Making A Case For Humanities Majors To Work In Tech

Oggl_0005(2)At several times over the last 10 years, I’ve seriously considered taking online courses in coding and programming. It happened for the first time when the economy took a nosedive in 2008. The notion struck again as Nokia starting shedding enough jobs to fill a few professional basketball arenas. I felt it in 2012 while on board a flight from New York to San Francisco to announce to my team that Microsoft had purchased Nokia, a flight on which I sat next to a University of Waterloo senior with a computer science major and 19 job offers, all with salaries in excess of $100,000. I still raise an eyebrow whenever I consider how many tech jobs go unfilled because of skilled labor shortages.

Over the last two years, that curiosity has cooled. While programming and coding remain crucial and lucrative, my job as head of marketing and communications for a tech startup requires me to improve my existing skills and acquire related ones. It’s in that role that I’ve recently reimagined the core building blocks I bring to my job every day in ways engineering-driven cultures may be able to appreciate. I also think it’s instructive for young people who are still in school and pondering their options.

Effective marketing and communications, the kind that creates shared understanding, that instructs, persuades, clarifies, and answers questions, has a lot in common with programming and coding.

After all, programming is syntax. Coding gives programming its vocabulary, the words and symbols programs use to convey their instructions.  Marketing/communication and coding/programming require purpose as well as organization and the ability to assemble in a way that follows well-established rules. To me, both are language.

In addition, they are not like learning to swim or ride a bike. For the same reason that those who’ve learned a second tongue must use it or lose it, programming and speaking and writing effectively also require constant work. Excellence requires a commitment that most people cannot possibly fulfill if they only ply their craft between 9 and 5. Doing both well is hard.

Their value to the tech industry is equal. Imagine that the CEO of a software company needs her engineering team to crank out a new feature for a top customer. Not wanting that feature to go unused or misunderstood, the CEO also visits her product marketing team to ensure that the company has a go-to-market plan.

The new feature’s success depends on both programming and communication. Even if the feature works well and is designed to be simple to use, customers need to know the feature exists, not to mention why it exists. They need guidance on how to use it. They require a feedback channel should they encounter problems.

If customers encounter problems with the software, the CEO would require a timely response, one that accepts responsibility, promises a resolution, and engenders confidence. That isn’t easy. Done poorly, it can exacerbate the software’s problem in the first place.

For all these reasons, I put what my marketing and communications team does along side what programmers do. I don’t fault people who might disagree. After all, virtually everyone we encounter in our professional circles can speak and write, whereas very few of them know how to program or code.

On the other hand, relatively few can speak and write crisply or develop a point of view and get it across persuasively.

We’re about a month away from the start of the 2016-17 school year. Kids will head off to college with a question: what should I study, the subject I’ll enjoy and in which I can excel and monetize later in life? Headlines despairing in the shortage of skill tech workers make computer science a tempting option. We do need more computer science majors, but that path isn’t for everyone any more than pre-med, fine arts or vocational programs are.

The tech world also needs storytellers. A humanities major who can demonstrate rigorous and accomplished undergraduate preparation in writing and reading is every bit as important to the tech organization as a programmer.


  1. Equally if not more important, IMO, is the need for the ability to capture the diverse stories of those who will use the product and synthesize something that meets those various needs. Building something requires a skill set, but so does defining what to build.

    The wrong thing, perfectly executed, is still wrong.


    1. Couldn’t agree more, Gene. The stories, if authentic and plausible, can validate the investment in the product in the first place. Put another way, if you can’t craft the story, you should question the whole investment. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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