Dear Liberal Arts Major: STEM Companies Need Your Skills to Grow

Jobs & Careers

Dear Liberal Arts Major: STEM Companies Need Your Skills to Grow

By Benjamin Pimentel     Feb 25, 2019

Dear Liberal Arts Major: STEM Companies Need Your Skills to Grow

Jennifer Wolochow majored in philosophy and religion at Stanford, hoping to become a high school teacher.

“I just really enjoyed learning about why people believe different things around the world and how that informs their actions everyday,” she said.

But instead of a classroom, Wolochow now works on the Silicon Valley campus of a company that’s using technology to make learning more accessible to people throughout the world.

Her career journey, which led her to Coursera, a startup that develops online courses and educational programs, highlights a trend that has become more pronounced in the last few years. More companies in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—or STEM—fields are hiring workers with liberal arts backgrounds, according to a recent report.

The trend, at one level, underscores how more opportunities have opened up for liberal arts majors for whom it is now easier to acquire new skills to land a job in tech.

“These days, programming languages are accessible enough for pretty much anybody willing to do the work,” said Roger Kay, a longtime technology industry analyst.

That was the case with Robert Dawson. After earning a degree in graphic design at Memphis College of Art, he subsequently learned new skills that led to his current position as the lead front-end developer at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

“I attended art school for graphic design, discovered web design, and never looked back,” he said.

Some knowledge of programming helped Wolochow adjust to her current role as a product manager at Coursera where she routinely works with computer engineers and web developers.

“I can understand the concepts of what they’re talking about even though I can’t create a web page the way they do,” she said.

Aptitude for Growth

To be sure, there are many STEM industry roles that can only be filled by people with highly-specialized knowledge, said Victor Wong, who has managed partnerships at tech companies like Square and NerdWallet. For more complex computer engineering challenges, for example, “you want someone with deep engineering chops” and not necessarily someone who took a six-month boot camp, he noted.

And for a person with a liberal arts background, joining a world dominated by engineers and scientists can be challenging. Wong said he wrestled with “not knowing how to speak the language right away,” adding that it took time for him to get the jargon, such as “user experience” or “development sprint.”

“It was like being in a foreign country, at first,” Wong said. “But that’s true of any job. You adapt by immersing in the organization.”

That was the experience of an executive assistant hired recently by Chandrakant Patel, chief engineer at Hewlett-Packard. Although she majored in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Patel said, his assistant managed to learn new technical areas and leadership skills to become a program manager. What is important in this approach, he stressed, is to “hire someone with a non-tech degree, but with the aptitude to grow.”

Liberal Arts Can Be the Key to Scaling

In fact, at many STEM companies, employees with liberal arts backgrounds are now also considered keys to growth. That was true for Wong of Square.

A sociology degree from Harvard led to a number of local government and nonprofit jobs in New York after graduation. Then four years ago, he moved west to San Francisco where his background drew the attention of tech startups that were looking to develop ways of working and collaborating with government agencies, nonprofits, and community organizations. Wong worked at several fintech firms before joining the mobile payments company.

“Sociology and my understanding of how organizations work help me understand how to quickly build relationships,” he said.

Jess Aragon majored in communications at St. Mary’s College of California which, she said, definitely helped prepare her for a career in tech. She works as a school partnerships manager at Remind, a mobile messaging platform for K-12 teachers, students, administrators and parents.

“I was constantly studying how people communicate, what they communicate, and why they communicate the way they do and what happens as a result,” she said. “I everything I studied in college allowed me to open my mind to new ways of communication for the real world.”

Wolochow’s background, which includes a stint with Teach for America, made her a good fit for Coursera where she has helped understand more clearly the needs of teachers and students who use the startup’s products.

“I was an educator so I understand where they are coming from,” she said. “I can put myself in their shoes so we can create products that actually work for users.”

In fact, hiring people who understand and can relate to people and communities that use their products has become an important goal for many STEM companies.

Patel of HP cited the push to develop products geared to the elderly. “I want engineers building technical solutions to be technically multi-disciplinary and also exhibit socio-economic understanding to provide the experiences that address the challenges of aging,” he said.

In some cases, new products and technologies lead to disagreements over ethical or safety issues. Wolochow cited the debates on the use of Artificial Intelligence, or AI, and the driverless car.

“It’s so important that we have people who are thinking about the ethical implications of the technology we’re building today,” she said. “It’s important that it’s not only people trained in engineering that are making these decisions.”

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