How to Pursue A Career In Technology With A Liberal Arts Background

[Note: I originally wrote this article for an audience of liberal arts students at Hamilton College, my alma mater]

Like many others I know in the industry, I had a very circuitous route into technology. For most of my Hamilton education, I was pretty determined to work in media or on Capitol Hill. That is, until I picked up two books books that changed my life.

The first was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which came out my sophomore year. It really floored me to learn that Jobs was an artist and a purist, who believed that Apple should be a tech company “at the intersection of tech and the liberal arts.” As a creative-analytical double major, I felt like he was speaking to me.

The second book was Zero to One by Peter Thiel, which demystified how companies get built from scratch. Thiel explains why startups are like cults, asks you to ponder what you believe that others don’t, and details many other unspoken truths about technology (like the monopoly status of Google). To me, it was revelatory.

From reading these two books, I quickly got the sense that technology is going to be far more impactful in my lifetime than politics or media. And I was determined to do anything I could to get near it. I started participating in the Hamilton Pitch Competitions, placing as a runner up with Nile Berry ’14 for our beer-education service idea.

Upon graduation, I was able to crash with friends in New York City. Pretty quickly, I got my first job at MakerBot Industries, a then-hot 3D printing company, through an alumni connection. The job wasn’t glamorous, but it was a foot in the door at a well-known tech company. Quickly, I made myself valuable by helping a data analyst wrangle data. Looking back, it was the perfect stepping stone for what I do now.

For the past three years, I’ve combined my love of tech, writing, and data analysis into analyzing startups and venture capital (VC) at CB Insights. Simply put, I make data-driven reports about tech trends, helping VCs and corporates understand what startups are doing in robotics, cryptocurrency, and augmented reality. My job is unique because I now get to see the tech world from 10,000 feet up.

Having now experienced life at two tech companies, here’s a few things I wish I knew going in:

  • First, more liberal arts graduates should more be going straight into startups. More than most, Hamilton grads have been exposed to many disciplines and thrive in ambiguity. When companies are young, the roles are less defined and constantly change. You likely have an edge over your peers here.
  • Understand there’s many different roles within tech companies. Typically, there’s departments for software engineering, product management, dev ops, QA, marketing, and sales/business development. (aside: work where you have a competitive advantage)
  • Right now, the macro funding environment is very good for scaling up tech companies. There has never been more deployable venture capital (or dry powder). This means there are many tech companies that can employ you. Now, it’s just a matter of finding the right one.

 

How to Prepare While You’re In School:

  • For students, I recommend reading the Guide to Career Planning by Marc Andreessen (inventor of the internet browser). His first rule of career planning: Do not plan your tech career, because you have no idea what’s going to happen in the future.
  • Devour the available startup literature. Read outlets like TechCrunch and get excited about what’s being built. Right now, people are working on flying cars, AR headsets, lab-grown meat, and tons more. There’s a lot to be jazzed about.
  • Consider a major or minor in computer science. Even if you don’t want to be a software engineer, it’s helpful to know how to think like one. AI is not going to write code for many decades to come, and it will remain a valuable skill. I personally know a few Hamilton graduates who later did code schools (such as Full Stack Academy, Dev Boot Camp) with success. Even my company hires boot camp grads. But why not graduate with the ability to make computers do your bidding? You can automate so much boring work.
  • Combine technical skills with another discipline. In a way, Facebook combines computer science with psychology. Cryptocurrency such as bitcoin combines code with economics and game theory. Ev Williams combined his tech know-how and love of long-form literature to create Medium.com. As “software eats the world” there will be more permutations like this. Optimize the rest of your schedule for what you find interesting.
  • Experiment and build stuff. Reddit and FB are a famous examples of dorm-room experiments. Try out that app idea.
  • Compete in pitch competitions. It will force you to sell people on your vision for the future. Many startup founders say sales is a skill they wish they had developed, and sales is often the largest department (headcount-wise) within tech companies.
  • Understand there’s many, many different jobs within tech companies. Programming isn’t necessary, but it’s a sure-fire way in.

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