Humanities Students Make Great Geeks

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It’s easier to make a move into technology from an arts or humanities background than many people believe.  By Caitlin McDonald (Guest Blogger, Little Miss Geek)

You might remember Belinda Parmar’s Guardian editorial I wasted four years of my life – don’t make the same mistake encouraging girls to choose technology as an academic subject over the arts. The arts, says Parmar, are a waste of time for your future career.

I would love to see more young women taking up technology in their academic careers. I also think it’s easier to make a move into technology from an arts or humanities background than Parmar suggests.

Digital technology pervades all aspects of our lives and careers, a trend that looks like it’s only going to grow. Right now all kinds of industries are becoming increasingly digitally driven: from manufacturing to media to civil service, there is a growing need for people who are tech-literate. This points to a shift in working life where more and more jobs may not require a specialised computer science qualification, but rather some fluency with code along with other skills. With many emerging jobs you won’t spend your whole time programming, but being able to show that you can write a basic SQL query or that you’ve experimented with Python or JavaScript, for example, will look very attractive to employers.

There are plenty of high-profile examples of people with humanities and arts backgrounds becoming thought leaders in the tech industry. Just a few examples: Genevieve Bell transformed her anthropological training in ethnographic fieldwork into a career at Intel, where she now directs their Interaction and Experience Research (follow her on Twitter @feraldata).  As a result of her remarkable work, she was inducted last year into the Women In Technology Hall of Fame.

Sherry Turkle (@sturkle), with a background in sociology and psychology from Harvard, is now an eminent global researcher in the field of human-computer interaction based at MIT. Her books on this subject are engaging and accessible because her foundation in social sciences means she can write pursuasively for technical and non-technical audiences. Parmar herself (@belindaparmar), CEO of Lady Geek, is a tireless advocate for more women in technological careers. Her familiarity with the poems of Lorca and understanding of the semiotics of surrealist imagery doesn’t seem to have hindered her career trajectory.

On the surface, my own work as a Data Systems Analyst might seem to bear no relationship to my doctoral work in anthropology. I moved from a completely qualitative background into a quantitative position designing and programming business reporting tools. In reality, I find my background in ethnography is an essential part of my work now: my company IS the “tribe” I am studying. Training in anthropology helps me get an intuitive understanding of what my colleagues need to know and how that information can be most efficiently organized. I have an anthropologist’s understanding of how to study social structures and group motivations, which helps prioritise projects. Anthropologists love context: we think every piece of knowledge is relational. In my job now, I need to help people figure out where their new data requirements will fit in with what they already know–or what they assume they know. I spend my days elbow-deep in code and interface design, activities that do require specialist technical skills–all of which I was trained for while on the job.  But for the really big questions, it’s my humanities skills that prepare me to find the answers.

In the end, it’s not about being presented with the two doors "Tech" and "Arts/Humanities" and choosing to walk through only one of them. It’s about finding ways to apply both quantitative and qualitative skill sets in order to find the most successful, innovative solutions in our increasingly digital world.

This post originally appeared on Little Miss Geek. 49367239cf06270fc2efd71d47d69a0cAbout the blogger: Caitlin (@caitiewrites) holds a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter. She is the author of a book on the international belly dance community (Global Moves: Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World). She works as a Data Systems Analyst.