Three reasons a liberal arts degree helped me succeed in tech

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Sannie Lee is a Lead Consultant Business Analyst at Thoughtworks. She has over ten years experience in product management from start-ups to large corporations working on products as varied as email, websites, internal proprietary CRM systems, and mobile apps. She is passionate about getting teams to think more product-oriented and put the user at the center of all decisions.

09 November 2023

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I work in tech and they frequently assume I’m a software engineer with a background in STEM. I correct their assumption, explaining that I’m a product manager and I don’t write code. I work together with developers, designers, and stakeholders who come from a variety of backgrounds and act as a bridge between these parties to ensure a product’s success. I’m responsible for the strategy and development of the product.

At my last job before Thoughtworks, I encountered some student workers and interns who were keen on getting into tech. Several of them were studying at specialized colleges, others at university. I noticed one trend though: many of these people were majoring in “agile software development,” “software engineering management,” or other very specific majors like this.

As someone with a liberal arts degree and having worked in tech for over ten years, I find it distressing that the number of people with liberal arts degrees is declining. My degree in international studies, with a focus on film and the German language, has nothing to do specifically with tech, and yet it has everything to do with it. Having a liberal arts education created a solid foundation for my professional life where I’ve gained skills that are invaluable in a fast-changing world, especially with the ubiquity of AI technologies accelerating.

Why should we in tech encourage students to study the liberal arts? Here are three reasons why we should value people with liberal arts backgrounds more in our industry:

Critical thinking supports better decision-making based on facts.

Whether it was a history or literature class, one common thread across all my courses was thinking critically. Looking at historical events or understanding the meaning in a novel, I learned not to take things at face value. For example, watching Fritz Lang’s film M is not just a thriller about a serial killer whose victims are children; when digging deeper, the film’s message of protecting children against murderers can be extended to protecting children against Nazism, which was on the rise when the film came out, or against the trauma of World War I, which was still fresh in the audience’s minds. Within the context of history, there are elements in the film that can be interpreted as such. Generally in a liberal arts education, understanding the value of primary sources compared to secondary sources and corroborating primary sources with others was always key.

As a product manager, I want to talk directly to my users and understand the problems they have. I don’t want to just get requirements from internal stakeholders that think they know best. I want to understand beyond what I see what’s in front of me and ask questions to see the overall problem. For example, I once saw a trend in my user research sessions that users didn’t understand how we were displaying the data in a graph. Our internal stakeholders thought that the graph was fantastic and that everyone had to understand it. I found supporting data in our analytics that corroborated what a handful of users were saying. In the end, we didn’t use the graph and saved ourselves the effort of developing it because we didn’t just implement what key stakeholders wanted.

With genAI on the rise, critical thinking is becoming even more important. Where is the AI getting its input? How can I trust it? What is the data set that serves as the basis? Are there biases that I think could skew the answers?

Understanding the importance of primary sources is no different in product management than it is when writing a paper. I want to gather enough objective information before I formulate my opinion in a course or before I decide how I want to solve a user’s problem in my product. For software developers, critical thinking when using genAI is no different; you want to understand how the AI is helping you write code and you still need to consider if the output is valid or not.

Clear communication is critical to successful stakeholder management.

When you’re thinking critically, you need to be able to express those thoughts clearly. Writing is a big part of that and I honed my skills at university, writing numerous papers every semester which culminated in my bachelor and master’s theses. As a product manager, I might not be doing as much in-depth writing as one of those pieces, but the point is that I learned to write clearly, concisely, and persuasively. Succinct communication is critical to be successful in tech; regardless of role, you need to express yourself and get other people who may not have as in-depth knowledge in a specific area as you to understand your ideas. Developing the same understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve comes through communication on several levels, and communication skills should not be undervalued.

In addition to writing, speaking is something else that I developed in my liberal arts education. Debating with other students on various topics, giving presentations, or thinking quickly on my feet when discussing something orally are all skills that I also use in my daily work. Just replace “students” with “stakeholders.”

There are two aspects why clear communication is important when it comes to genAI. First, using AI will only be good if you are able to concisely express what you need. Critical thinking and writing are important because the AI’s output is completely dependent on what it’s told. Second, being able to write well could mean that you are able to evaluate the output too. Is the AI’s output clear and understandable? Is it concise and to the point?

Connect the dots between things to find more meaning.

Another integral part of a liberal arts education is the broad foundation that comes from many different disciplines. In my particular degree, I had to take courses that covered history, politics, language, the arts, and literature. So although my focus was on film and media studies, I understood film from all of those points of view and how each discipline impacted film.

This balancing of several seemingly disparate areas into one discipline is the basis of a liberal arts education. Product management is exactly the same because it sits in the middle of tech, business, and users, and brings everything together into one discipline. It’s about understanding how history may have an impact on film when I studied; in product management, it’s understanding how limitations from the business may impact technology and vice versa.

Although software developers are not looking at connecting the same dots as product managers, it’s still a necessary skill to understand how new technologies and current problems fit together. Solving problems can be done in many ways, but understanding the current situation and where the software is going can have an impact on how the solution looks.

These are just three reasons how my liberal arts education created a solid foundation for me to work as a product manager. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity and privilege to study because I understand that it’s not within everyone’s reach to do so. I also believe that there are other ways to create a solid foundation to become a product manager or generally getting into the tech industry aside from studying. However, I think the direction that I saw with many interns and students going towards extremely specialized degrees is not the right one. Technologies and methodologies will come and go, but people with adaptable skills that can be used to solve new problems are more likely to be successful in the long term.

The skills learned in a liberal arts education can be extrapolated and extended to software development. Right now agility is all the rage and it seems to work for now. But what will happen in the future? How will technology change how we work? The rise of genAI is shifting how we work, and being able to adapt our ways of working and thinking are already crucial to standing out in the crowd.

The liberal arts have endured centuries of ups and downs for good reason. They equip students with skills that can be adapted to the times, and this is precisely why I will continue to advocate for anyone wanting to get into tech to get a liberal arts degree.