If you throw out the term ‘arts degree’ in tech and business circles, it’s not uncommon to hear some jokes about employability and calibre of graduates.
To be honest, when I started off in uni, I had a misguided perception that the degree was fluffy & impractical, and attracted students who couldn’t cut it in other programs.
From an optics perspective, degrees like Computer Science & Commerce seemingly have a direct, practical connection to these highly-paid paths, whereas there isn’t a direct role corresponding to ‘Arts’ in most startups
After meeting several super sharp thinkers & communicators who studied arts, I’ve realised my naive high schooler perception of the degree was totally off, and in fact, the skillset can be super useful and big differentiator in a career context.
But talking to students today, a lot of the mythology that I bought into still persists.
That’s why I sparred with Jethro Cohen (Investor @ Square Peg | Ex-Uber | Ex-:Different) to cut through the bullshit and make a case for arts education in building great business thinkers & communicators.
When I finished high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I held a vague sense that politics and diplomacy interested me.
I was opinionated, followed the news closely, and had been a good debater. During our end-of-year superlative awards, I won "most likely to be Prime Minister". I was an academic kid with great marks but little direction; ambitious without goals.
Exposure to DFAT ambassadors through a rather-forgotten passion for model UN, and buddies a few years older who'd buy me beer at UTAS' law-school local led me to think a combined Arts/Laws degree would open doors to opaque destinations I chased.
At the end of the first semester of my fourth year - having finished my Arts degree but not Law - I was hit by the realisation that I still had no real plan. Friends were applying for clerkships and consulting internships, neither of which I found appealing.
I decided to take 6 months off. I'd found a very junior admin gig at PwC, and hoped the extra money and headspace would help me figure out what I wanted from a career.
Well... I never returned. An admin role at PwC turned into a Consultant, then Senior Consultant role. Friends referred me to Uber as it launched Eats across APAC. A tremendously rewarding few years with Uber led to me running Operations at :Different, an Aussie start-up backed by Airtree, CBA and more.
Somewhere along the way I figured out I loved technology, loved working with brilliant people, and loved the startup ecosystem. This direction helped me find a role I felt deeply passionate about, investing in early stage startups with Square Peg Capital.
I'm the only person in Square Peg's investment team with "just" an Arts degree. In all my roles, I was one of, if not the only person, without a degree in Business or STEM. I've been surrounded by colleagues with Honours in Law and Medals in Commerce. And from that, I have - until recently - carried a huge chip on my shoulder.
That humble line on my CV has brought preconceptions about the value I add and the work I most enjoy. But in the last few years, I've come to deeply appreciate my studies and the disciplines it taught me.
So much so, that I thought it was worth sharing why I think most employers seriously underestimate Arts graduates.
To me, there are 3 key factors that give Arts degrees an edge in the world of tech, startups and VC:
#1: Critical Thinking & Playing Devil’s Advocate 😈
The pedagogy of Arts degrees are curious. There's never a right answer, and great marks are often awarded for contrarian thinking.
When I was figuring out markers' preferences, I thought comparing the relative strengths of one framework against another, concluding both had value in different circumstances, was the trick to good grades.
Wrong. I came to learn that high distinctions followed strong opinions argued convincingly.
Where other disciplines share elements of this, they often do so where there's a clearly established view, and then a minority view from which a few brave soldiers throw stones.
In the context of Liberal Arts, 'truth' can be a free-for-all, with no clear majority perspective held by academics, or taught to students. And where this isn’t always the case - I had many Political Economy lecturers push Marx - students can be rewarded for bucking the trend.
Reflecting this scholarship in the pursuit of high distinctions can mean arguing for a perspective you held academically, not personally. And where this isn't directly analogous to good decision making in a professional context, I cannot overstate the value of having sufficient cognitive creativity to understand the value that each side of a debate brings - even where you don’t share it personally.
This is relevant every day in VC. When meeting pre-launch or pre-revenue businesses - especially those breaking the mould - it’s easy to rely on established heuristics.
But forcing oneself to see the other side - the side that’s sure this is a brilliant idea - is a skill the best investors hold dear.
Jessy Wu was the first employee at Afterwork Ventures, and is a core member of their investment team. She was a Philosophy and English student at university. Her ability to appreciate contrarian views is integral in her role as a pre-seed and seed-stage investor.
We’ve spoken about our studies in the past, and she credits her BA with helping build logical frameworks through which to assess investments. I’m consistently impressed by her nuanced ability to walk the line between both sides of a debate. I've learnt a lot from it, and suspect this talent will continue accelerating AfterWork’s impact.
#2: Writing as a Hard Skill ✍️
I believe that learning to write well takes significantly more practice than learning enough SQL, Excel, or Powerpoint to succeed in 80% of professional roles.
So when I see job ads’ “skills” sections leave off “brilliant written communicator”, I’m left scratching my head.
Analysis is useful, but communicating insights to a diverse audience is an enviable talent. Writing is, without a shadow of doubt in mind, one of the most important hard skills.
Arts students are lucky in this sense. Almost all assignments they write are akin to long-form opinion pieces summarising esoteric arguments into bite sized paragraphs.
And for better or for worse, markers often reward mellifluous diction. This practice is just far less common in other degrees.
I’ve been fortunate to work with and manage many great minds in my career. Without exception, the ones who write well have stood out to leadership teams faster, and have finalised output more autonomously.
Perhaps that perception is unfair - written work is often the visible form of technical analysis, and it’s just that the last port of call gets the credit.
But the utility in analysis isn’t the skill taken to crunch numbers, it’s making sure your audience walks away having learnt something new, which - unless you’re communicating with an equally technical audience - requires storytelling.
In roles at Uber, I’d need to convince executives of new strategic priorities - often in emails.
At :Different, I managed a team of 30 operators (many of whom spoke English as a second language) asynchronously across time zones, primarily through Slack messages outlining our performance against shifting priorities.
In my role at Square Peg, compressing complex business models into digestible investment memo’s helps our full investment team make informed calls on the founders we choose to back. Across all of this, comfort writing has been key.
James Tynan - the former VP of Operations and Strategy at Khan Academy, then CEO of Startmate - is a mentor of mine in his role as a Principal at Square Peg. He studied Arts. He’s an exceptional writer, and what others take paragraphs to write, James communicates in a sentence. Others in the team revere this skill: it makes our workload lighter, and the process of learning more enjoyable.
A little farther afield, Max Rhodes - the Founder & CEO of wholesale marketplace, Faire, who’s raised $1.1B from some of the best global investors - is a History student with a BA from Yale. In a recent interview, he celebrated the organisation’s writing culture as a core component of their success: teams celebrate the memo as a tool to clarify thinking and ease the consumption of information.
#3: A Macro Lens Across Time & Space 🌏
Were the socio-political impacts of Facebook predictable a decade ago? At the time, probably not.
But at some point in almost every Arts degree, students are forced to unpack the impact that unchecked publishing sources - like state-sponsored news, pop-media, and more - have on communities.
Developing a macro lens of how society is progressing - or the practical antithesis of cultural tunnel vision - is core to the pursuit of Liberal Arts. Many engineers, product managers, and technology leaders more broadly would benefit a great deal from stepping back to understand the societal impacts their work may have in success.
Technology increasingly permeates every aspect of our lives, including some of the most important cultural pillars:
- How we develop relationships with friends and strangers, and communicate with them daily
- How we consume media, and share our concurrence or dissent on what we learn
- How we’re taught
- How we engage with organisations, discover their products, purchase from them, and generate a relationship with their brand
Neglecting to appreciate the broader societal impact innovation can have - especially catastrophic effects on the environment, on workers, on small businesses, and more - isn’t something many Arts students would be guilty of.
Is instant checkout driving consumerism and pollution?
Is the gig economy stripping labour protections Australia has a pedigree in protecting?
Will edtech encourage policy makers to strip resources from classrooms?
I’m not really sure where I stand on the answers - they’re concepts I grapple with. But I can guarantee you that an Arts student, somewhere, has a compelling essay addressing these questions.
And where it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a huge movement of engineers standing proudly and politically behind their work (or more accurately, calling out unethical work of employers), some of the most socially conscious tech founders - like Melanie Perkins from Canva, or Whitney Wolfe Herd from Bumble - cut their teeth studying the humble Arts degree.
In exactly the same way some of the most gifted product minds I know aren't engineers, or analytical folks I've worked with aren't statisticians, I by no means want to suggest that those who studied other disciplines - or those who didn't take the tertiary education path - can't be worldly, brilliant communicators.
I just hope to push people to critically assess the value Arts hires can bring to an organisation, especially in the early stages of their career.
I still have t-shirts from Sydney Uni's Arts Students' Society where I was Treasurer, that proudly read it's not just an Arts degree. For many years, I didn’t believe it. But I’ve come to appreciate how wrong I was.