How does a humanities student become a software engineer?

If you haven't studied a technical degree, the routes to become a software engineer can be blurry. We take a look at how humanities students can take the first steps needed to become software engineers as well as why their degrees have already set them on the path towards success.

Becoming a software engineer means you need to have studied computer science, right? This may be what you’re currently thinking. Coming from a background in humanities you might feel that you’ve missed the opportunity to pursue a career in tech. Are you thinking that you should have taken a technical degree? That it’s too late to change direction?

It’s not the case. The tech industry has both a need and demand for humanities grads. And it’s entirely possible to make the switch into the industry. Research has shown that those taking humanities subjects end up in 8 of out 10 of the fastest growing sectors more often than their STEM counterparts.

“Our evidence shows that graduates from social sciences and humanities change sector more frequently than Stem graduates. They’re able to find new jobs in economic downturns and when made redundant. That’s increasingly important in an economy when you often don’t have a job for life,” explains Harriet Barnes of the British Academy.

So, with the right training, development, and knowledge you can move into the tech sector.

The state of play

There is already a misalignment between the tech industry and current education models. 82% of all job advertisements in the UK are for digital-based roles but 71% of technology employers admit that there is a growing skills shortage. This is the case both for humanities and also those who may have studied more obviously suitable subjects such as computer science.

It’s little surprise then that many graduates simply don’t know the best route into a tech career. Further training and boot camps are an option, but they are generally very expensive (it’s estimated that acquiring further educational skills to switch to tech costs an average of $38,507). For graduates already facing a tough economy, this is often simply not an option. 

STEM drive

Humanity graduates also have the added challenge of the perception that their degrees aren’t as valuable coupled with the drive in recent years towards Stem subjects. In the UK government initiatives pushing towards STEM subjects have seen a 20% drop in students taking A-Levels in English and a 15% decrease in arts subjects. At a global level, Australia has gone even further charging students higher fees for humanities subjects in a push to incentivise ‘job-relevant” choices.

There is a perception by governments that pushing Stem subjects is an important part of the solution to the tech skills shortage. But it’s more complex than that and fails to fully understand the issue on a couple of counts. Firstly, it doesn’t account for the mismatch between those studying technical courses and the demands of the workplace. It also fails to take into account the shift in Silicon Valley and the tech industry more broadly in recent years.

Whilst historically there was a trend in thinking that Stem education was the be all and end all amongst tech companies, recent years have seen a shift in thinking amongst Silicon Valley’s biggest players with them realising the huge benefits found in humanities subjects. As writer and Forbes reporter George Anders explains:

“Uber was picking up psychology majors to deal with unhappy riders and drivers. Opentable was hiring English majors to bring data to restauranteurs to get them excited about what data could do for their restaurants. I realised that the ability to communicate and get along with people, and understand what’s on other people’s minds, and do full-strength critical thinking – all of these things were valued and appreciated by everyone as important job skills, except the media.”

So it seems that there is a definite need- and indeed a demand- for humanities grads in the tech world. How then can you start taking steps to become a software engineer?

Bridging the gap

There are a number of ways. Showing an interest and joining a tech or coding society at university not only gives you skills but looks good to recruiters in the future. In fact, university is an ideal place to learn more about these skills. Despite a huge investment of £100m in Computer Science courses in UK schools the education being offered there is not optimum. It’s estimated only 35 percent of ICT teachers are specialists, compared with 74 and 80 percent of maths and English teachers respectively. Adoption of computer science at GCSE and beyond remains low as a result. Consequently, university is an ideal place to develop these skills. So joining a university society or an organisation like Code First Girls (which aims to tackle the gender disparity in tech and recently passed its milestone to teach 20,000 young women how to code) is an excellent first step. 

Developing your skillset with an open-source programme is another great way to test your interest in tech without having to outlay a huge amount of money. CodeAcademy, SuperHi, and GitHub offer introductory courses at low cost, sometimes even free. You only need fairly entry-level technical knowledge to try your hand at building something. SuperHi offers free HTML and CSS courses whilst Harvard’s CS50 course allows you to build a game in real time.

Reading about the tech industry is another affordable way to gain insight. So if you’re still studying, now is the time to take advantage of the library. We would particularly recommend Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship and Software Engineering at Google. Both of these have helped shape our curriculum. We also recommend beginning by looking at framework over syntax. There are so many coding languages. Which can seem pretty daunting when you’re just starting on the subject. So rather than simply learning a language for the sake of it, focus insisted on the frameworks that apply to the majority of languages which you can then apply to a multitude of other languages.

Technology needs people like you

Initially finding a route into tech can seem challenging but do not be deterred. There is a huge need for humanitarian graduates like you in the sector. These subjects teach skills and ways of thinking that are hugely in demand. So much of tech is now about creating products that work for people. It needs to mimic and understand their desires, wants, and needs. Technology in general only ever becomes more human-centric simulating human characteristics. Skills like critical analysis or empathy- which are a key part of many humanities subjects- are tremendously helpful for the problem-solving aspects of tech. 

What’s more, diversity is very important to success in all types of organisations. It’s been shown that organisations that are committed to promoting diversity can see innovation rise by 83%. Different skills and backgrounds mean a greater range of ideas and perspectives to draw on. 

Scott Harley explains that the best tech leaders:  “Have the ability to take a step back, ask the right questions, empathise with the customer. And these are the various things that you learn through a humanities or liberal arts type program.”

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So if you’re currently studying or have recently graduated and are looking at a career in tech our programme could be of interest. We’re changing the face of the tech industry with our Scholars. A career in technology is closer than you think.

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