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Why humanity grads make the best technology leaders

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'Technologists and engineers focus on features. In contrast, humanities majors focus on people and how they interact with technology.'

Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson recently got into some hot water over apparent misstatements in his official bio that added a bachelor's degree in computer science to his accounting degree. It's not clear if the erroneous credential was a mistake, but if it was intentional, Thompson may have been feeling the pressure to show technical acumen.

But is technical background really essential to lead or work in the tech industry? Tech entrepreneur and educator Vivek Wadhwa, for one, recently wrote that "Silicon Valley needs humanities students." It's time to take on the prevailing conventional wisdom that tech companies need to be run and staffed by tech grads, he advocates.

Could, say, a philosophy major help run a tech company? Wadhwa points to the example of Damon Horowitz, a philosopher and serial entrepreneur who co-founded Aardvark, which sold to Google for $50 million, and is presently the in-house philosopher and director of engineering at Google.

Wadhwa also references his 2008 survey of 652 CEOs and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. While they tended to be highly educated, only 37% held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, arts, and the humanities. A college degree is good to have, but it really doesn't matter what field it's in, Wadhwa says:

"I believe humanity majors make the best project managers, the best product managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders. The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology."

A history major, for example, "may more readily understand how ease of use and design can make the difference between an interesting historical footnote and a world-changing technology. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people or to understand what users want."

Aaron Shapiro, writing in Mashable, notes that the world is awash in tech opportunities, and provides some tips on how non-tech types can get a tech  job:

Learn how the Web works: "There’s no need to be an expert coder, unless you’re an aspiring engineer, but you should know enough about technology to make informed business decisions about it... The first thing anyone should do is learn HTML and maybe even some JavaScript. Codecademy and W3Schools are two great places to start. Or pick up a newbie book from Amazon."

Start with a digital job in your current company: "Many non-tech companies are desperate for help building an effective presence on the web... This way, you can show up for your first interview at that desirable tech firm with a success story behind you.

Knock on the door of a disrupter: "One of the easiest ways to get into tech is to go after a job at a startup that’s looking to disrupt the industry in which you’ve spent your career."

Position yourself as an innovator: "Working for a scrappy disruptor or the digital department of your current company will surely give you the chance to be a pioneer.

Accept that you’re not as "senior" as you think you are: "Individuals switching industries need to start with a more junior role... Invest time to learn the business and the pay cut won’t have to last long."

Become a thought leader: "Build a profile for yourself as an expert by sharing your point of view on industry issues. Do it in-person, at industry events and meetups, and digitally through Facebook, Twitter and comments on relevant articles."

Tech employers themselves are anxious to find and recruit professionals with business and people skills beyond tech skills. A survey of 376 IT employers I conducted and published last year, in cooperation with Northern Illinois University, sponsored by IBM, and as part of my work with Information Today Inc./Unisphere Research, found that about one-third of companies are seeking professionals and managers that can bridge the divides between IT departments and business leaders. Project management, analytics/business intelligence, and enterprise architecture skills are in demand by more than half of the companies surveyed.

(Photo: National Science Foundation.)

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure