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.
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.