Tech and Liberal Arts in the US and Germany

While tech and the liberal arts often have a rocky relationship, the marriage of these two disciplines is a lot happier in the US than it is in Germany. In the August 16th edition of Forbes, George Anders explains why the formerly useless liberal arts degree was become the hottest ticket in tech, using the example of Slack, whose co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield is a philosophy major:

“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

Valuable skills. Slack employs a number of people with non-technical backgrounds in roles that range from the creative to the old grind of sales and marketing. Tech businesses are businesses, first and foremost, so they need people who can interact with customers, understand their needs, and equip them with solutions to their day-to-day problems. It’s easier than ever before to create apps, because there’s so much library code floating around (much of it free open source,) but the abundance of code doesn’t immediately translate into making lives better and businesses more efficient until it’s tailored like a custom suit.

Open Table is a great study. Like so many other companies, it started as a pure technology play that enabled people to book reservations quickly and easily, but it quickly morphed into a more comprehensive IT solution for restaurants when the company discovered its ability to book dining reservations outstripped the capacity of restaurants to handle them. Now Open Table works with client restaurants on promotions to bring in diners during slack periods:

On a recent visit to Town Hall, a San Francisco restaurant that specializes in country ham and other southern-inspired cuisine, [Open Table’s] Ramona and a colleague, Denise Capobianco, suggested that restaurant manager Bjorn Kock wasn’t doing enough to attract large groups.

Kock bristled. “Our design does not lend itself to a lot of large parties,” he declared. Big groups take too long to finish, he explained. Their rush of orders at the same time strains the kitchen. Besides, his restaurant’s long, angular layout would make big tables as unwelcome as a boulder in the midst of a stream. “Those tens!” he declared with a dismissive sweep of his hand. “I don’t want them in our dining room.”

Kock nodded his head. “That could work,” he declared. “I’m totally willing to play around with that possibility.” And thus the digital revolution spreads a tiny bit further, thanks to whiz-bang code underpinning OpenTable–and the interpersonal skills of an English major.
As our data shows, liberal arts grads are joining the tech workforce more rapidly than technical grads. Between 2010 and 2013, the growth of liberal arts majors entering the technology industry from undergrad outpaced that of computer science and engineering majors by 10%. Internet or software companies are especially popular—38% of all recent liberal arts grads in tech currently work in this space.
LinkedIn Graph on Liberal Arts Employment in Tech

LinkedIn Graph on Liberal Arts Employment in Tech

While you don’t need to code to make it in Silicon Valley, it helps to know what your firm’s technology can do (and what it can’t.) Coding jobs are still booming for people with special skills such as artificial intelligence. Amazon is placing a new emphasis on the ability to predict what customers will buy based in its massive stores of data:

The world’s largest retailer by market capitalization is rolling out its sophisticated big-data-crunching platform for developers in Europe, and is also hiring scientists for its research teams in New York and Berlin who specialize in getting machines to do things like make sales predictions and predict fraud.
At the same time, Amazon is laying people off in its hardware division after big flops with the Fire phone and Fire TV box. The former has been discontinued altogether, while the latter has been replaced by a cheaper (and less functional) alternative.
While American firms embrace technology and humanize it with smarter liberal arts majors who remove the fear factor and enhance the “wow” factor, Germany pursues the path of technophobia. After the tragedy of poor siting for Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant caused a predictable disaster when the seaside plant was hit by a  tsunami, Germany’s politicians summarily shut down the nation’s nuclear plants despite a stellar safety record.
Germany is the only leading economy to have banned nuclear power despite a world-beating safety record, and in the process killed off a once thriving civilian nuclear industry.
Germany is also nervous about genetic engineering, but in a very inconsistent way: it bans the cultivation of GMO corn permitted in the rest of the EU, but imports GMO grains from abroad and meat raised on GMO feed. Germany’s anxiety about genetics may have a connection with the nation’s history, as Hitler was a certainly obsessed with altering the human genome, so a certain caution is understandable in this field if not in other tech businesses. But such fears can easily get out of hand:
At a nuke-industry confab earlier this month, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany must take care not to “weaken our industrial base” by opting out of high-tech sectors. Merkel’s worry: at a time when every rich nation is searching for competitive advantage in a crisis-stricken global economy, Germans’ techno-skepticism threatens to block the country’s access to some of the most promising emerging industries.
With high labor costs and limited resources, Germany can’t afford to refrain from too many tech opportunities and still pay its pensions. German engineers are highly prized in the rest of the world – they were pioneers in nuclear and biotech, and everyone loves a pricey German car  – but local fears about technology are holding the nation back while most Germans want to move ahead. Oddly, the Merkel/Green Party decision to shutter the nukes while importing nuclear-generated electricity from France is unpopular with voters.
Perhaps the German government needs a better class of liberal arts majors to get its technophobia in check:
Someday, Germans could take their cue from environmentalists like Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, who has changed his mind about nukes and GMOs, arguing that by cutting emissions and creating better biofuels, both help fight global warming.
There’s always hope; and the US can’t be too snooty about our superior assessment of technology as long as we refuse to build nuclear plants ourselves.