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More Than "Soft Skills": Why a Masters in History Prepared Me For Programming

alisabaj profile image Alisa Bajramovic ・3 min read

When I was a college student, I studied History and Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies. I went to a liberal arts college which had no general education requirements, so the number of STEM classes I took were limited. There were only a handful of non-humanities courses I took--including one computer science class--and, at the time, I didn't think twice about it. I felt that I was a "humanities person" (whatever that meant) and I should focus on the disciplines I cared most about.

After college, I went on to study for a Masters in Gender History. It was during this program that I came across an 'Intro to Web Development' course taught by Code First: Girls. The course, which ran for two months, was designed for people who identify as women or non-binary, and was supposed to be for absolute beginners. I had long enjoyed doing puzzles, logic games, and design, and I thought that a coding class in such a welcoming environment would be a welcome break from my Masters work. At the time that I applied, I could not have forecasted how much one class would change my career path.

I don't think I would be doing a 15 week software engineering bootcamp right now if I hadn't, on something of a whim, applied for the Code First course. As the field of tech has dismal diversity rates, learning in a group that was catered to women and non-binary folks helped cultivate confidence and a sense of belonging from the get-go.

After the course ended, I took other programming classes online. Meanwhile, I was writing my Gender History dissertation about the history of contraception in Glasgow, Scotland, in the period after World War II. On a surface level, the contrast between my history work and my coding work was stark. Reading dozens books versus reading online documentation. Writing long chapters versus writing a few lines of code. It was only later that I came to realize that there were strong similarities between these two fields.

History research requires immense attention to detail, as well as an ability to constantly consider the larger perspective. It's about placing single events, individuals, and moments in a larger analysis, and synthesizing those pieces to make something cohesive and thoughtful.

Programming requires a close eye at each line of code, understanding how it relates to a larger function, component, feature, and program. There is a need to actively focus on both the trees and the forest, and if done well, you can produce something cohesive and thoughtful.

History, when done well, can have an immense impact. It can affect how people think about their identities and communities, it can alter how we analyze current events, and it can challenge entrenched, problematic beliefs.

Programming, when done well, can give people access to information about their communities and their rights, it can connect individuals and enable them to better organize and effect change, and it can combat exclusionary ideas about whose voices matter most.

Being a humanities student did not teach me what a ternary statement is, how to use higher-order components, or what a callback function is, but it did teach me the aspects of programming that are much harder to learn in a bootcamp. While the skills that I came to my software engineering bootcamp with are often labelled "soft", I find that term to be a misnomer. Skills like analysis, research, synthesizing, communication, and clarity take many years to learn, can transfer into any field, and are highly desirable. Even Mark Cuban said it himself in an interview in 2017:

"I personally think there's going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker."

All this is to say: software engineering is about far more than the code itself. For people who come from humanities backgrounds, especially those who are marginalized or underrepresented in STEM, I highly encourage you to take a beginner’s web development class. If you have any interest in design, problem solving, or logic, or have a passion for improving your communities, programming is a perfect place to start.

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Alisa Bajramovic

@alisabaj

Hi! I'm a software engineer with a background in social history.

Discussion

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This is awesome! One of my biggest issues with modern-day scientists and technologists is that they're so naïve when it comes to understanding the humanities. They all just envision a "utopian" future where everyone's happy. Having people from the humanities, I think, will add a bit more philosophical nuance to scientific and technological discourse. Great post! :)