Talent Crunch

What Light Through Yonder Recession Breaks: English Majors Can Get Tech Jobs Too!

Searching for Holden Caufields.
 What Light Through Yonder Recession Breaks: English Majors Can Get Tech Jobs Too!

Want to be my storyteller?

Rejoice, gentle readers! Paying off your student loans doesn’t have mean switching from James Joyce to Javascript–at least according to an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by author Michael Malone. Considering Mr. Malone is responsible for the annual “Silicon Valley Goes to Oxford” conference and got his new book blurbed by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, we’d suggest taking note.

While startups like Codecademy, Skillshare, and General Assembly rush to train job-seekers in programming languages and computer science, Mr. Malone’s piece offers a peek at the losing end of that equation: college English Departments.

Yes, that’s right, English Departments, like the media industry before it, are finding themselves ill-prepared for the upending tide of the digital revolution. Take for example, the university where Mr. Malone teaches:

The department’s tenured faculty had been reduced to just a handful of professors, many nearing retirement; the rest of the staff was mostly part-time adjunct lecturers. And the students? Little more than half the number of majors of just a decade earlier. I had seen this before.

I asked him: How bad is it? “It’s pretty bad,” he said. “And this economy is only making it worse. There are parents now who tell their kids they will only pay tuition for a business, engineering or science degree.”

But switching from Comp Lit to CS may be short-sighted. After all, in order to convince beta testers, investors, talented employees, and eventually customers to believe in your idea, you’re going to have to tell them a good story. Google veteran Santosh Jayaram, who has a new startup called Dabble, told Mr. Malone’s writing class as much recently:

Santosh said, “Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.” He explained: Twenty years ago, if you wanted to start a company, you spent a month or so figuring out the product you wanted to build, then devoted the next 10 or 12 months to developing the prototype, tooling up and getting into full production.

These days, he said, everything has been turned upside down. Most products now are virtual, such as iPhone apps. You don’t build them so much as construct them from chunks of existing software code—and that work can be contracted out to hungry teams of programmers anywhere in the world, who can do it in a couple of weeks.

But to get to that point, he said, you must spend a year searching for that one undeveloped niche that you can capture. And you must also use that time to find angel or venture investment, establish strategic partners, convince talented people to take the risk and join your firm, explain your product to code writers and designers, and most of all, begin to market to prospective major customers. And you have to do all of that without an actual product.

“And how do you do that?” Santosh said. “You tell stories.” Stories, he said, about your product and how it will be used that are so vivid that your potential stakeholders imagine it already exists and is already part of their daily lives. Almost anything you can imagine you can now build, said Santosh, so the battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent. “That’s why I want to meet your English majors,” he said.

So, take heart literary types. You are employable! Just not, you know, in your field of choice.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com