How Your Philosophy Degree Can Be Relevant To Tech Startup Success

A degree in philosophy doesn't mean you're relegated to academia. Jon Dahl, founder of Zencoder proves that Aristotle has a lot to teach tech businesses today.

If he didn’t have bills to pay, Jon Dahl would likely be in a lecture hall right now, opining about Aristotle and the intersection between philosophy and theology. When the siren song of a steady paycheck proved louder than the call to academia, Dahl discovered coding.

“I got into programming slowly,” Dahl says, “I didn't take more formal classes, but I did a lot of study on my own, including textbooks and video lectures from MIT and Berkeley.”

In short order, Dahl accumulated enough knowledge to start his own business. And then three more including Zencoder, a Y Combinator startup built on the back of a previous failed attempt to provide a platform for transcoding user-submitted video. Zencoder took that technology to the cloud and after just two years, got snapped up by online video platform Brightcove (one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Compaines) for a cool $30 million.

Dahl is now VP of technology at Brightcove, where he’s in charge of product and strategy for the Zencoder business. Though he still considers himself a software developer, Dahl’s philosophy degree proves more useful in his work than one might think.

The Real Relevance of A Philosophy Degree

As many universities push to make humanities studies relevant in an increasingly challenging economic landscape for graduates, schools such as Stanford wrap philosophy into one of its most popular interdisciplinary majors, Symbolic Systems.

The course of study combines computer science with linguistics, cognitive psychology, and philosophy. The likes of Reid Hoffman and Marissa Mayer credit the combination of logic and reasoning with giving them “a technologist's precision in solving non-technological problems.”

Dahl isn’t a Stanford alum, but his approach is similar. He says classical philosophy and coding use similar thought patterns. He breaks it down:

  • First, both programming and philosophy involve taking large problems, which are too big to really think about all at once, and breaking them up into smaller problems.
  • Second, both fundamentally involve thinking in abstractions: taking specific ideas or goals and finding the general principles behind them.

But businesses don’t get built on breaking apart problems alone. Successful teams are the foundation of a growth-minded startup. That’s another reason Dahl reaches back to the teachings of Aristotle. In his Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher developed a theory that having a “good life” isn’t just a pursuit of happiness. Adds Dahl: “For Aristotle, ethics is about practical wisdom, not just right and wrong.”

To empower a team in a tech startup, Dahl relies on knowing what to do in a given situation to achieve a desired goal. “You do this by cultivating habits and virtues that help you excel without even having to think about it,” he explains. “The ultimate goal is living life well, but practical wisdom also applies to smaller goals, like "running a startup well" or "programming well.”

As software developers spend a lot of time thinking about "programming well," Dahl believes Aristotle's advice would be: “to not focus primarily on the external rules that can help teams build good software, but to focus more on the internal habits and practices that make individuals and teams excellent.”

Bottom Line: To create a great company, hire great people and cultivate great teams, Dahl underscores. “Invest in their development and success. Outward excellence in any area--moral excellence or programming excellence--ultimately comes out of the internal excellence of individuals and groups.”

[Image: Flickr user Karen Neoh]

Add New Comment

10 Comments

  • Lydia, may I add another major benefit of studying Philosophy for tech start ups? We are taught that curiosity is a virtue, not an inconvenience. The restless search for provocative questions, rather than the comfortable answers valued by corporate thinking, will more likely lead to brighter solutions. For that reason, you find many graduate philosophers attracted to the creative industries too.

  • Jonathan Craig Walmsley

    Not wanting to be all "look at me" - but I was hired as AKQA London's first strategist straight after doing a PhD in the History of Philosophy - and then had a 10 year career there as my entry into the world of digital.

    While people are happy to assume digital and philosophy couldn't be further apart - new tech vs. dead blokes and their dusty old books I would note that:

    Digital is all about understanding consequence - what needs to be the case for something to happen, technically, creatively, strategically - and philosophy gives you an excellent means to really interrogate the consequence and antecedents of pretty much anything, in particular, things with technical dependencies like digital.

  • Jonathan Craig Walmsley

    I would also note, that underpinning all that code are the core "logic gates" - decisions of what should happen under what circumstances - and that having a training in formal logic gives you an excellent understanding of not just what codes does, but also the mindset of people who code - which is absolutely essential if you want to do anything in digital.

    And I'd finally note that all those dead guys and their dusty old books - Leibniz, Russell, Turing to name but a few - they're the people who really invented "computing", and they were all philosophers.

  • Agreed about Leibniz, Russell and the like. Training in formal logic is very handy. However, you raise a huge red flag when you say "understanding of not just what codes does'.

    As a computer scientist with an additional degree in philosophy (and intense study of various logics, including modal and paraconsistent logic), I have to say that logic is not particularly useful for what you are describing. High level languages like C++ and Python use a wide range of constructs, and extensive training in formal logic is not going to help you to be an object-oriented architect or programmer any more than deep knowledge of particle physics and chemistry will help you be a great painter.

    There are SOME areas where it is very handy. Complexity, computability, foundations of programming languages, reasoning and representation, etc.

    By and large the greatest advantage I have seen is writing ability. No engineer will be able to write as well as a philosophy graduate from a rigorous program.

  • Jonathan Craig Walmsley

    Appreciate the nuanced response - and perhaps you are correct.

    I do agree that "extensive training in formal logic is not going to help you to be an object-oriented architect or programmer" and apologies if that came across as the implication.

    My point was more about a general mindset and systematicity common to both endeavours.

    I have always found that having had a training in how to be systematic in thinking, it has made it easier for me to be appropriately clear about what is required when speaking to folks who code; and have assumed that their being reasonably receptive was symptomatic of a similar clarity in their own thinking.

    Might not be the case - maybe just being clear is good enough.

    ;-)

  • As a history / philosophy major in college I've ended up as a pro-artist digital rights activist supporting artists in the digital economy. For all the focus on disruptive technology and the Internets voracious appetite for cheap content, it has been a very difficult time financially for working artists.

    While Mr. Dahl appears to be more of a technologist with a philosophy background, it is encouraging to see individuals with diverse backgrounds and an understanding of the humanities working in technology.