Overcoming the STEM Stereotype

Posted in Startups, Work

In other contrarian news…

I came across this article today that purports that liberal arts majors are needed at today’s hottest tech startups, even moreso than engineers and other technical folk. As it turns out, software companies still need supporters and salespeople and copywriters. When software interfaces with real, actual humans, there is an opportunity for those who can communicate and relate with regular users.

The argument on its face isn’t that persuasive; the author cherry-picks his data points and cites raw numbers without going into any details into what they represent. For instance, he points out that Facebook has more job listings for salespeople than engineers, but does not mention the actual number of positions open per listing. As the vast majority of software engineering job listings are looking for more than a single hire to fill that role, the former statistic of open job requirements does not reflect the actual demand for that position1.

That said, it is very true that technology needs more than solid engineering to succeed. The algorithmic prowess of a social news feed or the cold truth of a mechanical error message don’t really convey the whimsy and humanity that users want out of their apps and services. Even when admiring small touches in the UI that delight, they’re inevitably the result of people, people whose job it is to make technology approachable.

My takeaway – as someone with a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science – is that communicative engineers and technical salespeople are valuable. Instead of succumbing to stereotypes, when each side can communicate concisely and effectively with the other, it effectively reduces the amount of wasted work.

That’s not to say that everybody has to become fluent in everything; the overextended generalist would only be mired in mediocrity. Specialization – in coding, writing, sales, community building – is still the expertise that companies need, but I’m advocating basic fluency in areas outside of that core competency. Engineers can write funny error messages; supporters can explain why certain browsers are unspported; community managers can debug a user’s configuration from the admin tool.

Of course, having programmers write marketing copy may not be ideal. Even then, having an engineer who can talk in the language of the copywriter – and vice versa – makes for easier collaboration. Folks become naturally more tolerant of others’ perceived mistakes. As it turns out, knowing even a little bit of what makes someone else’s job hard is a huge step in becoming more empathetic.

Imagine a world where engineers can have people skills.

  1. Either that, or Facebook is truly running contrarian to every other tech company in the valley.