High tech needs humanities PhDs, say Silicon Valley entrepreneurs at Stanford conference

BiblioTech is the first conference of its kind, encouraging discussions to find ways to bring humanities PhDs into Silicon Valley.

Photos by Peter Atherton / 5D2 Panelists at the BiblioTech conference

BiblioTech panelists included, from right, June Cohen, executive producer at TED Media; Bob Tinker, president and CEO of MobilIron; and English Professor Roland Greene.

Marissa Mayer studied symbolic systems – a blend of philosophy, cognitive psychology, linguistics and computer science – as an undergraduate at Stanford. After graduate work in computer science, Mayer went to work at Google.

When it came time to roll out its new search engine in 1999, the company tried to find an expert to help it refine the user interface. After an unsuccessful external search, Mayer was tapped to work on the project because her background included more than just computer science. Today, she is Google's vice president for consumer products.

Mayer spoke about the ways that humanities PhDs could help Google at BiblioTech, the first conference to unite Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with humanities professors and doctoral students, at Stanford on Wednesday morning. About 120 Stanford students and professors, faculty from other Bay Area institutions and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley attended the two morning sessions at the Bechtel Conference Center in Encina Hall.

Entrepreneurs said that fast-growing start-up companies need people with a wide range of skills, especially those who can help companies extend their global reach, connect with consumers and understand different cultures.

Humanities students show passion and dedication, said Vivek Ranadivé, chief executive officer of the software company TIBCO.

Marissa Mayer speaking at podium

Marissa Mayer, vice president for consumer products at Google, spoke about the ways that humanities PhDs could help the Internet giant.

Large companies aren't concerned with the specific knowledge humanities PhDs gained while writing a dissertation, said June Cohen, executive producer at TED Media. More important are the skills graduates have acquired, such as stamina and listening.

Discussion at the event initially focused on perceived differences between academia, the pursuit of knowledge for intellectual pleasure and companies' need for growth and product development.

Entrepreneurs in the first panel discussion tried to stress the need for humanities students to bring innovative ways of thinking to a company. During the second discussion, the conversation moved toward finding common ground. "Technology is becoming more humanist and at the same time the humanities are becoming more technical," said Bob Tinker, president and CEO of MobilIron, a software company based in Mountain View.

He suggested tech companies change their initial hiring filters to include terms applicable to graduates in the humanities as well as those with technical experience.

Russell Berman, Stanford professor of comparative literature and German studies, suggested academic departments change their views as well. A humanities PhD working in the tech industry should be seen as a success rather than a failure, he said.

Silicon Valley has jobs and can't find people to fill them, yet there's a room full of people here, said Tinker. He wished aloud that the day's discussions would help both sides move toward solving the mismatch between supply and demand.

"The Valley culture is focused on results," Tinker said. He encouraged humanities graduate students to translate their knowledge into specific ways they could help a company get results. "That's the decoder ring."

Graduate student Anaïs Saint-Jude and comparative literature Professor David Palumbo-Liu organized the one-day conference.

Melissae Fellet is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Office.