Technologists—Don’t Overlook A Liberal Arts Education

Does anyone even know what a good Liberal Arts education is these days? To me, it meant that I could learn almost anything, express myself orally and verbally, appreciate arts and literature along with science. 

I was immersed in electronics and other sciences until half-way through university when I just had too many interests. I took courses in German, literature, philosophy, economics, accounting (don’t know why, but it served me well), and international politics.

Somewhere in the 80s an article appeared in a major journal showing Liberal Arts majors outperforming MBAs in business. I was a VP of a small company at the time (marketing and application engineering). I showed the article to the CFO (MBA) just to tweak him.

Then came Steve Jobs. He was definitely not non-technical, but his liberal arts background at Reed College formed his perspective. That view of the world greatly influenced the direction of computing.

Now, here is an article by Jeff Bussgang, a former entrepreneur turned VC at Flybridge Capital, HBS Senior Lecturer, author of Mastering the VC Game, in Medium—Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Product Managers. 

I suggest visiting his Medium site to read the entire article, but here is the essence of his argument.

An effective product manager is an entrepreneur, strategist, technical visionary, cross-functional team leader, and customer advocate all rolled into one.

They have three primary responsibilities: defining the product, negotiating and securing resources, and managing product development, launch, and ongoing improvement by leading a cross-functional team.

Some of the best product managers are simply great communicators.

They need the skills consistent with a liberal arts education: clear thinkers, strong interpersonal skills, good judgement, a good writer, you learn to make decisions crisply, and you learn to handle ambiguity.

As Fareed Zakaria puts it in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education:A liberal education teaches you how to write, how to speak your mind, and how to learn — immensely valuable tools no matter your profession. Technology and globalization are actually making these skills even more valuable as routine mechanical and even computing tasks can be done by machines or workers in low-wage countries. More than just a path to a career, a liberal education is an exercise in freedom.

Bussgang concludes: In addition to making sure startups are open to hiring and training the very best, I am drawn to this topic because I think it results in a subtle barrier for women to become entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The prevailing wisdom is that the best entrepreneurs are former product leaders. And there is a prevailing wisdom that former entrepreneurs make the venture capitalists. Therefore, if you accept the prevailing wisdom to be that only former coders can become great product leaders, you are limiting your entrepreneur and venture capital funnel to a narrow pool of candidates, with 88% of engineers being men. That’s bad policy on many, many dimensions.

Obviously, I agree with Bussgang. It worked for me.

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