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.

5 thoughts on “Why students of the Humanities should look for jobs in Silicon Valley

  1. ryanalexanderhunt

    In my experience, universities aren’t preparing humanities grads with necessary digital skills. I never even heard the term “digital humanities” mentioned during the course of my BA and MA, even though I had professors working on DH projects.

  2. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Yes, of course you’re4 right in terms of how our own humanities courses and curricula are currently constructed. I think it would have to be students who have found these connections on their own. This is already starting to happen more and more often. We get more students who have just done this on their own or who are wanting to build connections to more tech oriented things. But we don’t yet work as institutions to create students with these kinds of multiple skill sets across humanities and tech areas. To be honest, at our school it is more likely that an engineering student will have a respectable level of humanistic learning simply because they have to take a wide variety of humanities and social science courses, while our Humanities students only have to take a couple of courses in science and math. I think we need to change that in how we conceive of both general education and the skill sets that are important for doing humanistic work. I think that is already changing, but I think it will change in an avalanche in the next decade. We have been considering whether to require Humanities students to take coding courses, though I don’t think we are quite there yet, and have started thinking about changing college wide writing requirements to include digital communication. More is needed.

  3. ryanalexanderhunt

    That’s a great point regarding the limited exposure many humanities students have with other the sciences. My undergrad university required humanities students to take 4 courses “outside” of the humanities. Since Art History was in the Faculty of Fine Arts, most humanities students I knew took Art History to satisfy that requirement.

    On the reverse of this I have family working as professors in Chemistry who have students who can barely string together a coherent sentence.

    Moving further into the 21st Century, I believe universities should try to produce students with the richest possible academic backgrounds.

    Instead of preparing students for specific jobs (which probably no longer exist in our global economy), universities should prepare students to with a variety of employable skills.

  4. Dermot McCabe

    Hi Peter
    Damon Horowitz statistics are interesting. The yardstick he uses to make his case is the academic background of CEOs. I think to base some of his assertions on this data is very simplistic. He is really stereotyping technologists and scientists when he says they get wrapped up in the esoteric details of the technologies. Some do, but the fact that 34% of them become CEOs or Heads of Product Engineering demolishes his generalistion about technologists. I don’t think it is surprising that CEOs come from different deciplines. I do think, however, that the essential core of a technology organisation is its technical knowledge base. Without it, you have nothing.
    People who come from a humanities academic background can, and obviously do, contribute enormously to any enterprise. They do bring different perspectives and skill sets to bear which can improve, moderate and guide the unadulterated technical approach.
    Another concern I would have is the idea that a philosopher should acquire some basic technical skills is very nebulous. You talked about Humanities students taking coding courses. If these are the technical skills you are talking about I would suggest that you reconsider. Coding is a language like all languages and unless you are going to use it on a fairly continuous basis it is useless. What would be far more beneficial is the study of logic, boolean algebra (linked perhaps to Aristotelian Logic), digital basics, core technologies like storage, communications and processing and the fundamentals principles of software engineering. These are not any more difficult than coding but they are infinitely superior if one wishes to get a real insight into technology and where it is possibly heading.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      Thanks, Dermott. I appreciate this perspective. The whole idea of requiring coding wasn’t connected to the question of careers per se. In trying to figure out what’s necessary to do Digital Humanities work various people suggested it would be great if students could get coding skills, and a basic introduction to coding is one thing that the THATCamps run out of George Mason provide. So that was actually driven out of a sense of where humanities is and might be going rather than something specific about the job market itself. On the other hand, I haven’t gotten a clear enough consensus from people we’ve talked to to really push in that direction. There’s a little bit of a “figure out what you want to do and learn what you need to do it” approach to things in DH which makes it difficult to systematize at an institutional level. I’m always looking for synergies, so I would be interested in how the suggested skills you note above might be connected to skills and abilities that DH practitioners put to work. That would be the very best of both worlds. If I could create some kind of certificate program that give students both an introduction to tools necessary to Digital Humanities work and give them a leg up on the job market, that would be the cats meow. (A Side note; dismissing coding as a language doesn’t work too well with a humanist. My immediate response was “YES, EXACTLY!!!” since getting into the language gets you in to the guts of anything.


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