Famous Historian

Lifehacker posted an interesting quote from ex-Microsoft Engineer Mike Borozdin to young computer programmers on important skills to develop to best help them with their careers: 

"I would advise folks in software to do one thing, and that’s write. Learn how to write ... It’s actually useful. You need to know how to express yourself. And it’s really tough for a lot of engineers to step up and do public speaking... Once you create a successful piece of software, you’re probably going to be writing English as much as you’re going to be writing Java or Objective C. I’ve created multiple pieces of software at DocuSign that went viral, and people liked them and wanted to use more of them. And I probably wrote 10 times the documentation and explanation, and answered questions in paragraph form."

It raises a point that's often overlooked and/or dismissed by those interested in pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields. For too long we've been separating (almost to the point of segregating) STEM students from Humanities students going as far back as late elementary school/middle school and systematically discouraging both groups from taking courses not in their area of focus, save those that are mandatory by the Ministries of Education.

I still remember reading an interview with a Senior Vice-President of the Royal Bank of Canada when I was in early high school that strongly pushed back on students who were interested in commerce/economics ignoring humanities studies in their studies in high school and university. When asked what was his most important recommendation for students interested in pursuing a career in business, the Vice-President strongly stated that students should take humanities courses, especially history. Paraphrasing him (based on my spotty memory),

"Take history. History teaches you vital skills, especially how to clearly communicate, to learn to identify patterns over a broad amounts of data, and how to effectively think both analytically and beyond rote memorization. I can train someone how to do market trading or other aspects of banking. But I can't train someone to think. If I have my choice, I hire someone who's studied history."

It left a very strong impression on me, and reinforced what I'd already started to suspect -- a true education strong in the humanities isn't about training you for the next step career-wise, it's about giving you the skills to be able to do anything you want in life.

Business analysis

The dirty little secret of the computer engineering world is that going to school for a bachelor's degree such as computer science is only about training you to be proficient in the computer languages that are popular at that exact moment; and unless you actively keep up your training in the field, the skills you learn with your degree will be largely obsolete within five years.

For those with a strong interest in the STEM fields (which to be clear is wonderful), marrying your studies -- ideally life-long studies -- with the varying expertise of the humanities will provide you with both the knowledge and tools to accomplish far more than if you strictly limit your studies to STEM areas, but will also provide you with a far more rewarding life.

(It seems a bit clichéd to be citing this final example as well, but what the hey.)  

Steve Jobs - Creativity

Finally, with the latest Steve Jobs bio-pic coming to theatres and the continued examination of the enigma that was Steve Jobs, it's worth remembering an often overlooked point from his past -- Steve Jobs did not go to school for engineering, he went to a liberal arts college. Steve Jobs was not particularly proficient with writing computer code, nor was he an engineering genius as a youth or really even as an adult. Where Steve Jobs excelled was his ability to think creatively about the technology sector, beyond what was understood to be the conventional boundaries of the tech market, and then communicate his vision exceptionally well -- to the point that speaking with Steve on one of his priorities/ideas was said to be entering his "reality distortion field."

Steve Jobs studied things like calligraphy, Zen Buddhism, art, music, literature and yes, history (although I'll be fair in acknowledging that he wasn't a particular fan of history classes -- I'll blame the instructors for that due to personal bias. ;) ) He explored things that allowed him to think differently about the world around him. Steve then combined these insights with things like an early education on learning the importance of product supply chains and how to get the best prices for every component from many of the Hewlett-Packard (HP) engineers he grew up with in the neighbourhoods of Cupertino, California and the importance of finding and motivating people who were particularly skilled and enthusiastic about the new field of personal computers and electronics (e.g. Steve Wozniak).

Using this combined knowledge, skill sets and approach to learning that embraced creativity in constructive ways, Steve Jobs was able to approach the tech industry from a completely different manner. Steve always insisted that Apple was a company that was at the intersection between technology and creativity, and that Apple's products are particularly built for creative people. That principle guided the company even through the mid-1980s and 1990s when Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple. It resulted in Apple's insistence on things like a high-degree of user-friendly 'intelligent design' of its products, unlike so many other tech companies that for so long insisted on non-engineers having to think like engineers to achieve even the simplest of operations because doing it that way made sense to the engineers that designed the product. (e.g. MS-DOS is a great example, where users were forced to memorize what was basically computer coding language commands to make the operating system work for them. In contrast, Apple pioneered a Windows-style user interface based on 'point-and-click' mouse commands that Microsoft would basically steal the idea for with it's own Windows 3.1 operating system.) 

It's also because of Jobs emphasis on going beyond what was just technically possible to achieve what was a reflection of the creative tools people seek to be able to use in tech products that we have things like a wide variety of computer fonts to choose from and an increasing understanding in the tech sector that products must be as creative in their design and functionality as the purposes that customers wish to use it for on both individual and enterprise levels. For a product to be successful, it must allow maximum flexibility for users to employ the product in ways designers and engineers have likely never conceived. (Fun fact: Steve Jobs regularly brought in and consulted with his old calligraphy prof in the development of the many fonts Apple introduced. Jobs was an obsessive calligrapher, among other things.)  

 

All that said, I'm very proud that my bachelor's degree is in history; that my parents Stella Dahlin and Fergal Nolan always had the courage to encourage me to pursue a wide array of study areas (even if it meant that I might get lower marks in the short term -- hello, OAC finite math!); and that I'm married to the fantastic Grace Dahlin Nolan, who is a history teacher of unsurpassed quality who encourages all of her school's students to study history and the humanities, often in the face of their parents' more conservative instincts around STEM education needs. (I'm also lucky enough to know the wonderfully talented and great human being Jane McGaughey, who's one of the best examples of both why to study the humanities and the kind of history professor that you hope you're lucky enough to study under in university. If you're going to attend Concordia or know someone who is/will be, I highly recommend taking one of Prof. McGaughey's courses. I'm absolutely positive you won't regret it.)  

So do yourself (and your children) a favour and explore the wonderful world of the Humanities. There's so much there to be discovered. I guarantee you'll find something you'll end up loving, and that you will find useful in some other area of your life (probably quite unexpectedly.)

 

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