Over the last decade or so, there has been a conscious push of young students towards STEM subjects. This push for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects has seen the producers of Sesame Street introduce components of these subjects into their programming. The substantial success of tech companies has also encouraged parents to push their children to learn about physics, coding and engineering.
What some might fail to appreciate though is there is also a need for art and humanities graduates in these tech companies. In fact in some cases, they are as integral as the science graduates are. For instance Vidyard, one of Canada’s biggest ad tech startups, hires more humanities graduates than STEM graduates. According to Michael Litt, the company’s CEO, engineering students account for only 25% of their workforce. This is no accident. In fact to let him tell it, the really irreplaceable jobs of the present and the future are those that combine the arts and sciences. This is certainly the case for Kristin Peterson. She currently works as the speechwriter for the Executive Vice President (EVP) of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Research Division at Microsoft, despite getting her Bachelor’s degree in French Literature. Emma Williams, the general manager of Bing Studios in Microsoft is another example. Despite getting her PhD in Scandinavian Mythology, she currently handles duties such as developing smarter AI and search language.
The Appeal of Art Majors
While tech businesses are currently booming, many of the jobs waiting to be filled require broader skill sets than just engineering and technical training. Without STEM expertise, tech companies wouldn’t have tech products and services to sell. But without the sales team, these products and services can’t be marketed and sold. You need sales teams because they understand human interactions and motivations. You need marketing teams because they understand what excites people. You also need HR people because they know how to foster a sense of community in the workplace. Without arts and humanities graduates, tech companies would only have the nuts and bolts in place.
There is also an adaptability that art and humanities graduates bring to the table. According to Litt, his employees with art backgrounds regularly show a hunger for learning new skills and trying new things. It seems regardless of background, the most useful thing for employees to have is a willingness to learn. This willingness to learn could even help bring fresh perspective to handling tasks. Take the aforementioned Peterson. As the speechwriter for the EVP of Microsoft’s AI and Research Division, she needs to be familiar with the language of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Her job calls for critical thinking, analytical ability and good writing. It’s a good thing that she developed these skills when learning French in school. So even though her prior lack of coding knowledge might have seemed like a disadvantage, the skills she possessed gave her a new advantage.
In general, arts and humanities tend to train students how to thrive in subjectivity. According to Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, this can be thought of as an advantage. After all, there are few things in the tech world that can be thought of as completely objective or black and white. The technology sector tends to have an environment too dynamic for that. Yi should know as he earned his East Asian Studies degree from Harvard. Going from an Asian literature class to an Asian politics class taught him how to see issues from different perspectives.
Tech CEOs can generally see the value in hiring arts and humanities graduates, partly because a good number of them have similar backgrounds. In fact, a third of all Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t still a challenge for some arts graduates. Generally speaking, top executives are not in charge of hiring entry level staff. HR managers and recruiters tend to scrutinise resumes and applications based on the inclusion and exclusion of key words like “coding” and “programming”. This means that for a good number of arts and humanities students, just getting their foot in the door can be a complicated process. But if the considerable success of former arts and humanities students in these companies continues in the same vein, then this is likely to change.
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