Do Tech Firms Want Liberal-Arts Majors?

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Not too long ago, a Forbes writer declared that a liberal arts degree had “become tech’s hottest ticket.” At “disruptive juggernauts” such as Facebook and Uber, George Anders wrote, “the war for talent” had moved into non-technical realms such as marketing and sales. The reason: “The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers—and make progress seem pleasant.”

While there’s undoubtedly some truth to Anders’s thesis, technology recruiters and executives aren’t seeing any less demand for strong technical skills in a wide variety of roles, from software engineers who are expected to hold computer science degrees and have a keen grasp of programming fundamentals, to project managers and business analysts who need tech experience in order to collaborate effectively.

“There are lots of people in the industry who’ve come in without a computer science degree, but I don’t see them being actively targeted” by employers, said Ben Hicks, a partner in the Software Technology Search division of recruiter WinterWyman in Waltham, Mass. “Companies are still focusing on fundamentals.”

Hicks “hears the opposite” when it comes to the idea of liberal arts degrees gaining significance within technology firms. “Companies are talking about the importance of computer science degrees,” he said. “While it depends on the capacity a person’s being hired for, I’m not seeing this in engineering and similar roles.”

This is a different dynamic than in earlier tech booms. “In previous booms, companies had to be flexible. They had to move fast and get as much investor money as they could get,” he explained. “This time, there’s a limit to (available) talent but companies aren’t willing to lower their standards. Candidates have to be able to do certain things.”

The Need to Understand Technology

To be clear, Forbes doesn’t suggest that IT employers have begun mixing liberal-arts graduates into their technical teams. The article talks more about those graduates ending up in supporting roles such as sales and marketing, or else becoming intermediaries who translate the customer’s product requirements into engineering solutions.

Even in those roles, though, employers generally want a strong technical background. “When I look at my project managers, they have a very good technical acumen,” said Aiden Colie, senior vice president and global head of operations for Experian Marketing Services in New York. “They’re not actually working at the data center, for example, but they have to understand all of the tech ramifications of what the tech people are saying. I don’t know that you could be in that role without a solid technical understanding.”

As technology has evolved, Hicks added, he’s seen growth in such intermediary roles, where people “define what a product is and drive it through engineering.” More than ever before, there’s a greater emphasis on product management.

“There will certainly be a need for people who can translate users for the tech professionals,” Colie agreed. Product managers, functional managers and business managers “are still very important,” especially when it comes to showing internal technical people how their work aligns with business strategy.

Then There Are Soft Skills…

There is one non-technical characteristic that’s growing in importance, according to Hicks, and that’s soft skills. “Years ago, the idea of the awkward Internet engineer was acceptable,” he noted. “Now, companies want candidates who can present, who can go to meetings. Lots of companies value that well-rounded person with the computer science degree who can interact with customers.”

While pedigree remains important (in other words, going to a top school still counts), Hicks believes that some companies are putting more emphasis on drawing in professionals with computer-science degrees from liberal arts schools—in order to pull in people who are more well-rounded. “That’s not a big trend,” he said. “But the thread is there.”

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