Why liberal arts degrees are valuable in tech

Think having a STEM degree is the only way to succeed in technology industry? Think again.

graduation cap, degree scroll and books
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In a technology-driven, increasingly digital world, you might think you need a computer science, engineering, technology, mathematics or other degree to succeed. Turns out that's far from the truth.

Arijit Sengupta, CEO of advanced analytics firm BeyondCore, holds a bachelor of science in computer science and a bachelor of arts in economics and fell one class short of having a minor in dance. He brings elements of all three to his daily work with BeyondCore, and some of the most valuable lessons he's learned have come from his liberal arts education and his dance training, he says.

Data dance

"In dance, if you have to take your partner from your left to your right in a certain direction, you have to think about their movement, their motion and their direction. Do you want to block the person's trajectory, and then force them to go to the other way? No! The easiest way to manage a maneuver is to guide the other person's momentum around and reorient yourself to what they're doing. That turns it into a real shared experience," he says.

That analogy is one that has informed the three major design principles of BeyondCore's product, Sengupta says. One of which is that the user should always be guided to what's important in the data while expending minimal effort -- the product should be intuitive based on the ways the user interacts with it.

That principle also has informed the way Sengupta manages and trains his teams. Instead of adopting a strict hierarchy and a command-and-control methodology, Sengupta says he believes in trusting his team members to know when, how and why to make certain decisions about the product, features, direction and even how they can do their best work.

"One of the finest moments of my career happened in a new feature design meeting. I mean, I'm the CEO, right? I went in feeling very proud of the things I was going to present, until this very new, very junior employee stood up to me and said, 'We can't adopt that. It violates the design principles we agreed upon.' And I realized he was exactly right and we needed to do the 'dance' a different way. This is a prime example of guiding rather than instructing."

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Multiple lessons

Yahoo research scientist Amanda Stent has multiple degrees; one in mathematics and the other in music. From that course of study, Stent says, she's learned lessons that have been invaluable in her career.

"Obviously, as a research scientist, the math degree is critical, but the music major gave me experience performing in public and a lot of experience in practicing until you get something right -- that's really critical for research," Stent says.

Degrees grounded in the arts rather than the sciences have just as much value when applied to a career in technology, and impart valuable problem-solving, communication and critical-thinking skills that are incredibly important and very much in demand from employers, says Matt Brosseau, director of Information Technology, Instant Alliance, a recruiting, staffing and consulting firm based in Chicago.

Technology pros who also have the ability to communicate effectively, negotiate conflict, work well in teams and are adaptable to the ever-changing needs of a dynamic market are much more valuable to their organizations, especially at the managerial and executive level, according to Brosseau.

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"I would argue that soft skills, like communication, empathy, teamwork and negotiation are almost more important than technical skills, especially in leadership or executive roles. Technologists who have these soft skills are better able to understand and accurately convey the business value of IT projects to other, non-technical stakeholders, get their buy-in and support and deliver more successful projects," Brosseau says.

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The soft skills advantage

There's a direct relationship between soft skills and workers' effectiveness, and greater effectiveness on the job translates to better overall business results, says Kevin King, founder and CEO of Transformation Point, a management consulting and assessment firm, in a recent webcast for Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).

"A higher degree of soft-skills competency brings improved effectiveness and improved organizational results, and that in turn drives greater employee engagement and retention," says King, two top priorities for businesses today, according to the State of the American Workplace survey from Gallup.

"When people work more efficiently and effectively together, that means their organizations see better results and they're more likely to stay," King says.

But even as engagement and retention become more important, the soft skills that can help increase those metrics become harder to find. SHRM's 2014 survey of economic conditions and recruiting skills gaps found that the 2,583 respondents cited critical thinking/problem-solving (40 percent), professionalism/work ethic (38 percent), leadership (34 percent) and written communications (27 percent) as the top four applied skills gaps.

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Experts agree that technical skills can be taught much more easily than soft skills. If you have workers with great communication, negotiation and interpersonal skills, hold onto them. "You can have the best technology and processes in the world, but if your people aren't able to communicate about them, if they aren't effectively demonstrating teamwork, critical thinking and emotional intelligence, it doesn't help your business succeed," King says.

Educating the next generation

Those kinds of skills always have been emphasized in liberal arts education, and nowadays even technology-focused programs and institutions are integrating these tenets into their curriculum, says PK Agarwal, CEO and regional Dean, Northeastern University Silicon Valley (NUSV).

"Recently the educational sphere realizes that the future of the U.S. digital economy is not in creating more programmers, but well-rounded individuals who can think strategically and perform more complex cognitive tasks. The regular, day-to-day coding will be done in areas like India, China, eastern Europe, but the bigger picture stuff, what we call 'design thinking' is what's really necessary," Agarwal says.

The concept of "design thinking" is a new name for creative problem solving -- and that's at the heart of all technology innovation and new developments, Agarwal says.

"Computer science is mainly focused on problem solving, creating efficiencies and allowing mundane, repetitive tasks to be performed by machines. There are elements of math and statistics and engineering, for sure, but you need people who use their left brain and right brain thinking to pull everything together," Agarwal says.

To that end, institutions like Agarwal's NUSV are focused on developing well-rounded individuals with diverse backgrounds that can excel in technology while integrating other elements from varied other disciplines, he says. While NESV still offers majors and concentrations within different colleges -- of business, law, computing -- the graduating classes will have a broad foundation of knowledge and a deep specialization in one area, he says.

"We don't want to create factory workers, we want to develop students and graduates who can go out and apply the full depth and breadth of knowledge to solving critical problems in society. That means we're trying to fundamentally restructure how we educate future generations," Agarwal says.

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This story, "Why liberal arts degrees are valuable in tech" was originally published by CIO.

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