how my "impractical" humanities degree prepared me for a career in programming

03 Feb 2014

When I tell people what I do, and then answer the inevitable “What was your major in college?” I'm usually faced with exclamations of surprise, bewilderment, or just plain confusion.1 My answer to the latter question usually garners some semblance of that response anyway, even though I always thought that Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic was a totally normal university course that anyone in their right mind would elect to take.2 But what most people can't seem to piece together is how I went from a degree where I learned medieval Welsh, recited Latin and Irish poetry,3 and studied Anglo-Saxon kings,4 to a career that seems so deeply rooted in modern technological culture: programming.

Maybe some of the shock has to do with the century gap – most of my time in college was spent pouring over texts written a thousand years ago, and now my daily life centers around languages invented in the past few decades. I think most of the confusion, though, arises from this prevailing concept that humanities degrees cannot lead to STEM5 careers.6 This is bullshit.7

I'm not here to give my life story on how I made the “transition” from whatever “normal” humanities-major folk do and what “techies” do – whatever the hell any of that even means – but to reflect on my experience and share how my extremely esoteric, impractical, fantastically interesting, unique, and fun humanities degree did in fact give me skills that I use on a daily basis. Skills for which I am infinitely grateful, and which are highly needed in my field.

1. Communication

I can't even begin to stress how important this is. My communication skills were improved exponentially when I had to write three- to five-thousand-word essays every week and discuss8 them verbally in supervisions. Now, whether I'm pitching crazy awesome apps9 to a potential investor, or more regularly, explaining to clients why a certain feature addition just isn't a practical use of my time or their money, I have to be able to communicate well. Contract programming is half coding, half negotiation.

But on an even more basic level, communication is key to making good software. How many times have you used a gem10 or other program with not only shitty (or nonexistent) documentation, but obtuse methods that don't elucidate what the hell the code is trying to accomplish? When have you inherited a piece of software to hack on, only to find a similar situation, as well as a tight deadline that leaves little time for figuring out what the previous programmer intended? Computer languages are great and all, but they're used by humans, and they need to be well-communicated.

2. The Power of Language

This brings me to my little rant on how fucking awesome language is, and how central it is to programming. I can just see you busting out the no-shit face now – “Well, they're called computer languages, dummy!” – but hear me out. My intense study of multiple dead and living languages embedded in me an innate grasp of syntax, grammar, and just general lingustic structure across incredibly different language families. When I first saw = and == in a Ruby program, I could immediately pick up on which contexts they were frequently used in (e.g. when one was declaring the value of variables and when the other was being used in conditional statements).11 I never even read the documentation or had a real tutorial before I began taking = and == and using them (reasonably) correctly. When I first look at a piece of code, my mind starts recognizing, memorizing, and using patterns like this, so new computer language aqcuisition is a rather speedy (and thorough) process for me.12

But natural attention to linguistic structure isn't all that my humanities degree imparted to me in this regard, but also a sheer joy in linguistic diversity and nuance. When I learned that a new array can be created by either array = [] or array =, I was fucking stoked.13 The first is simple and quick, while the second allows for arguments to be passed into it, like, “baller”) (which yields [“baller”, “baller”]). Which one you choose to use entirely depends on what you feel like, or what your situation calls for – akin to how in Irish both and madra mean “dog,” but both have different connotations and would be used based on personal choice or context.14

 3. Informed Decisions

As simple of an example as this is, choosing between [] and can only be done well through understanding the range in meaning and usage of each one. These can be learned quickly if you're already trained in what to look for, and especially if you're already used to the amazing flexibility, dynamics, and nuance of human languages. But my humanities degree also trained me for making good decisions on a larger scale.

The programming community is constantly discussing what are called “best practices.”15 The medievalist community is constantly discussing whether Arthur originated in Wales, France, or Mars. I know the parallel should be obvious, but in case it's not, let me explain. When I'm writing a paper on the origins of Arthur and I argue that there are Byzantine references in some texts that suggest the legend of Arthur started on the Continent and not in the British Isles, I really have to do my research. I have to cite scholars who agree and scholars who disagree – and assess these scholars' and their arguments' credibility. I have to determine if the references were introduced at the same time the text was originally written, or if they were introduced later. I have to look at these examples of Byzantine references myself and determine if they are strong enough references, or even if they're referring to Byzantine culture at all.

The same goes for when I'm architecting a piece of software. If I hear about some cool new programming trend, I have to do just as much research. Does this trend fit with “best practices”? Are “best practices” – which change frequently, mind you – really the best, whether overall or just within my current project? Who's promoting the trend, who's dissing it, and do I respect those individuals' work?

If I'm considering using a gem in my application, I need to read the gem's code to see if it was even done well before I blindly just plug it into my program. I want to see who made it, who uses it (if possible), if it's being maintained, and if it can really fit within the scope of my project. It's so irritating to start using a gem without doing enough research and end up ditching it (and having to do clean-up) because it wasn't suitable or was poorly crafted.

Long hours of research, meticulous citation, and argumentative writing taught me how to immediately approach making decisions based on critical thinking and strong research and evaluation, as well as the ability to change my decisions in light of new evidence or compelling arguments. These skills are essential when both coding and designing software. It keeps you from just hopping on the latest code-wagon and helps you argue your case when talking to your team about the decisions you're making – which also goes back to the importance of communication.

4. Making the Pieces Fit Together

One of the things I only realized recently about myself as a programmer, and really as a person, is that I'm good at keeping the big picture in mind. You could account this to my personality type,16 my zodiac sign,17 or whatever, but I think a lot of it has to do with my humanities degree.18 Why? Because of having to write 15,000 word essays that are at least somewhat coherent! All those paragraphs and arguments you make and block quotes you use19 have to be tied back into your original thesis: everything must be relevant. So when I'm writing an application, I'm very aware of all my models, objects, controllers, views, partials, etc, and constantly thinking about how they piece together and work towards a specific feature's, or the whole app's, goal. Not saying I don't forget things, but I do find myself frequently asking teammates how something is going to play with an object or feature they have forgotten about. I believe I learned a lot of this behavior from writing extensive essays, pulling together every corner of knowledge I have to fit into arguments, and trying to keep my structure coherent, cohesive, and concise – all three alliterative adjectives which I think apply to good programming.

Writing essays, conducting research, learning other languages, having to defend and communicate a position verbally and in writing, are all key components of humanities curricula that can help make better coders, technologists, careerists, people, dogs, anacondas -- you name it. I'm not saying that I'm a perfect programmer, or even a great one, but I do think that my humanities degree prepared me pretty darned well for this life of code I've stumbled upon.20 For any h8rs out there:


1 Not to mention the occasional marriage proposal from Tolkien nerds.
2 I still think that way – I've just come to realize that most people aren't in their right mind.
3 Usually after a bottle of wine.
4 And often dressed up like them.
5 Read: “successful.”
6 Which I think stems from an even more prevalent, and in my mind more troubling, idea that the primary purpose of degrees is to prepare you for a career.
7 I once had a writing teacher who said that profanity was a symptom of a poor vocabulary. Like him, I continue to cuss like a sailor.
8 I.e. defend; i.e. try not to look like an idiot.
9 Shameless self-promotion:
10 Which is essentially a plug-in in the Ruby programming language.
11 See how I just used those great grammatical terms in a newbie observation about code?

12 And similarly, I imagine, for others who already know one computer language. Furthermore, it's a helluva lot easier than acquiring new human languages. That's why I find programmers who call themselves “polyglots” intolerably pretentious. I mean really, a rough equivalent of = and == in Irish Gaelic could be and bheadh. I'd like to see a so-called coder polyglot or non-Gaelic speaker pronounce those words, let alone immediately understand the difference based on context.

13 Okay, maybe that's a mild exaggeration. I definitely thought it was super cool though.
14 This is sort of a simplistic semantic example, but if you'd like to hear my nerdier, more technically parallel examples between Ruby and Irish word choices, get in touch and we'll geek out together.
15 This is especially true for those of us who use RubyOnRails, with its cult of DHH versus the rebellious factions vying for fame and glory.
16 Which would probably get about 0 matches on OKCupid.
17 Capricorn, by the way. Yes, that means I'm coming after you, Pisces.21
18 If you can't tell, I think my humanities degree was fucking baller and a great preparation for life as a human in general.
19 To try to reach the word count minimum, until you realize that quotes aren't counted in the official word count.
20 Like that internety reference? I'm so clever.
21 Loljk. I don't know anything about horoscopes.22
22 Whoa, look at all this meta-footnoting.

Slán go fóill,
Shelby at 09:30