From Shakespeare to Silicon Valley

English Majors

English Majors Write Their Futures in Tech

Sunitha Girish ’00 wasn’t supposed to major in English. "My parents had intended me to be a doctor," said Girish, 39, who concentrated on the sciences in high school in her native Dubai, but wanted to try "something more creative" in college. And although her parents ultimately supported her decision, "they thought it was odd when I chose English," said Girish, today CEO and founder of Laughing Buddha Games, a "transformational gaming" start-up that partners with nonprofits to showcase global issues and promote empathy.

Girish’s parents were scarcely alone in questioning their daughter's desire to pursue an English degree. Rosemary Graham, one of Girish's favorite professors, was herself warned away from the English department in high school. "My father’s own college education was a night school accounting degree after the Army,” said Graham, today a professor of English and Creative Writing and the author of three novels. “He had a very successful business career, starting in the mail room, and when I told him I was going to study English, he didn’t encourage me.” As Graham's father explained, the degree had no practical value, and after all, she "could always read" on her own.

Decades later, parents still often fear that their lit-smitten offspring will wind up waiting tables and cursing the day they ever heard of Emily Dickinson. With today’s soaring tuitions and uncertain economy, majors that segue into a clear vocational path, like technology, science, business, or engineering, may look like the best investment. But in fact, said Graham, who changed her college major three times before settling on the subject she loved, "prospective English majors should know that there are a lot of things you can do with the degree." And as a number of SMC alums have found, an English B.A. can even pave the way to coveted, well-compensated jobs in the technology sector.

As an English major, Girish enjoyed courses like those taught by Graham "where I was able to completely be myself and express myself through my writing."

Saint Mary’s undergraduates chat with presenters like Elizabeth Schroeder ’12, marketing specialist at Rix Industries (in glasses), and Erin Kinda ’14, production assistant at Pixar, about how their college studies have helped them beyond the classroom at a Career Night for English majors in April.

But meanwhile, she was also sharpening her ability to synthesize information—a skill that would serve her well as she pursued an M.S. in software engineering at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and started her developer career at Microsoft. Today, at the five-year-old Laughing Buddha Games, she's relying once again on techniques she learned in English classes, as well as her Lasallian training, creating engaging game plot-lines and acting as a storyteller for social change. "Don't have any doubts," said Girish. "Being an English major gives you skills that are relevant in today's world."

"There is room in this world and this job market for creative thinkers,” agreed Clare FitzPatrick (’11, M.F.A. ’13), a third-generation Gael who uses her English-major expertise at Cognizant Technologies at Google, helping diagnose and create solutions for Google Map problems. Analyzing literary texts, said FitzPatrick, a former Riverrun editor who has published a handful of her "minimalist" short stories, has a lot in common with analyzing reports of app malfunctions.

"I don't think any English major in history has ever thought, 'I'm going to graduate from school and go to work for Google,'" said FitzPatrick, 26, who, in a one-thing-led-to-another scenario, did just that. But with ever-more-advanced systems, gadgets, and apps being developed every day, some companies are looking to hire strong thinkers and communicators rather than grads with specific technical know-how. In a 2013 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 93 percent of the executives surveyed said that in their evaluations of job candidates, "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than undergraduate major."

English major Marshal Caro ’12, now a project manager for the global finance operations team at Oracle Corporation, based in Redwood City, said that "the analytical value of the English major is often overlooked when compared to more numerical and data-oriented majors." However, said Caro, who believes that his extensive co-curricular leadership activities helped him land the Oracle job, the major "teaches students to view arguments and information critically, finding weak points and connections that are not explicitly stated."

Some English majors who wind up in tech companies, like Amanda Talbott ’07, a programs manager who focuses on Facebook’s diversity recruiting efforts, need little in the way of tech prowess to get a foot in the door. Talbott, a transfer student from the University of Washington, served for a year in Iraq as a public affairs officer with the National Guard and developed a keen interest in veterans' issues. At Facebook, where she started in 2011 as a university recruiter, she uses her SMC-honed communication skills—"the backbone of any job I've ever had"—to help hire people "who are underrepresented in the tech area, including women, veterans, minorities, and people with disabilities," among others.

"I'm not in a tech role," said Talbott, 32, who contemplates writing a memoir about her time in Iraq, "but my job is to think a lot about how we fill our tech roles."

Increasingly, though, experts recommend that English and other liberal arts majors pick up some tech training before knocking on Silicon Valley doors. "Apple is not interested in hiring people because they love literature, but because they've developed certain skills that will help Apple in its business," said Ed Biglin, professor of English and African literature, and SMC's chief technology officer from 2003-2012. Tech companies may value the brainpower that English majors bring to the job, Biglin said, but still like candidates to have taken a tech course or two, completed a project that showcases tech skills, or perhaps volunteered at the college IT center. Toward this end, SMC is currently developing a digital studies minor that will serve as a complement to liberal arts majors, with an anticipated debut in 2016.

"The more of a technology base you have, the better," confirmed Amanda McPherson, a co-founder of the nonprofit Linux Foundation in San Francisco, and the open-source software company’s chief marketing officer. That said, McPherson still prefers to hire English or other liberal arts majors for her approximately 35-person staff. "What I like is someone who is really smart and curious and cares about the world," said McPherson, a novelist who holds a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley and a creative writing M.F.A. from University of Arizona. "I like to see someone who as an undergrad had an intellectual passion instead of someone with a business degree. All the business stuff you learn on the job anyway. What you may be studying in some marketing course as an undergrad, it will be so different by the time you’re working."

Andy Kraus ’97, information technology director at Berkeley’s Cal Performances, chose a tech job in an arts nonprofit because of his liberal arts education.Andy Kraus ’97, who serves as information technology director for Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, shares McPherson’s openness to hiring people with a liberal arts bent—especially, he says, those who are good communicators. "The stereotype of the rigid, nonsocial programmer who sits in a dark room is not sustainable anymore,” said Kraus, who abandoned a biology major when he "fell in love" with the humanities in Seminar, pursued an English B.A., and, as the upshot of a 1995 January Term class on the then-emerging phenomenon of the Internet, he designed, with classmates, the first website about SMC. Kraus went on to obtain an M.S. in computer science at Syracuse University in New York, but "made a conscious choice informed by my liberal arts education at Saint Mary’s" to use his tech skills "in the nonprofit and educational culture of the arts."

Despite such cross-over success stories, however, the popularity of liberal arts versus business and science has flip-flopped at SMC in the last 24 years, echoing national trends. According to the college's Office of Institutional Research, School of Liberal Arts majors (a category that includes English majors) declined between 1990 and 2014 from 57.3 to 39.2 percent, while business and science majors increased from 42.7 to 60.8 percent.

Biglin, for one, urges would-be English majors to think carefully before opting for a seemingly more pragmatic degree. "In effect, people who choose a major because they think it leads to a particular job are making a bet that they understand the future," he said. "And they don't." To illustrate this point, he used to hand out his business card identifying him as the college's chief technology officer and ask students to guess his undergraduate major. Few of them figured the guy with the techie job—a job that didn't even exist when Biglin attended college—for a classics major.

"What's more important than making predictions about the future is understanding the value of the intellectual and practical skills you develop as a student, because those skills are transferrable," said Biglin, who was awarded his Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley in 1969, during a period when "the academic job market had dried up." Forced to switch gears, Biglin found work in the burgeoning tech industry, where companies "were thrilled to pay me quite a bit more than I made in academics" to write business and publicity documents.

Yet conversely, he said, "I've lived through various recessions, a time when engineers couldn't find work, when tens of thousands of people were being laid off in the industry." So, he tells students, "If you're choosing a major simply to give you a guaranteed job, that's something you ought to think about more fully.”

Adds FitzPatrick, who puts in full workdays at Google’s Mountain View campus but continues to write in her spare time: "It's sad when people choose a degree and are miserable the whole time and get into the world and realize they're doing something they absolutely hate. Forget what other people are telling you. If you want a liberal arts degree, then do it."

By Autumn Stephens
Photography by Carl Detorres

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