One Y Combinator–incubated startup founder makes the case for “STEAM” over “STEM.”
The push to teach kids coding and technology now extends even to Sesame Street. The venerable children’s show recently introduced a “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math) component to its programming, and even Grover is now learning about physics, coding, and the power of trial and error.
As the cofounder and CEO of a growing tech startup, I’m not going to argue against teaching kids how to write code. I couldn’t have started my company without my engineering background, and I rely on skilled developers and engineers to build our product every day. I also realize that pushing students into STEM fields may be one way to mitigate the threat of AI-driven job loss, while liberal arts degrees are still often seen as a surefire route to a job as a barista.
But the funny thing is that I’m still hiring more humanities majors than STEM grads, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Here’s why.
At my company, as at many tech companies, developers only make up 15–25% of our workforce. While tech businesses are booming, many of the jobs waiting to be filled require broader skill sets than just great engineering chops. And in my experience anyway, the truly irreplaceable jobs—not just of the future but of the present—are the roles that intermingle arts and science. My employees with humanities backgrounds regularly show they’re willing to learn new skills and try new things.
Think about the other roles that deal with developing and marketing tech products and services: Sales teams need to understand human relationships. Marketing teams have to understand what gets people excited and why. Internally, our HR teams need to know how to build a community and culture so the company can continue to thrive. The nuts and bolts of software development are just one small part of any successful tech company. It would actually be foolish to limit my hiring only to people with tech backgrounds.
“MAKING STUFF” VS. “MAKING STUFF PEOPLE WANT”
My company was nurtured at Y Combinator, the investment program where I absorbed the mantra, “Make something people want.” My cofounder and I created a video-content management platform for businesses, using software as our building blocks. But I quickly realized that the “making” part was relatively easy; it was the “figuring out what people want” part that was hard. People will never embrace your product if you don’t understand their motivations and needs—what excites them or annoys them to tears.
HOW MANY ENGINEERS DO YOU REALLY NEED?
Some of this intel comes from diving into the data about our customer base, kind of the way archaeologists examine layers of compacted stone and soil to understand human behavior from eons past. The first question that involves—”What am I looking at here?”—requires a STEM job (data science), but the second—”What does it mean?”—takes more of a “STEAM” thinker to answer (the “A” stands for “art”).
After all, the whole point of that data dive is to help us build an effective marketing campaign, which means predicting how a massive number of people will react and behave based on snippets of information we’ve collected. This level of qualitative analysis can’t come from the data alone. It requires instinct, critical thinking, and a deeply contextual understanding of human nature.
KEEPING LIBERAL-ARTS LEARNING ALIVE
I want to make sure the right candidates keep coming in my door in the years ahead. If we relentlessly push people toward coding and STEM fields, there’s a real risk that the humanities grads will grow fewer and farther between. I don’t want that to happen.
On one level, re-embracing a genuine liberal arts education (as retro as this may sound to some) could be a start. Curriculums that encompass arts and sciences in equal parts may better equip students with the skills to reimagine and reshape a technological world, not just assemble it. But formal education is hardly the final fix. In the end, talk of “science majors” and “humanities majors”—or “majors” at all—feels increasingly outdated and arbitrary.
Even within strictly technical roles—including the product and engineering positions that form the basis of STEM know-how—a humanities foundation can be invaluable. Some of our software, UI, and UX designers come from a fine-arts backgrounds, for instance. Yes, coding skills are important there, but so is an understanding of usability—in other words, the uniquely human ability to draw upon experience to design an elegant solution that real people will actually find helpful.
Ultimately, I hire people based on their experience, not on what’s printed on their diplomas, and I hardly think my company is alone in that. Recruiters and hiring managers understandably use majors as an imperfect shorthand for candidates’ skills, especially when filling entry- and associate-level roles, but that quickly becomes counterproductive. Hiring someone for a skill they developed five or 10 years ago at an academic institution is like assessing someone’s fitness based on a marathon they ran five or 10 years ago.
Learning—especially in an era of AI-accelerated change, where new roles emerge as quickly as old ones die out—has to be a constant, cross-disciplinary process. And it cuts both ways. Yes, humanities folks should upgrade their tech skills, even if that’s just through continuing education or some serious YouTubing (or even a little Sesame Street). But at the same time, people like me—an engineering major—need to consciously bring more humanities into our lives.
To make up for gaps in my formal education, I’ve started reading psychology and philosophy books with an eye toward better understanding human behavior, which is key for any successful entrepreneur (or person, for that matter). I’m also lucky to be married to an archaeology major turned tech product manager turned novelist, who shows me everyday the value of transcending STEM modes of thought and seeing the world a little more broadly.
While radical fixes like universal basic income may be one option for a shifting job market, this seems a Band-Aid at best. Yes, the jobs of the future will involve coding and tech skills, but the ones that AI won’t replace—and the ones that I’ll be hiring for—will require creativity, adaptability, and artistry in equal measure.
*This post originally appeared in FastCompany.