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Liberal arts backgrounds have value in technology beyond sales

There is rather a good article currently doing the rounds: That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket. It is good that we are finally moving beyond ridiculous “do STEM or you are failure” kind of nonsense in tech, but the article seems to suggest that with the exception of Slack, the primary use case for arts and humanities backgrounds is to have cultured salesmen (and women) to go impress clients who value things beyond algorithms and so on.

There are a whole lot of people with liberal arts backgrounds in tech. A while back, I was at a meeting of Semantic Web technologists and we realised that all of us sitting round a table had degrees in philosophy, with some also having joint majors in sociology or theology or anthropology. I know developers and designers with backgrounds in languages, in non-computer engineering, in music, in publishing, in media or theatre, and much else besides.

Technologists with backgrounds in the arts and humanities bring enormous amount of value. We want to build products and experiences that chime with humans. Understanding human cultures—how humans think, what humans value, believe in, care about—what matters to humans is something that arts and humanities education emphasises. It’s in the damn name.

Technical culture—Silicon Valley culture especially—likes to make it seem like programming is super difficult, and paint this picture of engineers as heroes. It all contributes to this very flawed Two Cultures model: that people with training in the humanities are incapable of understanding technical matters, and that those with technical backgrounds are completely anti-social and uncomfortable at a gallery drinks reception. Both can be taught and both can be learned.

I want a world where every engineer knows the value and importance of knowledge that falls outside of science, and where every non-technical person grasps the basics of algorithmic thinking. Creative problem-solving people should be enabled rather than limited by their training.