Back in the day, hiring someone for the IT department was easy: You posted an ad in the paper looking for someone with a computer science degree, or visited schools that offered computer science degrees, and took your pick. Now, though, things are different.
First of all, when you think about it, you may realize that you don’t need someone with the heavy theoretical background that a computer science degree provides. In fact, if you’re looking for a developer, you might be better off with someone who taught themselves a language and contributed to an open source project than someone whose computer science experience was largely academic.
“My college education left me totally unprepared to enter the real workforce,” laments Casey Ark in the Washington Post. “My degree was supposed to make me qualified as a programmer, but by the time I left school, all of the software and programming languages I’d learned had been obsolete for years.”
Second, there is the belief—rightly or wrongly—that computer science graduates are getting scarcer. “By 2020 they expect to have 1.4 million jobs … without people to fill about 400,000 of those,” Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, tells TechRepublic. This shortage will only get worse as the economy improves, bringing more hiring and more competition.
Finally, when you remind yourself that neither Microsoft founder Bill Gates nor Apple founder Steve Jobs had college degrees at all—let alone computer science degrees—you can start to wonder just how much tech hires really need them.
Jobs, in fact, felt that computer science, engineering, and other technical degrees were less important than liberal arts, writes Elizabeth Segran in Fast Company. “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” he said in 2010. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
One can, of course, argue that all the liberal arts and humanities majors in the world couldn’t have created something like the iPad without the help of skilled engineers and other technical people. Still, the concept is worth thinking about.
What’s important is the skills the job really requires, and how to look for people with those characteristics. What sort of competencies are useful in business? They include ethics, critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, and communication—all skills that are at least as prevalent in liberal arts majors as in computer scientists.
Let’s say you’re staffing your help desk—Computerworld’s #3 hottest top 10 IT skill for 2015. Does your front-line tech support person really need to know how to program? Or could an empathetic psychology graduate who’s good at eliciting information from angry customers and calming them down do even better?
Similarly, what if you’re looking for someone skilled in big data or data analysis—two of the hottest top 10 IT skills? You might be better off hiring a social sciences graduate who has experience drawing conclusions out of large data sets rather than a computer scientist. (Schools such as the University of California at Davis are developing data studies programs to make their liberal arts students more attractive to prospective employers.)
Liberal arts graduates also tend to have more nuance and can see other perspectives beyond black and white, Segran writes, noting that a third of all Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.
“The scientific method is valuable, with its emphasis on logic and reason, especially when dealing with data or engineering problems,” she writes. But it can also be limiting, particularly in understanding what motivates people and how to balance multiple factors that are at work outside the realm of technology, she adds.
Keep in mind, too, that many digital native “kids these days” have a lot more computer experience than you might expect. The art history major may have studied graphic design, which comes in handy for developing websites. The political science major may have learned a geographic information system (GIS) to display research using maps. The fashion design major may already have a website with thousands of fashionista followers.
Smart liberal arts majors are also adding business- and technology-related minors to make themselves more marketable. Look for candidates with minors such as economics, statistics, and business administration.
More generally, in today’s fast-changing development world, people who have demonstrated that they can pick up skills quickly—such as someone who learned programming through an online site such as Coursera—may be more valuable than people who expect every work task to be like a class assignment they had four years ago in a computer language nobody uses anymore.
“The traditional path for an engineer or a finance professional can make for very two-dimensional characters,” writes CEO Carey Smith in Inc. Employees need creativity, imagination, and historical perspective to come up with different approaches to new problems, he says.
Indeed, colleges in Asia are beginning to add liberal arts degree programs because they’ve been found to result in students who are more creative and well-rounded, writes Sergei Klebnikov in Forbes.
That doesn’t mean ditching computer science grads completely. What it does mean, though, is to look at the whole person, not just the degree.
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