“They just care about equity,” says a programmer responding to a question on Quora about working with non-tech founders. A couple of comments down, programmers are called “arrogant”, to which comes the response: “ideas are so passé.”
Even as startups move towards building a diversified team, where there is an overlap in capabilities, there remains a sense of mistrust between tech and non-tech.
This may be because people in tech are often unaware of what capabilities to look out for when working with or hiring non-tech co-founders.
Specifically, there is confusion about how to assess what are commonly, and rather condescendingly, known as a person’s “soft” skills – I’ll refer to these as “capabilities” from hereon. There is also a widespread assumption that these skills are inferior to occupational or “hard skills”.
In making this list, my hope is to counter this misunderstanding that contributes to a trust gap between tech and non-tech folks.
If programmers are able to understand these “soft skills” as capabilities, they may be more likely to appreciate their value and the potential of having a non-tech person on their team.
Here are four competencies that I think people with a liberal arts or humanities background are trained to cultivate:
The ability to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas or concepts. Entrepreneur Caterina Fake, in an interview with ReadWrite, said that she was trained as an oil painter and also studied English in college. She also had an interest in computers and said that she wanted to “translate” her training as an artist onto the web. That was the start of her career in tech.
The ability to understand one’s place in the world and have a global worldview. To think about how we are connected beyond national borders and how local events and our actions have a global impact.
Y Combinator alumni and Watsi’s marketing head Grace Garey studied global studies and political science in college and did research work in Ghana prior to joining Watsi. Through her travel and education, she says she was “trying to figure out what people were doing to create opportunity for those who were born without it,” and how she could be a part of this.
- The ability to critically assess how systems work and fail. In 2011, Google’s Director of Engineering Damon Horowitz delivered a talk at Stanford University where he discussed his reasons for taking a break from his career and pursuing a PhD in Philosophy.
Horowitz, who studied artificial intelligence with a specialization in natural language processing, said that it was while studying philosophy that he came to realize that no matter how much he improved upon it, the AI system itself had its limitations and the changes would not be incremental.
He says his focus then shifted from assuming that machines could resolve all of our problems to looking at how they could “facilitate human problem solving” instead.
- The ability to be open to learning and, as cartoonist Bill Watterson puts it, “to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness” that allows us to “wander into new territories.”
One can argue that this expansion of the mind is also connected to the ability to have a broader or “macro” view of things. For instance, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, said that through studying philosophy at Oxford, he wanted to “strengthen public intellectual culture.” Findery’s Caterina Fake, mentioned earlier, knew she wanted to create something around the idea of community and the sharing of stories.
To conclude, I think what could really help bridge the trust gap between tech and non-tech is acknowledgement of different kinds of capabilities.
What could keep this conversation going is people’s willingness to discourse on it, and what may move the discussion forward, as one engineering colleague put it, is their ability to “empathize” with each other.