrace ambiguity, work in diverse teams, and frame questions in ways that allow us to see vexing problems in new, solvable ways — are more important than ever given current global directions and trends. Being a Denison alumni makes me a better tech entrepreneur and, more crucially, makes me believe that I can make a difference in the world.

Constraint Drives Creativity

My own experiment on Personal Development

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