English degree, Tech Career

Sather Gate at University of California, Berkeley

Paperback book cover of The Secret People by John Kenyon Harris
we walk among you, silent, unknown

What is the career value of an English degree in a technology career?

I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English Literature, focus on American poetry. My thesis was on Emily Dickinson. I’ve been working in information technology ever since. So I’m biased on this subject.

I’m hardly the only person with this kind of career path, and I realize how lucky I’ve been. I didn’t always, though. I faceplanted on an interview softball about my education several years ago.

I was interviewing with a rather prestigious company who was riding an amazing wave. They’d recruited me, so I was feeling good. Then: “Tell me about your English degree” and I started digging a hole. I had unwittingly internalized the view of humanities as useless.

Lesson 0: Have something positive to say about every word in your resume. Even if it’s something that your industry stereotypes.

Now hopefully less stupid, I have some thoughts about what the degree has done for me. The English degree taught me to read critically, synthesize information, and write clearly. I use these skills all day, every day.

In the classical education paradigm, this was called Logic and Rhetoric. @ckindel has posted an excellent update of this mental toolbox (the linked articles are all worthwhile).

There are two power tools learned in the English degree that are not directly discussed in that: academic papers, and poetry.

Economic expression of ideas in standard persuasive forms is key to good writing. An academic paper’s standard form provides two leverage points. It helps you write. Writer’s block is defeated by words on paper, and the form gives you words, showing the gaps that remain. 

Form helps the reader accelerate. Look at the humble 5 paragraph essay. Thesis, three arguments, conclusion. Tell ‘em, show ‘em, tell ‘em again. A skilled reader processes this in seconds, while a less structured rant is a more challenging experience. 

Academic papers also ask the author to focus on quality. Because each sentence will be questioned, each sentence must carry its weight. The Twitter editor adds a similar value to one’s writing.

In a 10 page thesis or a 100 page dissertation, a product requirements document, or an engineering design discussion, writing has a job and every word is in service to that job.

When you take an English degree, you’re writing several 10 page papers a week, and working on longer papers at the same time. This is quite similar to the workload for product managers.

Economic expression of emotion via poetry is the second power tool of the English major. A strictly rational approach to the requirements above is acceptable or even desirable in some contexts, but overall insufficient. 

@brenebrown writes, “We want to believe that we are thinking, rational people and on occasion tangle with emotion, flick it out of the way, and go back to thinking. That is not the truth. The truth is we are emotional beings who on occasion think.”

Because a PM must communicate with humans, we need to be able to engage emotions with our language. “Maximizing emotional load of each word through musical awareness” is a rather soulless description of poetry, but it’ll do for function.

Like the mental habits of engineering for scale… these are part of a toolbox that the English degree provides. Reading thousands of pages per week has turned out to be useful in modern life as well.

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