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I would think twice before paying a psychic that told my university-aged self that I would spend my career researching artificial intelligence within cloud software — and enjoy it. Truth be told, I doubt I would have known what that even meant.
Just over a decade ago, I was convinced that a career in news was my life’s calling. Around that time, technology was already beginning to have an outsized impact on our world — and spending on advertising was shifting quickly from print media to tech platforms. So, when I was offered a tech beat as a freelance reporter, I grabbed it with both hands.
I learnt to contextualise the subjects — everything from self-driving cars, digital skills gaps and the role of apps in aid relief — within larger narratives. I knew how to step back and assess how technologies help or hurt their users.
After a few years reporting on start-ups, I chose to join one. Working on the marketing team of a Silicon Valley company taught me how such companies operate from within. Now, as an analyst, I write about the ways in which businesses use emerging tech to grow.
Yet, while I have gained new technical skills on the job, it is the tools from my liberal arts education — analytical thinking, cross-cultural collaborating, coherent writing and public speaking — that have formed the backbone of my career. And unless we recruit more graduates from such backgrounds, of which women are a significant proportion, we will struggle to fill the employment gaps in my sector.
One of today’s popular beliefs is that technical skills such as programming or coding are among the most in-demand and hard to find. In fact, research from MIT in 2017 found that this is not necessarily the case for high-level computing roles, nor is it the case for the Stem (science, tech, engineering and maths) field at large.
The skills that companies do struggle to find involve higher-level reading in some manufacturing roles, for example, and higher-level writing among help desk technicians. None of my roles in tech have required coding skills — but I have needed to know how successful development teams work, which includes things like which methodologies to use and prioritising backlogs.
While I support efforts to bring coding into classrooms as early as possible, we do a great disservice to young people, especially women, by framing computer science degrees as the tech sector’s golden ticket.
Regardless of which technologies you build or languages you code with, on-the-job learning is an integral part of this career path. Yes, computer science teaches students how to solve a range of coding problems, but it does not necessarily prioritise the skills that employers want most.
Last year Michael Litt, chief executive at the video marketing platform Vidyard, told Fast Company that just 15 to 25 per cent of roles at his start-up were in software development. Most of his employees need the skills that come with a humanities education — subjects that in the US are more often chosen by women. In his experience, employees with such degrees are also more likely to show more interest in learning new skills on the job.
I was never actively discouraged from a career in tech, unlike some female computer science students I know. But nor was I encouraged to consider it. No one told me that I could contribute my love of words and big-picture thinking to a career that I thought might be incompatible. I share my own transition story whenever I can because my younger self did not even consider tech as an option.
We are witnessing pushback against many tech platforms such as Facebook, which was fined by UK regulators in October for not adequately protecting users’ personal information. Ethical frameworks for artificial intelligence are now popping up in an attempt to build trust around algorithms.
Socrates once asserted that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. I cannot help but wonder if some of today’s tech problems could have been avoided by adopting a variation of this — “the unexamined product is not worth deploying”. Tech teams should be encouraged to explore solutions to problems through a wider lens in order to satisfy a broader range of users.
The risks and consequences of non-diverse tech teams are well-documented. Without the diversity of thought that students of the liberal arts contribute, such problems will only worsen.
The writer is a senior content analyst at Gartner Digital Markets. She formerly worked as a journalist and has written for publications including the Guardian and tech blog The Next Web