Why Top Tech CEOs Want Employees With Liberal Arts Degrees

As colleges across the country begin revving back up, you might want to reconsider your major.

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen once said that the average English degree holder is fated to become a shoe salesman, hawking wares to former classmates who were lucky enough to have majored in math. Meanwhile, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, who studied philosophy at Stanford, refers to degrees like his as "antiquated debt-fueled luxury goods." Faced with such attacks on the liberal arts, it’s no wonder that interest in the humanities is waning. As the college year begins, many students are likely to take President Obama’s advice and forgo an art history degree for a certificate in skilled manufacturing or some other trade.

Not to be outdone, defenders of the liberal arts are jumping into the fray. Among them are New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, liberal arts consortiums and even a pair of cartoon crusaders called Libby and Art (get it?) who are quick to respond to people besmirching the humanities on Twitter. But joining this chorus are some unexpected voices: CEOs of technology companies.

While the tech boom is partly responsible for the spike in students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, many tech CEOs still believe employees trained in the liberal arts add value to their companies. In 2010, Steve Jobs famously mused that for technology to be truly brilliant, it must be coupled with artistry. "It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough," he said. "It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing." Other tech CEOs across the country agree that liberal arts training—with its emphasis on creativity and critical thinking—is vital to the success of their business.

So how exactly do the humanities translate into positive results for tech companies? Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, says that the liberal arts train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white. "In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions," he says. "There are just different shades of how correct you might be," he says.

Yi says his interdisciplinary degree in East Asian Studies at Harvard taught him to see every issue from multiple perspectives: in college, he studied Asian literature in one class, then Asian politics or economics in the next. "It’s awfully similar to viewing our organization and our marketplace from different points of view, quickly shifting gears from sales to technology to marketing," he says. "I need to synthesize these perspectives to decide where we need to go as a company."

Danielle Sheer, a vice president at Carbonite, a cloud backup service, feels similarly. She studied existential philosophy at George Washington University, which sets her apart from her technically trained colleagues. She tells me that her academic background gives her an edge at a company where employees are trained to assume there is always a correct solution. "I don’t believe there is one answer for anything," she tells me. "That makes me a very unusual member of the team. I always consider a plethora of different options and outcomes in every situation."

Both Yi and Sheer recognize that the scientific method is valuable, with its emphasis on logic and reason, especially when dealing with data or engineering problems. But they believe this approach can sometimes be limiting. "When I collaborate with people who have a strictly technical background," says Yi, "the perspective I find most lacking is an understanding of what motivates people and how to balance multiple factors that are at work outside the realm of technology."

Employees trained in the liberal arts bring an alternative point of view in day-to-day decision-making in the tech workplace, but Vince Broady, CEO of content marketing platform Thismoment, argues that they also think differently about bigger questions, such as the impact a company should have on an industry. As a student at Brown, Broady studied religion, a field that emphasizes long-term goals, rather than quick gains. "You study people who dedicate their lifetime to their faith," he says. "Their impact is measured across hundreds and thousands of years." His academic background shapes how he thinks about his work: he wants to stay committed to building a company of lasting value, even during difficult times. This goes against the grain of tech culture, where entrepreneurs are encouraged to take risks but quickly move to new ideas when things don’t pan out. Broady questions whether "failing fast" is really the best way to do business.

Broady’s study of religion has also convinced him that leaps of faith are important in one’s career. If students are inclined towards the humanities, he encourages them to pursue what they love, even when others claim these fields are worthless. "There is always a story about a wasted education, about someone who paid so much for a degree and is now driving a taxi," he says. "But you have to have some faith that your education will not be wasted on you. This is about you and your specific situation; you need to make sure that what you learn serves you."

Ultimately, Broady believes that people who are passionate about their work are better poised to succeed. "If you don’t personally care about what you are doing, you are not going to be competitive at it," he says.

For women in tech, a humanities background can be an added liability, since there is already a perception that they are less competent at science and math. Danielle Sheer says that when she joined Carbonite, her first impulse was to hide her lack of knowledge and retreat at meetings. However, she quickly changed strategy, deciding it was more important for her to ask questions to fully grasp the technology. She’s spent hours tinkering with the software and working with engineering teams to learn about it. She says her colleagues are supportive, even if she sometimes slows them down. "By articulating complicated technical or strategic ideas in plain English, you’d be amazed at how much progress we’ve made solving problems," she says. "We’ve become very good at assuming that we don’t have the same definition."

While women have more biases to overcome, all the humanities-trained tech leaders I spoke with emphasized the importance of understanding their company’s technology inside and out. Once they have this knowledge under their belt, they have the unique ability to translate complex technical processes into clear, simple language—an important skill when dealing with investors and buyers. "The ability to quickly synthesize information and structure it in a way that is comprehensible to non-technical people is powerful," says MediaAlpha’s Steve Yi.

But perhaps most importantly, liberal arts training allows people to think about technology itself in fundamentally different ways. David Rose, CEO of photo analytics company Ditto, is pushing for companies to reimagine the role that technology plays in our lives. His recently published book, Enchanted Objects, is peppered with ideas from literature, fine arts and philosophy to prompt the reader to think about technology as the kind of magic that humans have always been longing after. "I’m so glad that no one asked me to pick my career as an undergrad," he tells me, remembering his years at St. Olaf, a liberal arts college. "It allowed me to take a broad range of courses and do things like study in Scandinavia. For a young mind, that is the very best thing you can do, because it allows you to come at questions about the world and new technologies from radically different perspectives."

Tech CEOs are generally keen to hire people trained in the humanities, partly because a large proportion of them have similar backgrounds themselves. (A third of all Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.) But for students coming out of liberal arts colleges, it can still be difficult to find work in the tech sector. Georgia Nugent, the former president of Kenyon College who is currently a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges, says that top executives are not responsible for hiring entry level staff. Instead, recruiters and HR managers on the hiring front lines often use systems that pick candidates for tech jobs based on key terms like "coding" and "programming," which many liberal arts graduates will not have on their resumes.

Nugent is concerned about this trend because she thinks that training students for very specific tasks seems shortsighted when technology and business is evolving at such a fast rate. "It’s a horrible irony that at the very moment the world has become more complex, we’re encouraging our young people to be highly specialized in one task," she says. "We are doing a disservice to young people by telling them that life is a straight path. The liberal arts are still relevant because they prepare students to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances."

[Photo: Flickr user Shilad Sen]

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18 Comments

  • jeannine

    Georgia O'Keefe said it best "To create one's world in any of the arts takes courage.” Innovation requires courage, persistence, and an ability to deconstruct things to create something new. Jeannine

  • Pat Strother

    This is a very good article, but entirely unnecessary.

    I find these articles that try and defend liberal arts almost as tedious as the articles that tout STEM as the only path to a good life.

    It seems painfully obvious to me that a well rounded, high quality liberal arts education is the essence of what it means to be highly educated. When an educated person with drive, discipline, intelligence and curiosity applies themselves to something the sky is the limit. Period. If you actually listen to the people that tell you you can't do something, you'll never realize your potential.

    It doesn't matter is the answer. If you are a lover of science go for it. If you like to explore the world more broadly study something like literature and learn cognitive empathy. Treating higher education as a trade school is a mistake of immense proportions.

    People often criticize both my degrees: English and an MBA. And I don't care - it worked well for me. Don't let the trons tell you what to do.

  • After every paragraph in this article that ends with a quote, I thought "for example". And in the subsequent paragraph: nothing. That's my problem when liberal artists talk about engineers. There's so much cliché about diversity of perspectives and points of view. But there are few solutions, which are what engineers, investors, and consumers want.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I disagree. I've seen many examples of how considering a particular demographic perspective has affected a tech product. But I can think of little to no examples of how generalizations like "creativity and critical thinking", "shades of correctness", "synthesizing perspectives", "considering a plethora", or "balancing multiple factors" have made a difference, especially a difference attributable to a liberal arts degree.

    After all, science is a creative endeavor. All those hypotheses have to come from somewhere. Are liberal arts hypotheses better? Prove it. Show some examples.

  • wisdom.heather

    This is a great point but as much as it supports the liberal arts, the language in this article still only frames the liberal arts educated as being in need of a STEM educated person for translating tech. Sometimes the tech world needs the liberal arts minded to translate the tech world to them. This is exactly what everyone doesn't see, and I'm not sure why this is a such a problem. We ALL study algorithms. Math and logical reasoning is inherent in everything. A code change can be initiated by someone with no "coding" background who can describe a desired machine behavior in simplistic language that sets off lightbulbs for an engineer. This defines the clinical perspective, based on external observation of behavior whether it be a machine or a human being, that is missing from tech. Stop talking about and do something about then.

    With kind regards, A female non-engineer who worked in an engineering lab for the automotive industry

  • Bronwyn Fryer

    I have an advanced degree in Comparative Literature. I quit the Ph.D program in comp.lit at U.C. Berkeley and went to work at the dawn of the tech sector in the 1980s (I write the first corporate backgrounder for a little startup called Oracle Corporation). I went from that into technology journalism and blossomed. Learning to 'speak tech' was crucial: i treated it like another language i needed to learn. Once i learned that language, the world opened to me. I ended up having a great career, going on to the Harvard Business Review and ghostwriting books. Moral of the story: if you have a liberal arts degree, do what you can to learn the skills you will need to succeed in business (tech, economics, etc.) and then watch your career take off. You will be in a scarce and much valued minority of people.

  • It's great to hear some powerful cheerleaders for liberal arts. They need to speak out more to educate all the naysayers on professional platforms like LinkedIn, who are still quoting Dale Carnegie as if he was the voice of God. Despite not having benefited from the "money side" of a humanities education, I still use the critical thinking skills they taught me every day (both on and off work). I'd choose an Oscar Wilde quote over a million of Dale Carnegie's any day.

  • Geoffrey Clements

    It's interesting that these Liberal Arts CEOs went to some of the top schools in the country. Brown, Stanford, George Washington University and Harvard; I wonder how the kids with a liberal arts degree from a state school or local community college are doing?

  • I graduated from San Diego State University (not a top school) with a BA in American Literature, then went on to a 20+ year career in Information Technology. It's BECAUSE I majored in English that I was able to do the work in IT.

    Some things my degree prepared me for: communicating, understanding human behavior (which literature reveals), detecting BS, managing qualitative information (like requirements, design specs, test materials), analyzing process.

    The difficulty is making that connection--between the education and the job skills--for HR people. CEO's get it, but they don't screen applicants.

  • Todd Wilson

    I have two Liberal Arts degrees from a state school, and I'm leading a Marketing Strategy/Consulting team for Forbes' "most innovative company in the world". About half or more of my colleagues are Liberal Arts graduates as well.

  • I just read an entire book about this phenomenon called "A Whole New Mind" written by Daniel Pink. What makes this point even more true is the fact that things like engineering and programming can be either automated or outsourced. Very interesting writeup, I had no idea that so many CEOs had liberal arts degrees.

  • Hurrah! As a journalist and marketing consultant - and liberal arts grad - it is reaffirming that we get the big picture and can translate the tech world to others.

  • Yes, it's great that some tech CEO's can see that people with non-tech backgrounds might be good employees. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be passing their views on to their HR departments. Good luck getting through their hiring bots with only a degree in philosophy and a keen interest in working in tech.

  • Absolutely second Dr. Nugent's comments about higher education's role in preparing students to be systems thinkers, allowing them to bring multiple perspectives to problem solving. At Columbia College, an all-women's liberal arts college in Columbia SC, our Applied Computing Minor is doing just that...adding technical and applied analysis skills to every major. Exposure is everything.