History, art, English, humanities: these are the backgrounds of about half of the people I’ve worked with at Etsy and Slack.
My colleagues have been creators, analytical thinkers and researchers. They examine complex problems and find new solutions, taking products to a whole new level. Even Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack, was a philosophy student who aspired to one day become a teacher.
But something has changed. Only 5% of college graduates earned liberal arts degrees in 2018, according to PBS. The reason is clear: young people want a degree that will lead to a well-paying job, and nowadays everyone tells them that it is impossible to earn money or build a future with a degree in liberal arts.
It’s a shame too, because many of us have done it. We make the tech industry so much richer, and so can you.
How to Connect Your Non-STEM Experience to a Tech Job
- Search for new knowledge.
- Work with smart people.
- Align on quality.
- Defend yourself.
- Find allies.
My Liberal Arts to Tech Pivot
I arrived in New York in September 2008, fresh out of an honors degree from Wesleyan University. I majored in English Literature and, like Stewart, I was sure I was destined to become a teacher. Knowing that life as a teacher had its own drawbacks, I turned to publishing and media companies for my first real job outside of school.
The Great Recession was in full swing and entry-level paid jobs were becoming unpaid internships. I landed one of those illustrious little flyer jobs where I was tasked with finding New York’s best nightlife and writing regular listings. I worked in a cafe in Cobble Hill to pay the bills.
In November, writers at Slate and Condé Nast covered their morning coffees with unemployment cards and joked that they’d be happy to take my job. The economic fallout accelerated huge changes in the publishing industry, and my tentative plan was no longer viable. I spent the next year applying to graduate programs and throwing lattes – completely unsure of what the future held for me.
Then a dear friend suggested I apply for a job at Etsy, a small tech company full of creatives with full-time perks.
From Barista to Product Manager
I was Etsy’s 120th employee. We were a small team – roughly half customer support and half engineering – working to scale a website and business that was rapidly outgrowing our existing systems. As a Customer Service Representative, I dealt with all parts of the business that didn’t yet have a software solution: legal, billing, policy enforcement, and even closing accounts. I knew how to serve customers from my restaurant days, but instead of managing tables, I was now filling an endless queue of emails and chats, helping people manage software I didn’t understand. completely.
I’ve always been deeply uncomfortable in situations where I don’t understand what’s going on around me, and I’m unreasonably confident in my ability to learn even the most complex things. So I started taking computer classes online, listened to books on business, design and statistics on my walks, talked with engineers and designers, and started building a mind map of how everything around me was actually working.
It became clear to me that there was one job in particular that matched both my skills and interests: product management. Product managers conduct in-depth research, bring ideas together into a cohesive narrative, and influence those around them to see the same path forward. Through my years of writing essays and research papers, these are things I was particularly good at.
As my career progressed, I found a second love: research and machine learning. This too was deeply connected to my university years. I’ve always been fascinated by how language works (and doesn’t work) to communicate, translate meaning and develop new ideas. Creating a good research product relies on solving all the same linguistic and semiotic challenges, but on a much larger scale.
It was this last skill that helped me transition into my first role at Slack as a Product Manager for Search and Machine Learning.
Tech Needs More Than STEM Majors
The tech industry requires many skills that STEM fields teach us: analytical thinking, quantitative reasoning, attention to detail, and the drive to find clear, repeatable answers. But it also requires people who are fascinated by How? ‘Or’ What we look at the world and Why we see it that way.
Liberal arts students learn to approach issues from many different angles, whether it be a sociological perspective, a historical perspective, or a more nebulous human perspective. By considering these different lenses, you get a much more complete understanding of an issue and can find solutions that take into account the diverse needs of all of your constituents. The tech industry benefits from including people from all walks of life, education and work, so look at what you already know and consider stepping in the door with a role first. non-technical.
If you’re looking for a bigger change than just changing your workplace, consider finding a role that leverages topics in which you already have considerable expertise. Technology exists to solve challenges, and challenges exist in every conceivable field. Whether it’s community management, education, health or marketing, you probably understand a specific topic around which someone, somewhere is trying to build a technical solution.
They would be happy to meet you. Find a company you admire, show them what you have to offer, and then get serious about the technical side of things.
Build a tech career that lights you up
In order to make that first tech gig a successful career, here are my top tips:
- Search for new knowledge. Become friends with people who know what you don’t know, learn the language, take classes. Lean into things that seem alien to you so you can speak intelligently about the work of your business.
- Work with smart people. Look for teams smarter than you and work with the people you have the most to learn from. If you ever feel like the smartest person in the room early in your career, find a new room to settle into.
- Align on the quality of your product and the quality of your business results. Your career, if you do it right, will be defined by the quality of the products you ship.
- Defend yourself. Get really comfortable standing up for yourself and the career you want to build. You can’t run for your team if you don’t have the resources you need.
- Find allies. As a software developer, the work you do will require the help or approval of almost every other team at some point, whether it’s legal or client experience. The sooner you get their input, the smoother the development process will be. A great by-product of demonstrating that you understand the value of people is that they also appreciate you, and they will be on your side as you build your career.
Just like in 2008, when the economy suddenly bottomed out, the pandemic has upended our priorities. Many people change jobs and career paths, and “non-specialized” people consider a career in technology.
Forbes recently shared my own story and those of others women who have succeeded and happily pivoted into careers in technology. I celebrate that. I’m definitely technical now, although I still don’t write code, and I’ve seen how this diversity of thought helps advance the tech industry.
That’s all to say: if turn-of-the-century literature fascinates you and you want to spend your college years doing in-depth research and writing essays, do it! You will find your way – even if it is completely unpredictable for you now.