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Eric Berridge: Why tech needs the humanities

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If you want to build a team of innovative problem-solvers, you should value the humanities just as much as the sciences, says entrepreneur Eric Berridge. He shares why tech companies should look beyond STEM graduates for new hires -- and how people with backgrounds in the arts and humanities can bring creativity and insight to technical workplaces.

- Entrepreneur
Eric Berridge is an entrepreneurial humanist who believes our society is overly obsessed with STEM. Full bio

You've all been in a bar, right?
00:12
(Laughter)
00:14
But have you ever gone to a bar
00:16
and come out with a $200 million business?
00:19
That's what happened to us
about 10 years ago.
00:24
We'd had a terrible day.
00:27
We had this huge client
that was killing us.
00:30
We're a software consulting firm,
00:34
and we couldn't find
a very specific programming skill
00:36
to help this client deploy
a cutting-edge cloud system.
00:39
We have a bunch of engineers,
00:43
but none of them could please this client.
00:45
And we were about to be fired.
00:49
So we go out to the bar,
00:51
and we're hanging out
with our bartender friend Jeff,
00:54
and he's doing
what all good bartenders do:
00:58
he's commiserating with us,
making us feel better,
01:00
relating to our pain,
01:03
saying, "Hey, these guys
are overblowing it.
01:05
Don't worry about it."
01:07
And finally, he deadpans us and says,
01:08
"Why don't you send me in there?
01:11
I can figure it out."
01:13
So the next morning,
we're hanging out in our team meeting,
01:15
and we're all a little hazy ...
01:19
(Laughter)
01:22
and I half-jokingly throw it out there.
01:24
I say, "Hey, I mean,
we're about to be fired."
01:26
So I say,
01:29
"Why don't we send in
Jeff, the bartender?"
01:30
(Laughter)
01:32
And there's some silence,
some quizzical looks.
01:35
Finally, my chief of staff says,
"That is a great idea."
01:39
(Laughter)
01:43
"Jeff is wicked smart. He's brilliant.
01:45
He'll figure it out.
01:48
Let's send him in there."
01:50
Now, Jeff was not a programmer.
01:52
In fact, he had dropped out of Penn
as a philosophy major.
01:54
But he was brilliant,
01:59
and he could go deep on topics,
02:01
and we were about to be fired.
02:04
So we sent him in.
02:06
After a couple days of suspense,
02:09
Jeff was still there.
02:11
They hadn't sent him home.
02:15
I couldn't believe it.
02:17
What was he doing?
02:19
Here's what I learned.
02:21
He had completely disarmed
their fixation on the programming skill.
02:23
And he had changed the conversation,
02:29
even changing what we were building.
02:31
The conversation was now
about what we were going to build and why.
02:33
And yes, Jeff figured out
how to program the solution,
02:41
and the client became
one of our best references.
02:46
Back then, we were 200 people,
02:50
and half of our company was made up
of computer science majors or engineers,
02:52
but our experience with Jeff
left us wondering:
02:59
Could we repeat this through our business?
03:02
So we changed the way
we recruited and trained.
03:06
And while we still sought after computer
engineers and computer science majors,
03:11
we sprinkled in artists,
musicians, writers ...
03:17
and Jeff's story started to multiply
itself throughout our company.
03:24
Our chief technology officer
is an English major,
03:29
and he was a bike messenger in Manhattan.
03:34
And today, we're a thousand people,
03:38
yet still less than a hundred have degrees
in computer science or engineering.
03:41
And yes, we're still
a computer consulting firm.
03:48
We're the number one player in our market.
03:52
We work with the fastest-growing
software package
03:54
to ever reach 10 billion dollars
in annual sales.
03:56
So it's working.
04:01
Meanwhile, the push for STEM-based
education in this country --
04:05
science, technology,
engineering, mathematics --
04:11
is fierce.
04:14
It's in all of our faces.
04:15
And this is a colossal mistake.
04:18
Since 2009, STEM majors
in the United States
04:21
have increased by 43 percent,
04:25
while the humanities have stayed flat.
04:28
Our past president
04:30
dedicated over a billion dollars
towards STEM education
04:33
at the expense of other subjects,
04:36
and our current president
04:39
recently redirected 200 million dollars
of Department of Education funding
04:42
into computer science.
04:47
And CEOs are continually complaining
about an engineering-starved workforce.
04:49
These campaigns,
04:57
coupled with the undeniable success
of the tech economy --
05:00
I mean, let's face it,
05:04
seven out of the 10 most valuable
companies in the world by market cap
05:05
are technology firms --
05:10
these things create an assumption
05:13
that the path of our future workforce
will be dominated by STEM.
05:16
I get it.
05:24
On paper, it makes sense.
05:26
It's tempting.
05:29
But it's totally overblown.
05:33
It's like, the entire soccer team
chases the ball into the corner,
05:35
because that's where the ball is.
05:41
We shouldn't overvalue STEM.
05:44
We shouldn't value the sciences
any more than we value the humanities.
05:48
And there are a couple of reasons.
05:52
Number one, today's technologies
are incredibly intuitive.
05:55
The reason we've been able
to recruit from all disciplines
06:01
and swivel into specialized skills
06:05
is because modern systems
can be manipulated without writing code.
06:08
They're like LEGO: easy to put together,
easy to learn, even easy to program,
06:13
given the vast amounts of information
that are available for learning.
06:19
Yes, our workforce
needs specialized skill,
06:23
but that skill requires a far less
rigorous and formalized education
06:27
than it did in the past.
06:32
Number two, the skills
that are imperative and differentiated
06:34
in a world with intuitive technology
06:40
are the skills that help us
to work together as humans,
06:43
where the hard work
is envisioning the end product
06:49
and its usefulness,
06:54
which requires real-world experience
and judgment and historical context.
06:55
What Jeff's story taught us
07:03
is that the customer
was focused on the wrong thing.
07:05
It's the classic case:
07:10
the technologist struggling to communicate
with the business and the end user,
07:12
and the business failing
to articulate their needs.
07:16
I see it every day.
07:22
We are scratching the surface
07:25
in our ability as humans
to communicate and invent together,
07:27
and while the sciences teach us
how to build things,
07:32
it's the humanities that teach us
what to build and why to build them.
07:36
And they're equally as important,
07:43
and they're just as hard.
07:46
It irks me ...
07:50
when I hear people
treat the humanities as a lesser path,
07:54
as the easier path.
08:00
Come on!
08:01
The humanities give us
the context of our world.
08:04
They teach us how to think critically.
08:10
They are purposely unstructured,
08:14
while the sciences
are purposely structured.
08:16
They teach us to persuade,
they give us our language,
08:19
which we use to convert our emotions
to thought and action.
08:23
And they need to be
on equal footing with the sciences.
08:32
And yes, you can hire a bunch of artists
08:36
and build a tech company
08:40
and have an incredible outcome.
08:43
Now, I'm not here today
to tell you that STEM's bad.
08:46
I'm not here today
to tell you that girls shouldn't code.
08:52
(Laughter)
08:57
Please.
08:58
And that next bridge I drive over
09:00
or that next elevator we all jump into --
09:02
let's make sure
there's an engineer behind it.
09:07
(Laughter)
09:09
But to fall into this paranoia
09:14
that our future jobs
will be dominated by STEM,
09:17
that's just folly.
09:22
If you have friends or kids
or relatives or grandchildren
09:24
or nieces or nephews ...
09:28
encourage them to be
whatever they want to be.
09:30
(Applause)
09:34
The jobs will be there.
09:41
Those tech CEOs
09:45
that are clamoring for STEM grads,
09:48
you know what they're hiring for?
09:51
Google, Apple, Facebook.
09:54
Sixty-five percent
of their open job opportunities
09:57
are non-technical:
10:01
marketers, designers,
project managers, program managers,
10:03
product managers, lawyers, HR specialists,
10:08
trainers, coaches, sellers,
buyers, on and on.
10:12
These are the jobs they're hiring for.
10:15
And if there's one thing
that our future workforce needs --
10:20
and I think we can all agree on this --
10:26
it's diversity.
10:29
But that diversity shouldn't end
with gender or race.
10:31
We need a diversity of backgrounds
10:35
and skills,
10:39
with introverts and extroverts
10:42
and leaders and followers.
10:45
That is our future workforce.
10:48
And the fact that the technology
is getting easier and more accessible
10:51
frees that workforce up
10:57
to study whatever they damn well please.
10:59
Thank you.
11:03
(Applause)
11:04

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About the speaker:

Eric Berridge - Entrepreneur
Eric Berridge is an entrepreneurial humanist who believes our society is overly obsessed with STEM.

Why you should listen

As the co-founder of global consulting agency and Salesforce strategic partner Bluewolf, an IBM Company, Eric Berridge has applied his passion for the humanities over the past 17 years to pioneer a cloud consulting practice with less than 10 percent of employees holding engineering or computer science degrees. The way he sees it, as technology becomes easier to use and build, the humanities offer skills that are becoming increasingly valuable to the success of business everywhere. And today’s AI-driven discussion holds the key to freeing the human condition to be balanced, healthy, creative and productive.

More profile about the speaker
Eric Berridge | Speaker | TED.com