The future of humanity is inextricably linked to technological advances. From the first humans using tools to hunt, defend, and shelter themselves, to the current iteration of connected human civilization, which relies largely on the internet and computers to function, it seems that our very existence as a species is only fated to become even more dependent on complicated tools and technology as time goes on.
Perhaps this is why Mother Jones has posited that coding is the new literacy, and why the Obama Administration has focused so heavily on STEM education in schools as an initiative. While this is great–we do need more people who understand the sciences–these initiatives may have unforeseen consequences.
In the UK, for example, worry that exclusion of music, drama, and art from the list of state-compulsory school subjects, in favor of STEM-related courses, might leave the education system a “cultural desert”.
As odd an idea as it may sound at first, this could be disastrous for the business world. It was Steve Jobs, after all, who famously stated that Apple’s success is married with artistry. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said in 2011 when introducing the iPad 2.
“It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” Even further back, while giving Stanford’s commencement address for the graduating class of 2005, Jobs recounts his decision to drop out of Reed College, while still auditing a typography class:
“Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class… I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.
If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”
This type of attention to artistry not only informed the Macintosh build, but still shines through in the sleek design and intuitive interface that’s come to define Apple products–proof that the business world badly needs those with arts educations to keep its offerings innovative.
When Jobs talks about his typography class as being devoid of much practical application, he’s touching upon a common conundrum concerning today’s collegiate offerings. When asking themselves, “what’s the point of college?”, many prospective students look for a utilitarian answer.
To get a degree in a specific career field, to stand a better chance at getting hired for a (any) job, to get paid more from a current job, to learn a technical skill or trade; these are all the answers that somebody might produce when asking what the “return on investment” for college is.
When that investment, the cost of attending college, is approximately $20,000 per year in borrowed money, ROI becomes pretty important to those matriculating–and we all know that the money isn’t in the arts and humanities.
Architecture & engineering majors offer the safest “return” with graduates earning a median annual salary of $50,000 within the first three years after graduating, while computer science, health, and business majors can expect to earn a median annual salary of between $37,000 to $43,000 in that same amount of time.
Not surprisingly, these are also the most popular majors. This shift in attention isn’t escaping the business world, where soft skills, adaptability, and outside-of-the-box thinking are essential to progress–perhaps now so more than ever.
Forbes ran a story last year that focused on tech startup Slack Technologies, which employs account managers like Rachel Lee, who graduated with a degree in Communications, as well as people like Anna Pickard, a theatre major who graduated from Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University.
Who hires a thwarted actress and a communications major for a job at business-to-business software startup, the article asks? Stewart Butterfield, that’s who. Butterfield received his undergraduate in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victory, and his master’s in philosophy and the history of science from Cambridge.
“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”
In an article with FastCompany, Steve Yi, CEO of web advertising platform MediaAlpha, also speaks on truth and ambiguity when explaining why tech CEOs want employees with liberal arts degrees:
“In the dynamic environment of the technology sector, there is not typically one right answer when you make decisions,” he says. “There are just different shades of how correct you might be… When I collaborate with people who have a strictly technical background,” says Yi, “the perspective I find most lacking is an understanding of what motivates people and how to balance multiple factors that are at work outside the realm of technology.”
This “understanding of people” and “balance of factors” is actually much more important than most realize. Brandon Quan, a student who co-ops with software company Appnovation, mentions in an article on the company’s website that his English major has shaped his approach to quality assurance by teaching him to clarify requirements, pay attention to detail and ask questions beyond the scope of the project immediately in front of him.
How will this feature work to perform this function for the user? What behavior and web elements are required to make it fulfill its role? How does it fit within the whole context of the website? These are the types of questions he asks as he tries to imagine himself in the head of the user–much like he’d imagine himself in the head of an author one moment, and a reader the next while analyzing text.
Adaptable and versatile employees like Quan are the cream of the crop, because soft skills that go beyond technology are just as important as hard skills. In fact, new research has shown that people with balanced strengths in social and math skills actually earn about 10% more than those who are only strong in one or the other.
Remember: Hard skills can be taught
Even Google is playing a part in keeping the STEM-only trend in check. Google clearly wants to give priority to content that is written with a certain level of quality and expertise, which provides the perfect example of why soft skills like writing and communication are so valuable; you could have the best product in the whole world, but nobody will ever know it if you can’t purvey why.
Effective communication skills such as knowledge of what drives people or the ability to construct an argument–these things are a lot harder to effectively teach than, say, what a program like Slack is capable of and how to configure its features, or even certain elements of coding.
The soft skills vs. hard skills debate has been getting a lot of attention lately, partially because of the educational zeitgeist focusing so much on utility and hard skills anymore. With the advent of the internet and the STEM the push, almost any hard skill can be learned online–but soft skills are a lot harder to teach.
That’s why Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield hires people like Rachel Lee and Anna Pickard. The software can be taught, but how to sell it correctly? That takes a special kind of person with a different set of skills.
The best thing to remember is that employees with soft skills inherent are generally going to be better equipped to do whatever job they set out to do. They generally understand the principles of good leadership, such as listening, and looking at failure and mistakes as learning opportunities, so they’re pretty good at staying motivated and and productive. These are the things that take a lot of time teach to somebody without soft skills, because life generally the teacher of thm.
Managers do need to remember that, regardless of whether or not it’s difficult, employee mentoring should consist of teaching/strengthening soft skills, and that sometimes just leading by example will effectively communicate your ethics, values, standards, and procedures.
Of course, it takes an employee that already has some semblance of soft skill to receive them, and a manager who understands soft skills to deliver them effectively. Not surprising, considering about one-third of all Fortune 500 CEOs have a degree in the liberal arts.
Flexible and adaptable for the win
At the end of the day, the changing economy values those who are critical thinkers and who are flexible and adaptable. Automation is becoming so effective that many of the hard skills people learn will become outdated. Those that will last are going to be those that can innovate and figure out how to be effective beyond that one highly specialized thing that they did.
Those with education in the Liberal Arts are generally more adaptable and prepared for this type of challenge, having studied many different fields to begin with. I’ll end with a quote from business guru Seth Godin:
“The competitive advantages the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion. All of these attributes are choices, not talents, and all of them are available to you.”