Why students of the Humanities should look for jobs in Silicon Valley

Ok, I’ll risk sounding like a broken record to say again that the notion that humanities students are ill-positioned for solid careers after college is simply misguided.  It still bears repeating.  This latest from Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post gives yet more confirmation of the notion that employers are not looking for specific majors but for skills and abilities and creativity, and that package can come with any major whatsoever, and it often comes with students in the humanities and social sciences.

Using Damon Horowitz, who possess degrees in both philosophy and engineering and whose unofficial title at Google is In-House Philosopher and whose official title is Director of Engineering, Wadhwa points out the deep need for humanities and social science students in the work of technology companies, a need that isn’t just special pleading from a humanist but is made vivid in the actual hiring practices of Silicon Valley companies.

Venture Capitalists often express disdain for startup CEOs who are not engineers. Silicon Valley parents send their kids to college expecting them to major in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) discipline. The theory goes as follows: STEM degree holders will get higher pay upon graduation and get a leg up in the career sprint.

The trouble is that theory is wrong. In 2008, my research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, arts and the humanities.

Yes, gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in was not a significant factor. ….

I’d take that a step further. I believe humanity majors make the best project managers, the best product managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders. The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology. A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire may be more likely to understand the human elements of technology and how ease of use and design can be the difference between an interesting historical footnote and a world-changing technology. 

via Why Silicon Valley needs humanities PhDs – The Washington Post.

Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this sounds like the kind of findings emphasized at the Rethinking Success Conference that I have now blogged on several times.    (I’ve heard theories that people come to be true believers if they hear a story 40 times.  So far I’ve only blogged on this 12 times, so I’ll keep going for a while longer).  Although I still doubt that it would be a good thing for a philosopher to go to Silicon Valley with no tech experience whatsoever,  a philosopher who had prepared himself by acquiring some basic technical skills alongside of his philosophy degree might be in a particularly good position indeed.  Worth considering.

Side note,  the Post article points to a nice little bio about Damon Horowitz.  I suspect there are not many folks in Silicon Valley who can talk about the ethics of tech products in terms that invoke Kant and John Stuart Mill.  Maybe there should be more.

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Deep and Wide: Katharine Brooks on Becoming a T-shaped Professional

Earlier today I blogged on the need for humanities students to take seriously the need to become more literate in science, technology and mathematics, both in order to pursue the ideal of a well-rounded liberal arts education and very pragmatically in order to prepare themselves for the world of work. Katharine Brooks (UT-Austin), one of the keynoters at the Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest takes up the same point in a different manner in her reflections on the need for job candidates coming out of college to present themselves as T-shaped individuals, persons with deep knowledge of one or two areas and broad knowledge of several.

According to those in the talent-seeking field, the most sought-after candidates for management, consulting, research, and other leadership positions are T-shaped. The vertical stem of the T is the foundation: an in-depth specialized knowledge in one or two fields. The horizontal crossbar refers to the complementary skills of communication (including negotiation), creativity, the ability to apply knowledge across disciplines, empathy (including the ability to see from other perspectives), and an understanding of fields outside your area of expertise.

Organizations need workers with specialized knowledge who can also think broadly about a variety of areas, and apply their knowledge to new settings. Since T-shaped professionals possess skills and knowledge that are both broad and deep, developing and promoting your T-shaped talent may be the ticket to yourcareer success now and in the future.

The term “T-shaped” isn’t new: it’s been in use since the 1990s but mostly in consulting and technical fields. Several companies, including IDEO andMcKinsey & Company, have used this concept for years because they have always sought multidisciplinary workers who are capable of responding creatively to unexpected situations. Many companies have also developed interdisciplinary T teams to solve problems.

Dr. Phil Gardner at Michigan State University, who researches and writes regularly on recruiting trends, has been researching the concept of the T-shaped professional and the T-shaped manager. At the recent Rethinking Success Conference at Wake Forest University, Dr. Gardner described the ideal job candidate as a “liberal arts student with technical skills” or a “business/engineering student with humanities training”— in other words, a T-shaped candidate. Dr. Gardner is currently developing a guide for college students based on this concept. He notes that “while the engineers are out in front on this concept – every field will require T professional development.”

As my post earlier today suggested, I think this kind of approach to things is absolutely crucial for graduates in humanities programs, and we ought to shape our curricula–both within the majors and in our general education programs– in such a way that we are producing students confident in and able to articulate the ways in which their education and experiences have made them both deep and broad.
If I can take a half step back from those assertions and plunge in another direction, I will only point out that there is a way in which this particular formulation may let my brethren who are in technical fields off the hook a little too easily.  If it is the case that engineers are leaders in this area, I will say that the notion of breadth that is entailed may be a fairly narrow one, limited to the courses that students are able to get in their general education curriculum.
My colleague, Ray Norman, who is the Dean of our School of Science Engineering and Health has talked with me on more than one occasion about how desirable his engineering graduates are because they have had several courses in the humanities.  I am glad for that, but I point out to him that it is absolutely impossible for his engineering graduates to even minor in a field in my area, much less dream of a double major.  About a decade ago when I was chair of the English department, I went to a colleague who has since vacated the chair of the engineering department, asking if we could talk about ways that we could encourage some interchange between our departments, such that I could encourage my majors to take more engineering or other technical courses, and he could encourage his engineers to minor in English.  He was enthusiastic but also regretful.  He’d love to have my English majors in his program, but he couldn’t send his engineers my way;  the size of the engineering curriculum meant it was absolutely impossible for his students to take anything but the required courses in general education.
I don’t hold this against my colleagues; they labor under accreditation standards and national expectations in the discipline.  But I do think it raises again important questions about what an undergraduate education is for, questions explored effectively by Andrew Delbanco’s recent book.  Should undergraduate programs be so large and so professionally oriented that students are unable to take a minor or possibly a double major?  Whistling in to the wind, I say they should not.  Breadth and Depth should not mean the ability to know ONLY one thing really well;  it ought to mean knowing AT LEAST one thing really well, and a couple of other things pretty well, and several other things generally well.
Oddly enough, it is far easier for liberal arts students to achieve this richer kind of breadth and depth, if they only will.  A major in history, a minor in sociology, a second minor in information sciences, a couple of internships working on web-development at a museum, a college with a robust general education program.  There’s a T-shape to consider.
[Side note;  It was Camp Hill Old Home Week at Wake Forest and the Rethinking Success conference last week.  At a dinner for administrators and career officers hosted by Jacquelyn Fetrow, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Jacque and Katherine Brooks discovered they’d both grown up in Camp Hill, and both within a half dozen blocks of where I now live.  Small world, and Camp Hill is leading it :-)]

Do Humanities Programs Encourage the Computational Illiteracy of Their Students?

I think the knee-jerk and obvious answer to my question is “No.”  I think if humanities profs were confronted with the question of whether their students should develop their abilities in math (or more broadly in math, science and technology), many or most would say Yes.  On the other hand, I read the following post from Robert Talbert at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It got me thinking just a bit about how and whether we in the humanities contribute to an anti-math attitude among our own students, if not in the culture as a whole.

I’ve posted here before about mathematics’ cultural problem, but it’s really not enough even to say “it’s the culture”, because kids do not belong to a single monolithic “culture”. They are the product of many different cultures. There’s their family culture, which as Shaughnessy suggests either values math or doesn’t. There’s the popular culture, whose devaluing of education in general and mathematics in particular ought to be apparent to anybody not currently frozen in an iceberg. (The efforts of MIT, DimensionU, and others have a steep uphill battle on their hands.)

And of course there’s the school culture, which itself a product of cultures that are out of kids’ direct control. Sadly, the school culture may be the toughest one to change, despite our efforts at reform. As the article says, when mathematics is reduced to endless drill-and-practice, you can’t expect a wide variety of students — particularly some of the most at-risk learners — to really be engaged with it for long. I think Khan Academy is trying to make drill-and-practice engaging with its backchannel of badges and so forth, but you can only apply so much makeup to an inherently tedious task before learners see through it and ask for something more.

via Can Math Be Made Fun? – Casting Out Nines – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This all rings pretty true to me.  There are similar versions of this in other disciplines.  In English, for instance, students unfortunately can easily learn to hate reading and writing through what they imbibe from popular culture or through what the experience in the school system.  For every hopeless math geek on television, there’s a reading geek to match.  Still and all, I wonder whether we in the humanities combat and intervene in the popular reputation of mathematics and technological expertise, or do we just accept it, and do we in fact reinforce it.

I think, for instance, of the unconscious assumption that there are “math people” and “English people”;  that is, there’s a pretty firmly rooted notion that people are born with certain proclivities and abilities and there is no point in addressing deficiencies in your literacy in other areas.  More broadly, I think we apply this to students, laughing in knowing agreement when they talk about coming to our humanities disciplines because they just weren’t math persons or a science persons, or groaning together in the faculty lounge about how difficult it is to teach our general education courses to nursing students or to math students.  As if our own abilities were genetic.

In high school I was highly competent in both math and English, and this tendency wasn’t all that unusual for students in the honors programs.  On the other hand, I tested out of math and never took another course in college, and none of my good humanistic teachers in college ever challenged and asked me to question that decision.  I was encouraged to take more and different humanities courses (though, to be frank, my English teachers were suspicious of my interest in philosophy), but being “well-rounded’ and “liberally educated”  seems in retrospect to have been largely a matter of being well-rounded in only half of the liberal arts curriculum.  Science and math people were well-rounded in a different way, if they were well-rounded at all.

There’s a lot of reason to question this.  Not least of which being that if our interests and abilities are genetic we have seen a massive surge of the gene pool toward the STEM side of the equation if enrollments in humanities majors is to serve as any judge.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who recently pointed out that genius has a lot less to do with giftedness than it does with practice and motivation.  Put 10000 hours in to almost anything and you will become a genius at it (not entirely true, but the general principle applies).  Extrapolating, we might say that even if students aren’t going to be geniuses in math and technology, they could actually get a lot better at it if they’d only try.

And there’s a lot of reason to ask them to try.  At the recent Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest, one of the speakers who did research into the transition of college students in to the workplace pounded the table and declared, “In this job market you must either be a technical student with a liberal arts education or a liberal arts major with technical savvy.  There is no middle ground.”  There is no middle ground.  What became quite clear to me at this conference is that companies mean it that they want students with a liberal arts background.  However, it was also very clear to me that they expect them to have technical expertise that can be applied immediately to job performance. Speaker after speaker affirmed the value of the liberal arts.  They also emphasized the absolute and crying need for computational, mathematical, and scientific literacy.

In other words, we in the Humanities will serve our students extremely poorly if we accept their naive statements about their own genetic makeup, allowing them to proceed with a mathematical or scientific illiteracy that we would cry out against if the same levels of illiteracy were evident in others with respect to our own disciplines.

I’ve found, incidentally, that in my conversations with my colleagues in information sciences or math or sciences, that many of them are much more conversant in the arts and humanities than I or my colleagues are in even the generalities of science, mathematics, or technology.  This ought not to be the case, and in view of that i and a few of my colleagues are considering taking some workshops in computer coding with our information sciences faculty.  We ought to work toward creating a generation of humanists that does not perpetuate our own levels of illiteracy, for their own sake and for the health of our disciplines in the future.