Hiring liberal arts grads for jobs in technology
By Pam Houghton
Log onto msn.com any day of the week and you’re likely to see a “Top 10 Starting Salaries” list favoring students who graduate with engineering degrees. Meanwhile, liberal arts degrees, with their heavy emphasis on reading and writing, don’t quite measure up.
However, once in the workforce, engineers aren’t immune to challenges. In The Brainiac Paradox, author Mark Cornillie says communication-related issues affect employees in every field but “appear to be significantly more common and pronounced among STEM professionals.”
While Cornillie acknowledges that college grads with technical degrees start their careers with “higher salaries than their liberal arts peers,” he says career progress is likely to “peak early, stall and possibly decline” for those who lack interpersonal and communication skills. As he argues, “people skills are almost always essential to achieving organizational success.”
Ah, we do need communication skills. And people skills. So is it a stretch to think that those who study the much-maligned liberal arts — to whom communication and relating to others may come more naturally — can make significant contributions in technical roles?
Finding the right fit
It’s not a stretch, notes Clarkston, MI, resident Jan Rydzon, a retired energy company IT director. But it may depend on what side of technology they work with: the highly technical, with its emphasis on, for example, programming, data management and network administration that requires formal or informal technical training; or the role of an analyst that “interacts with the business side of the organization, almost like a consultant,” says Rydzon. “It’s been my experience that people who have liberal arts or non-technical degrees want to work with the end-users. They possess a broad educational background that enables good interaction with the users.”
Oakland Township, MI, resident Jeneane DeCourcy, 39, didn’t let a journalism degree prevent her from getting experience working on the technical side, as well as with end-users. Inspired by a summer job with Manpower Technical, where she was privy to technical workers’ skills and salary requirements, she was determined to find a way into the industry after graduating from Western Michigan University. She succeeded, using her journalism degree as a springboard to a technical writing job.
Two years later, DeCourcy, savvier to IT career paths, picked up “basic coding skills” in Visual Basic, Java Script and ASP during a stint in software development. Those experiences led to more substantial project management roles, though she was still searching for a role that would let her see software “as a layperson does, making it easier for people to use.”
She found that after she transitioned into the software financial industry as a technical business analyst, where she has collaborated with developers, project managers and end-users on making the user experience as intuitive as possible. As she makes note, she brings the “human factor to what the software developers do so you can use the software without having to think about it so much.” The process fits well with journalism, she says. “I get to use the ‘who, what, where, when and why’ when problem solving.”
Aware she would benefit from professional development, DeCourcy completed rigorous training to become a Certified Business Analysis Professional™, though the mother of two let her certification lapse in 2010. She is also a certified SCRUM Master™ with expertise in Agile methodologies. Still, she considers herself a go-between.
“I have more ease of communication than someone who is a hard-core techie. I usually say that I am an interpreter. I speak business and I speak geek and I help bridge the gap between the two.”
With an undergraduate degree in public administration and policy analysis from Oakland University, and a master’s degree in health services administration from the University of Detroit Mercy, Kim Fenech’s career path had an element of surprise. “I would have laughed if someone had said, ‘You’re going to be in IT!’ I thought I would have ended up in human resources. But IT has been a very good fit.”
Fenech, 52, who lives in Rochester Hills, MI, started in patient registration for a large healthcare provider in the mid ‘80s; she was still there when a new computer system was installed. It proved an interesting challenge for Fenech, who had recently completed her graduate degree.
“I liked the system. It made sense to me,” says Fenech, who mastered the system’s functionality as a user and later used her natural people skills to provide on-site end-user support.
Two years later, she had the opportunity to go into training or help build a database. “I chose the database. I like puzzles and I like problem-solving, and IT is a blend of that.” That led to 25 years in a variety of IT roles, including time spent on technical builds, and two years as an IT manager.
Creating a balanced team
Today, Fenech manages 16 IT professionals in ambulatory development and EMR support, focusing on outpatient offices as opposed to the in-patient world of the hospital. Though some team members have computer science degrees, five have liberal arts degrees. Together, they use healthcare industry software Epic and related software applications to support their end-users.
Fenech sees the value in having a balanced team. “It’s wonderful to have the technical people who live and breathe technology,” she says. But translation skills — “the soft skills required to deliver IT questions to non-IT customers so that we can deliver a solid product that meets their needs” — are critical. “With technology, you aren’t always living in that technical world. So you have to have people who understand the technology but can also make it relatable.”
Rydzon, the former IT director, says employers can get a jump-start on developing well-rounded IT talent by offering internships to computer science majors, as well as to students with majors such as history or education who have an interest in IT. Non-IT employees can get IT experience through job shadowing and volunteering for projects in their spare time.
“Today, it’s easier than ever for someone with a non-technical degree to get into the Information Technology field,” says Rydzon, who remembers writing software from scratch. Today, businesses buy off-the-shelf software solutions and configure it to their business needs. “The focus really is on IT people working with business to make the business better.”