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Don’t discount arts graduates for tech roles

Published on Tuesday, 12 Jun 2018

What do an arts major and IT managers have in common? In short, the answer could well be “a lot more than you might think”.

Personally, I have been involved with the arts from the age of 10 and had no intention of going into technology until after I had left university. The greatest programmer I ever worked with had a philosophy degree and, throughout my career, the majority of my colleagues didn’t offer computer science degrees.

While many IT pros may have come from an academic background relating to IT, it’s most certainly no longer the only way into the field. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, the STEM-only mindset is all wrong. In today’s digital economy, you have to be able to look at the context in which technology is used, and understand the human behaviour that drives it. So, what is it about the arts department that makes it the perfect ground for sourcing the IT pros of tomorrow?

Transferable skills

While a computer science degree may give you a number of hard skills that remain relevant throughout your career, technology will change quicker than you graduate. Jumping into IT with a fresh perspective could actually be a benefit. Soft skills have long been praised as the most transferable of skills when in the market for a new job and nowhere are they more cultivated than an arts major.

Some of these skills include writing, often seen as the bane of the developer. Being able to write clearly, with the proper level of details is a skill that will help IT pros to thrive. The ability to gauge an audience and write for them is a huge asset.

Another important skill is speaking. The stereotype of the IT geek is that of an introverted loner, the person who is most comfortable in a department of one. The reality is that tech is enormously collaborative. Not just with peers within the team, but with peer groups within IT, the management who serve as sponsors of various initiatives, and the user community who are the recipients of the technology we create, deploy, and support. The ability to stand up in front of a crowd and speak confidently and clearly, ina way that puts them at ease, is more often cultivated in an arts classroom than a computer department.

Another vital attribute the arts graduate will often have is the tendency for lifelong learning. To pursue a career in the arts is to commit yourself to a constant state of “I don’t know, but I want to find out”. Artists take on new projects precisely because it puts them in contact with the unknown and it is the artist’s goal to bring the subject and audience closer as a result.

IT professionals often know a great deal about their craft, but a willingness to learn new technology, delve into new frameworks, and pivot their career into new areas is what separates the leaders from the rest.

Project management is a further skill arts graduates may have. Putting together a production, filming a movie, preparing for an art show, rehearsing for a concert – these are all things which have a huge number of moving parts and require a significant amount of planning, tracking, and management. The ability to juggle these elements would be an asset to many fields, particularly the IT department.

People skills

Even beyond this though, there are a number of traits arts majors tend to nurture and value, which are often lost on the IT crowd. One is personal empathy – the ability to assess an individual or group’s current emotional “place” and speak within that context.

Another is technical empathy – putting yourself in the shoes of the “other” – the user, the developer, the approver – and crafting your responses and remarks to address that person’s frame of reference.

While the similarity or transferable skills of an arts major or an IT professional might not immediately spring to mind, the skills outlined (and many others besides) can have a measurable impact on IT deliverables, on IT teams, and on the business overall.

This article originally appeared in the Classified Post, 5 May issue.