Carnegie Mellon University
November 01, 2019

Why Tech Needs Humanities Majors

The tech industry suffers from a diversity problem, and the humanities may be the solution.

Leslie Robertson (DC 1989), vice president of software development at Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, recently brought her experience in the tech industry to an interactive talk and  roundtable discussion for the Dietrich College Entrepreneurship Speaker Series, co-sponsored by CMU’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. Robertson also took the time to hold a smaller, personalized talk with CMU English students the day before.

In “Why Tech Needs Humanities Majors,” Robertson emphasized the need for a diverse workforce to build the tech products of tomorrow. She gave highlights from more than 25 years of experience behind creating a cohesive engineering culture within the OCI organization.

Robertson entered CMU with her sights set on being a creative nonfiction writer.

“When I started off, I wanted to be the next John McPhee,” Robertson said. “Instead, I came to college, and I learned something.”

When she enrolled at CMU, Robertson and her peers were required to buy a computer and take a programming class. As she plodded through the mandatory course, she began to grasp that a well-crafted piece of code has a lot in common with a well-crafted piece of writing. Both require a logical argument, creativity and a way to tackle an old problem to influence society and change the world. She realized early on that a writer has a place in the technical world.

Robertson began her talk with some professional advice:

Figure out who you are and be that: Take a moment to identify the types of topics and tasks  that you enjoy and follow those paths.

Raise your hand: Look around you, notice what needs to be done and volunteer to do it. You will learn, you will grow, and you will develop a reputation for getting things done.

Do the new hard thing: It is scary to step outside of your comfort zone, but that brave step may lead you to the next big thing.

Seek feedback: If you want to know what you can do better, and what might be holding you back, ask. Remember that life is an open-book test. You can guess, or you can ask.

Write yourself a note: Take a moment to articulate what you value on a personal level. This approach will keep you grounded and authentic as you navigate your path to success. It also helps you weather the tough times.

Check your blind spots: Blind spots create risk in business. Look for diversity of discipline, education and problem-solving styles to grow a team that diminishes the echo chamber and opens new paths for opportunities.

Own your free square: The things that you find easy to do, others may find hard. Own that. Be able to articulate and sell your unique differences, and make them your strengths.

Ask questions: Always ask questions. You can use questions to identify the gaps in knowledge that will lead to better outcomes.

As a proud humanities major, Robertson graduated from CMU with University Honors and holds a double B.A. in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She understands that it can be scary to seek out the unknown and try something new.

She has followed many unexpected twists and turns from freelance to startups, but after 25-years of detours, she returned to the company that launched her career—Oracle. In four years, she helped OCI grow from a 50-person team considered a ‘science experiment’ to a team of more than 5,000 people that is the centerpiece of and platform for the company’s multibillion dollar business.

According to Robertson, the first step to building a diverse team requires stepping away from group-think and opening the door to people who see the world differently. There is no magic formula, she said, except to challenge yourself by actively looking for an alternate point-of-view. “Check your blindspots.”

“My humanities majors, own your glorious differences,” Robertson said. “You are not less than. It takes courage to own your differences and to be unafraid to stand out.”

She concluded that there is so much more to the tech industry than writing code. Humanities majors see the big picture and are curious. Tech needs their point of view, vision, and experience.

“Tech is trying to solve problems faced by real people,” Robertson said. “If we want products that will meet the needs of humanity, then we need people in tech who reflect the whole diversity of the human experience.”