With software eating the world, more and more jobs requiring tech skills are popping up. Meanwhile, the number of qualified grads in these fields isn't keeping up. The result, predictably, is a rising crescendo of voices urging more students to major in fields like computer science and engineering that will give them much in-demand hard skills.

David Kalt, the founder of Reverb.com, used to be one of the voices singing in that chorus. But in a fascinating recent WSJ blog post he confesses he's recently changed his tune -- go ahead and major in that "cushy" liberal arts subject like philosophy or literature, he now advises grads. And hiring managers should give those with a humanities degree a second look. 

Now hiring: self-learning machines

Why the about face? In short, experience. "Looking back at the tech teams that I've built at my companies, it's evident that individuals with liberal arts degrees are by far the sharpest, best-performing software developers and technology leaders. Often these modern techies have degrees in philosophy, history, and music--even political science, which was my degree," he writes.

So how did these folks who spent their college years reading Chaucer or Plato end up becoming exceptional programmers? Most, Kalt says, were simply curious about coding and taught themselves. And their experience in the liberal arts allowed them to do that well.

"A well-rounded liberal arts degree establishes a foundation of critical thinking. Critical thinkers can accomplish anything. Critical thinkers can master French, Ruby on Rails, Python or whatever future language comes their way. A critical thinker is a self-learning machine," he insists. (Plus, these days there are boatloads of coding bootcamps to help you add tech skills to your arsenal.)

The bottom line for Kalt: "we don't need qualified, formally trained engineers with university degrees." Instead, "if more tech hires held a philosophy or English degree with some programming on the side, we might in the end create better leaders."

A word of warning

While college students concerned their degree won't get them a job (and their anxious parents) might breathe a sigh of relief on reading Kant's post, they should note that other experts warn that this 'major in whatever inspires you!' advice can have real-world limitations.

Law professor James Kwok, for instance, recently cautioned on this blog that, while a humanities degree from a top-tier school often opens doors, if you don't come from the sort of background that allows you to study at an elite institution and undertake a few prestigious (probably unpaid) internships, then the calculus rapidly becomes much more difficult.

If you go to an Ivy League school, "there are prestigious companies that will take a chance on you even if you majored in classics or medieval history," he writes, but "the problem is that while we need lots and lots of people with humanities and social science backgrounds, in today's increasingly anti-intellectual climate, majoring in philosophy is becoming a risk that fewer and fewer people can afford to take."

Still, while those with less gold-plated resumes need to think more carefully, Kalt's piece is a refreshing reminder that talent generally shows through -- and generally the best way to develop your talent is to follow you interests instead of trying to stick to a narrow, pre-described career path.

How would you compare the liberal arts grads you've hired to those with "techier" degrees?

Published on: Jun 24, 2016