In his recent Wall Street Journal article, How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities (10/25/12), journalist and English teacher Michael S. Malone references the historic and broadening rift between the sciences and the humanities. In a world now thoroughly dominated by science and technology, the number of college students majoring in English, for instance, is ever- shrinking, while the number of students majoring in science and engineering is ever-booming.
As a career coach in the early 90’s, I well-remember working with large numbers of former English teachers and graphic designers, who were blind-sided by the technology boom in California and the forecast at the same time that California had more than enough teachers. What were they to do?
It turns out there were many things they could do. Because they tended to be smart, literate, and well-educated, they moved (not without the fear and angst that goes with any transition) into fields that required abstract thinking, creativity, good oral and written communication skills. Fields, off the top of my head, included marketing communications, advertising, public relations, technical writing, corporate training, not to mention enhancing their professions and eventually business ownership. But wait. Then what happened? Many of the younger generations went straight into technology in great numbers all over the world, and while this has provided fabulous opportunities for millions of them, some of the best and brightest skipped college, liberal arts, and the humanities altogether. As a result, could there be a different, less intense tidal wave about to hit the marketplace? As an English/writing teacher, Malone has observed the shrinking faculty in his department, where he is a part-time adjunct, as well as the shrinking number of English majors. Upon inviting a Silicon Valley mogul-friend of his, Santosh Jayaram, to speak to his professional writing students, he warned him not to discourage his students too much from pursuing their writing/teaching dreams.
Let me insert here that the reason this article came to my attention at all is that Santosh Jayaram is also a friend of my husband’s (who, by the way, happens to be a former English major, now the owner of Bell Investment Advisors). Santosh is, according to Malone, “the quintessential Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur: savvy, empirical, ferociously competitive, and a veteran of Google, Twitter, and a new start-up, Dabble.” What he didn’t say, and what I happen to know from my personal encounters with Santosh, is that he is also highly articulate, extremely funny, full of energy, and a man of wide-ranging talents and interests. I can easily imagine him lighting up a room full of English writing students with his Indian/British accent.
But I digress. . .
After Malone had issued his warning to Santosh not to discourage his students, Santosh replied, “Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I am looking for!”
Santosh went on to explain to Malone and eventually to the writing students that the tech world has been turned upside down in the last 20 years. It is no longer about coming up with an idea for a new physical product, then building the prototype, and eventually moving into the production phase of the product. Now most products are virtual (think smart phone apps) rather than actual. The programming for just about every new app can be contracted out almost anywhere in the world and completed in a couple of weeks. That’s not the problem.
The real work, Santosh points out, is in the intensive research—about a year of it—to discover the particular niche product idea that hasn’t been captured yet, and you must also use that time to find angel or venture investment, establish strategic partners, convince talented people to take the risk and join your firm, explain your product to code writers and designers, and most of all begin to market to prospective major customers. And you have to do all of that without an actual product. . . The battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent.
This is where the English major might just be the rare and right person for the job.