You spent your college days reading Tolstoy, cranking out essays by the dozen, and writing poetry in your spare time. Now you feel as though the dot-com boom has left you and your Russian literature degree out in the cold.
But Silicon Valley needs more than code warriors: it needs people to explain its creations to the general public. For every new piece of software created, someone has to announce it to the press, create sales brochures, generate a manual, or write about why it's better than the competition's.
Not just tech manuals
Needless to say, there is a huge demand for technical manuals. Contrary to popular belief, most of these are not written by engineers. Professional writers, many of whom have liberal arts backgrounds, create them. In fact, the general school of thought is that it is better for engineers not to create them.
"I think the way people consume and absorb and understand information is not necessarily the way an engineer goes about designing and producing a product," said Nola Armijo, the CEO of JONA Group, a San Francisco public relations firm catering to high-tech clients. If engineers do the publicity, she said, "the reader is likely to be confused."
"It takes an engineer to say, 'Here's how it works.' But it takes a very good writer to get the point across."
Where the jobs are
The IT industry presents plenty of opportunities for liberal arts graduates, particularly on the content side. Three of the biggest areas are as follows:
- Technical trade publications. The world has more tech trades than any other type of trade magazine. Besides the general-interest trades, there are specialized publications for almost every segment of the technology industry.
- Public relations firms. A growing number of PR firms specialize in high-tech clients. They need people to create press releases, press kits, product data sheets, and all of the other material that high-tech firms use to sell their wares.
- High-tech companies. Companies that create software and hardware to drive the IT world are staffed largely by techies. Those employees may be able to create the most ingenious piece of technology in the world, but most of them do not have the time or the inclination to write text meant for public consumption.
The liberal arts major can find a place in the IT world. And the big bucks aren't reserved for the engineers, either. According to Armijo, the high-tech PR business is booming as more companies move into the marketplace and new technology is created. As demand goes up, so do salaries. "I think the lowest is probably $35,000 to $40,000 for an account coordinator," said Armijo, and "anywhere up to $200,000 or $250,000 if you're a partner in the firm." Communication is essential, and the IT community is willing to pay for it.
Michelle Netten, a content manager at Secure Computing, a Silicon Valley provider of e-business security products, received her undergrad degree in liberal studies and a master's in English with an emphasis in creative writing. The world is full of people with such degrees who become waiters and waitresses, gas station jockeys, and telephone solicitors, but it needn't be that way.
"My theory is, in the years I've been in business, there are an amazing number of people who are uncomfortable with writing and sometimes communication in general. People just do not like to document things. And for us writers, whether it's creative writing or otherwise, we feel comfortable doing that. For those who are talented, willing, and able, there's more than enough writing that needs to be done in the industry."
You might not make your fortune writing short stories for the New Yorker -- in fact, chances are pretty good you won't. But high-tech is one area where someone with a liberal arts background can shine. "There's such a need for people who can interpret," concludes Armijo. A company's success often hinges not just on its technology, but on how it is able to communicate that technology to the world. Without a contingent of wordsmiths, spin-doctors, and communicators, even the most innovative and useful technology in the world is doomed to end up in the high-tech scrap heap.