Please take an Arts degree


Years ago I remember coming across some choice graffiti in the Engineering facility toilets at my university. Above the toilet roll dispenser some wit had added the comment: “Please take an Arts degree” with an arrow pointing down to the roll.

I have an Arts degree (Liberal Arts degree to my American readers). I majored in Politics and Philosophy. My politics interests were largely around political theory and US politics and my philosophy major was in Cognitive Science. But somehow I ended up being a geek. And weirdly I found that I am not alone.

These companions of the road have prompted me to start thinking about how and why I ended up in IT. What makes we Arts graduates and students, who are obviously a minority in IT, attracted to the field at all? My musings are obviously highly subjective and your mileage may definitely vary but I thought I’d put a few thoughts down.

So how did I end up in IT? I’ve always had an interest in computers from an early age and can remember when I first discovered BBS’es and the sound of our first modem, a monstrously fast 1200 baud brick, featured heavily in my childhood. I never really considered actually working with computers though. I had some idea I might like be a lawyer, a journalist or perhaps work in government. Those are certainly fields many of my classmates at university ended up in.

I stumbled into IT through local government. I worked through university doing odd jobs but largely as a library assistant. Libraries were one of the environments that computerized early and, for all the jokes people make about matronly librarians, are often at the cutting edge of … well managing information. At the library they had an AS/400 that ran things. Or sometimes not as often happens. When that “not” happened they generally had to find someone to get it working again. Being one of the more computer literate people I wasn’t afraid to try to fix it. Throw in dumb terminals, PC, scanners, bar code readers and a myriad of other electronic devices and that quickly turned into a full time job. When I worked out that the full time job I had just acquired paid a hell of a lot better than stacking books I decided I’d give this IT thing a shot. That was twenty-something years ago.

As my career in IT continued I began to run across more and more people with Arts degrees. Before I worked in IT I had presumed everyone who worked with computers had computer science, mathematics or information technology degrees.1 That turned out to be a somewhat erroneous assumption. Looking around the office today I can see three Philosophy majors, one Anthropology major and dog help us an English major. All cutting code.

So why did we all end up there? I could say money. That certainly played a factor for me. But I actually think it’s something more interesting. I think we’re wired right for IT. Arts students are generally good at three things2:

  • Consuming information,
  • Assimilating information, and
  • Synthesizing information

And IT? It’s intrinsically about those three processes. Replace “information” with “data” and you’ve just described about 80% of the workflows I’ve built in the last twenty years. I’m good at taking the inputs, working out how to manipulate them and output them in some new, hopefully useful, way. I don’t claim to be a brilliant developer. I’m much more a hack’n’slash experimenter. But learning how to do this manipulation with code instead of prose actually wasn’t that hard.

Another reason I think a lot of Arts students are attracted to IT is that we’re good at Systems thinking. Good at seeing the big picture. You want to understand political, economic and social models? Welcome to Systems thinking 101. Perversely some IT graduates I’ve worked with seem wired to respond to specific outcomes or events in systems rather than see that those are components of a larger whole. Naturally they often then trip down the stairs of unintended consequence.

Finally, many of us are also quite articulate.3 Most Arts students can make a serious case for Marxism as a viable political system. Arguing vim versus emacs is kinda child’s play in comparison. We can produce documents, presentations, design specifications, cut code, and argue obscure points of German philosophy. Don’t get me started on one of my colleagues obsession with Saul Kripke.4 All of which means we’re people who can combine tech with talk. A winning combination for getting cool jobs and making good money.

And I never did become a lawyer. So I guess things can’t be all bad.

  1. This is not to say Computer Science, Eng, and Maths students don’t go into IT - they do in huge numbers - but more highlighting the strangely large pool of Arts graduates in IT. ↩︎

  2. Oh and also smoking, drinking and shooting pool and/or shite. ↩︎

  3. I know - not me. :) ↩︎

  4. Although you know modal logic makes a lot of sense in the context of a configuration language designed to express application and service relationships. ↩︎