Net leaders see advantages in non-tech degreesThink your 18-year-old will have trouble competing in the e-commerce world because she's majoring in philosophy rather than computer science? Consider this: a 1999 survey conducted on behalf of Hewlett-Packard by Texas-based IntelliQuest Information Group revealed that 48 per cent of 291 information technology professionals at companies with 1000 or more employees and annual revenue of at least $US100 million had non-computer-related degrees.
For example, Carly Fiorina, who recently took over as CEO of HP, received a bachelor's degree in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford University.
And at a recent E-Summit at the University of Virginia, several leading Internet executives who spoke were actually graduates of the school's College of Arts and Sciences, rather than the School of Engineering. Among them were James Sheward, CEO of Blue Bell and Fiberlink Communications, and Michael McQuary, president and chief operating officer of Atlanta-based MindSpring Enterprises. Both graduated in the early 1980s with degrees in economics and psychology, respectively.
Neither McQuary nor Sheward expected to work in high tech, but each nonetheless found himself not just working at but also leading Internet companies. The two recently discussed the value of a liberal arts degree in the Internet economy with IDG reporter Julekha Dash.
How did your college major contribute to your career success?
McQuary: If you're a psychology major, you already have a fairly high risk quotient. You're not worried that you're going to land a job anywhere - as opposed to a pre-law major. That entrepreneurial gambler spirit manifests itself.
Sheward: Because [a liberal arts major] is not structured, it enables me to associate two different things more readily than if I approach situations with the same process.
When you hire recent graduates, does it matter if they have technical degrees as opposed to liberal arts degrees?
McQuary: What we're looking for isn't defined by academic curricula. We want people who are bright and personable. You can learn the technology you need to know. The majority of software coders are liberal arts folks who enjoy computer coding as a hobby.
Sheward: There are places in Fiberlink for people with both kinds of backgrounds. We want to see someone who is change-driven.
What do you think is the value of a liberal arts degree for the future of the Internet economy?
McQuary: The nature of the Internet itself has a strong social quotient. Socialising was an important aspect of my experience at university.
I used my friends and contacts to get my venture up and running You can't be successful [in the Internet world] unless you're willing to share and collaborate. One Internet company on its own can't survive.
Being in liberal arts gives you a broader exposure to the student population, compared to nursing or engineering where you're exposed to the same group of people.
Sheward: In the Internet world, creativity is critical because the industry is changing so rapidly. You don't have enough time to collect all the data.
You have to be able to pick things that are happening in different realms and use that in your decision-making.
Did you ever think you would be a techie?
McQuary: No. My undergraduate classes never included any computer science. To this day I can't touch-type. I type with my index finger.
Sheward: No, I enjoyed solving problems but wasn't mechanically inclined. I'm at a loss when my car breaks down.
By Julekha Dash