24 May 2012

OK, techies have their limitations

The post before this was triggered by David Aaronovitch's article in The Times arguing that a Cabinet of scientists might be a good thing. However, there are contrary points of view on the contribution that the scientifically or technically trained can make outside their immediate field of knowledge. One appeared in the Washington Post at almost the same time as Aaronovitch's. This piece, by Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, was headed Silicon Valley needs humanities students and is worth reading in full, but these extracts give the gist of his argument:
Quit your technology job. Get a PhD in the humanities. That’s the way to get ahead in the technology sector. …. Wait, you say, that’s insane. At a time when record numbers of people, among them those with high-level degrees, are receiving public assistance, what kind of fool would get a degree in a subject with no clear job prospects beyond higher education or teaching?  
The theory goes as follows: STEM degree holders will get higher pay upon graduation and get a leg up in the career sprint. The trouble is that theory is wrong. … Yes, gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in was not a significant factor. Over the past two years, I have interviewed the founders of more than 300 Silicon Valley start-ups. The most common traits I have observed are a passion to change the world and the confidence to defy the odds and succeed. …  
I’d take that a step further. I believe humanity majors make the best project managers, the best product managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders. The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology. A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire may be more likely to understand the human elements of technology and how ease of use and design can be the difference between an interesting historical footnote and a world-changing technology. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people or to understand what users want. …  
Don’t get me wrong. The world needs engineers. And no, I am not actually advising people to quit their jobs and get PhDs in philosophy. For some people, it might make sense, but for others it wouldn’t. The point I’m trying to get across is more nuanced: We need musicians, artists, and psychologists, as much as we need biomedical engineers and computer programmers. For tech entrepreneurs and managers, there is no “right” major or field of study.…
Although Wadhwa is focussing on techies in the context of Silicon Valley, are his views general enough to extend to all STEM graduates and to the transferability of their skills to politics as Aaronovitch was proposing? I note that Wadwha's claims for the abilities of “A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire” are hedged with “may” and “can”.  But, on the other hand, I have to accept that “Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people”. In my last post I settled on the preparedness of engineers to deal in “hard data” when making decisions as their best quality. But does that equip you for a career in politics where, among other things, you have to argue the party line? Consider this part of a speech from a Labour MP (with higher education in politics, history and law) during the debate on Business and the Economy following the recent Queen’s Speech:
Let us put the Government’s proposals in context. There has been zero economic growth over the last year, and the economy is now smaller than it was in 2010. Living standards are being squeezed to breaking point. Families are being forced to choose between petrol and new school shoes, or between a pack of ham for their children’s sandwiches and making do, for another week, with cheese spread—and those are the fortunate ones. Mums—and, I appreciate, some dads, but let us be honest: it is mostly mums—who were just managing to juggle work and child care, with the help of much needed child tax credits, are now having to give up work, as they are unable to secure an additional eight hours a week, at a time when most employers simply are not recruiting. Consumer spending is inevitably held back, with families deciding to forgo their summer holiday or make their child do with last year’s raincoat—no one will notice the three-quarter-length sleeves. All this is compounding the downward economic spiral.
At this point some readers may be recalling Oscar Wilde’s comment on the death of Little Nell: it would take a heart of stone not to laugh. But that would be to miss the point, which is that the only hard numbers here were referring to sleeve lengths. The chart below, and I’m afraid it’s the sort of thing that techies lap up, immediately provides a rather different perspective:

The editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, put this data on twitpic on 23 May with the comment “Cameron has little to boast about on deficit, which he's now reducing MORE SLOWLY than Labour's pre-election plans”. Mindful of this, and the grim reality that if they had continued in office Labour would have been making much the same cuts, even the most articulate STEM type might find it a challenge to deliver the rollicking stuff required of a party politician in opposition.

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