“I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side.” – Steve Jobs
This quote is as true today as it was when Jobs first said it and is a testament to the fact that liberal arts graduates can indeed be great developers. Over the years there has been an increased focus on usability, and coupled with the continued focus on agile, iterative development, there is a need for developers with a versatile, creative mindset. This is a mindset that differs from the narrow, deeply technical background of the stereotypical software engineer. Today’s best developers combine innovation, agility and creativity. And it turns out that there are many people with a liberal arts education who have all three!
Why liberal arts?
Software development has evolved to demand the right combination of creative and critical thinking. The typical engineer of the past might have a very comprehensive mathematics and coding background, but lives in a silo. Those with such a strict engineering background often focus only on the logic of the application. Think about the days before the iPhone. There were many heavily-engineered products that were not user-friendly. Today, the iPhone is the standard-bearer of usability, with functionality that is now commonly adopted into tablets and laptops.
How does the type of thinking that enables something like the iPhone happen? It happens through someone with a wide range of education and experience, who has both vertical and horizontal knowledge. It’s the ability to comprehend multiple lines of thinking across several topics and drive them all towards a common goal. And that is exactly the type of thinking that comes from a liberal arts background.
Developers coming out of Silicon Valley want to work at the most nimble of start-ups, but often their training has been very structured and rigid. This can create issues considering a recent survey found that 80% of employers could not find the “soft skills” they needed in recent graduates. And that’s an issue that is not going to be solved by a Google incubator overnight. But those from a liberal arts background are hardwired to be innovative and are well suited to be the new generation of leaders that start-ups now demand.
Additionally, with the growing conversation around the future of Artificial Intelligence, it is increasingly more important to have liberal arts majors in technology. In fact, it may very well be critical for finding success with AI. In their book “The Future Computed”, Microsoft president Brad Smith and EVP of AI and research Harry Shum wrote:
“At one level, AI will require that even more people specialize in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering, and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.”
Needless to say there is a need, and a growing demand, for software developers with liberal arts backgrounds. That’s not to say that the more traditional developers are not in demand, because they are. But in order to truly innovate it is important to have a diverse technology team.