“Your Education is a Passport, Not a Plane Ticket”
by Matt Gwin
Scott Hartley knows the tech industry. He grew up in Silicon Valley, seeing it “through the boom and the bust.” He has worked for the biggest players in tech–Google, Facebook, and others. He moved on to the venture capital world: funding, advising, and growing new technology companies. But he was also a liberal arts major–a background he says lent itself very well to being successful in the industry, but one that’s often ignored.
In his experience working for, building, and funding technology companies, he was frustrated by a bias toward one-dimensionally “techie” people, a tendency toward pigeonholing people into “technical” or “not technical,” and a lack of recognition of the liberal arts’ impact in tech successes. His observations eventually led to his book, The Fuzzy and the Techie, now a bestseller, a Financial Times Business Book of the Month, and a McKinsey Bracken Bower Prize finalist.
In the book, Hartley speaks to the tech industry’s need for both technical expertise and a broad liberal arts mindset. He tells the stories of some “fuzzies” who have achieved great success in tech, and adds some nuance to the stories of others we often think of as pure “techies.” We caught up with Scott to hear a little more about his story, his thoughts, his wisdom, and his career advice.
His own liberal arts story
“I grew up in the Bay area, in the heart of Silicon Valley through the boom and bust and I’d seen the ups and downs. But I really wanted to get out of Silicon Valley, and see the world and explore the world. So I studied international relations and political science. I wanted to get a classical education and I really went out of my way to study ancient Greek philosophy and medieval philosophy and the modern political theory, etc.
And then I sort of found my way back to tech because it was such a driver of the economy and ecosystem in the locale where I was from. So when I came out of Stanford, one of the jobs that I thought of immediately was this company called ‘Google,’ which was heavily on the map in Silicon Valley in my hometown, but it wasn’t probably on the map across the entire planet at that point.
So my own personal story was that I studied strong liberal arts subjects that had quote-unquote “no vocational application” yet then I was working at Google and I kept finding my way closer to the product side of the organization. Then I was working at Facebook. Then I found my way into Venture Capital.
Telling a “Counter-Narrative”
“In writing the book, I really wanted to mythbust this idea that Silicon Valley, and technology in general, is this monolithic system of only engineers, only techies, only people that have studied electrical engineering or computer science; because I believed there was so much of an emphasis on fear of technology. 2014 and 2015 was sort of the time frame of Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots” and I think that sort of kicked off this whole focus on automation and focus on robotics and artificial intelligence taking over everything. I really want to bring the pendulum back to center around hope, not just fear, because I think this technology is unlocking a lot of opportunities for a lot of great people from different backgrounds.
. . .
My job in VC was basically to meet with entrepreneurs on a daily basis. And the entrepreneurs that were founding the companies that I found most interesting were actually people from various [non-technical] walks of life that were applying technology, solving a fundamental problem that was really a pain point they had experienced in their lives.Entrepreneurs that I found most interesting were those non-technical ones *applying* technology Click To Tweet
There’s a great term that Bessemer, a VC firm, had –this notion of their “anti-portfolio” — and it’s all the companies that got away. All the great companies that they did not invest in, companies like Google, Apple, Dropbox–you name it. Everyone has their anti-portfolio–the ‘woulda coulda shoulda.’
I think that at my firm we had a strong bias for the technological entrepreneur and I saw this great talent in all these people that we weren’t necessarily funding– it was a frustration to me. And so the book actually highlights a lot of the non-technical people who we did not fund, who I thought were at the helm of really great companies and great ideas. And fast-forward five years and turns out, some of them, like Stitchfix, are going to be worth $4 or 5 billion. It’s proven out to be a relatively true hypothesis, that these really gritty, stalwart, broad thinking entrepreneurs that aren’t necessarily just the narrow coders are often among the most successful. This was just something that I thought was a counter-narrative that hadn’t really been told very well.
“I think the narrative is sort of self-reinforcing. around “technical person founds tech company.” But it’s often not that simple. Take Mark Zuckerberg: “uber coder who dropped out of Harvard, studied computer science”–well, he also studied psychology. His older sister Randi–who was at one point of time my boss at Facebook–was a psych major. The blue and white website we think of as Facebook is really a massive psych experiment and probably touches on sociology, anthropology and some of the others as well.
You know what’s fascinating is that Zuck–he went to Exeter. He was a liberal arts student as a high school student then as a college student for two years. He studied ancient Greek, and Latin, he learned Chinese and reads history. So I think he’s actually a very broad individual, and we tend to sort of bucket him and others in a way that they’re uniformly technical and that’s what made them successful… Whereas the fact that they’re technical might actually just be an ancillary piece less relevant to their success.
A need for “T-Shaped Individuals”
“[Regarding this] narrative around STEM–and this narrative around [everyone] learning to code…I think everyone should become as technical as they are passionate to become technical. No one should be intimidated by data, statistics, math, basic coding. But my argument is that not everyone needs the depth–the stem of their “T”–not everyone needs that to be technology. Some people absolutely love to code, and sit and code all day long. And for them, that competency, that depth of expertise is actually the technical skill. And maybe the broad other skills are contributing to that ability to code.
Traits that will make someone successful
“You know, it’s interesting. [When I worked at Google], we always had this characteristic that we screened for called “googliness.” It’s hard to figure out, but it’s really just “the airport test.” Would you spend time with this person? Does the conversation convey that they have a genuine curiosity in what they want to do? Just be interesting and show your passion.We had this characteristic that we screened for called “Googliness.” It's really just “the airport… Click To Tweet
Rethinking what your college major and degree mean
“We come to a rude awakening that our education is not this carte blanche for relevance forever.We come to a rude awakening that our education is not this carte blanche for relevance forever. Click To Tweet
We all have to be sort of works in progress and keep our education in beta, so we’re going to continually learning and developing as individuals. I think for any of us–five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago when we graduated–the world looked vastly different than it does today. So I think regardless of where you went to school, we need to change that narrative and think of our education as a passport rather than a plane ticket. It’s not like we purchased a ticket that was first class or business class or whatever, and it’s going to take us to a specific place that’s a really privileged destination. Instead think of it in terms of a passport, where you’re going to collect stamps from different places and different experiences.Keep your education in beta: release, then iterate Click To Tweet
Deciding What to Do with Your Life
“Eric Reese, the author of “Lean Startup,” talks about “minimal viable product:” You’ve gotta release, then iterate. It’s the same with your career. Nobody’s going to know at the outset of their career where they want to go. But to the extent that you can say “yes, and”–like in improv comedy–and build upon the premise of what you’re given, [you’ll succeed.] If you can land an internship in almost any interest, say yes to that and build onto that opportunity. See what you like about it and what you don’t like about it; move and pivot from there.
Even Steve Jobs struggled with that [question.] How do you connect dots going forward? It’s easy to make sense of things and tell a story looking backward, but don’t feel like you need to have a fully connected vision going forward.
In my own journey, there was a moment my freshman year where I wanted to do sports medicine… until I took a chemistry class that almost ruined my life (laughs). So don’t feel like you need to know what you want to do until you try some things.
Surprising Reactions to the Book
“[In response to the book], there was very little rebuttal from the tech community. That surprised me a little bit. One thing that has been surprising is the mild rebuttal from some of the stalwart humanities people. Saying “here is a silicon valley evangelist… talking up the silicon valley side of things. . trying to steal away our professors and PhDs in Classics (laughs). And that’s not what I’m arguing for! I want to get more of their inputs in applications to solve real world problems, not just more photo sharing apps. I think the best companies, the most exciting companies that VCs want to back and entrepreneurs want to start are ones that deal with real problems facing humanity. And the way we ground ourselves in that set of problems is by studying a broad swath of things and exhibiting genuine passions–wanting to solve international development crises or refugee crises or any number of things that lead to exposure of a specific problem that we can have a technology solutions for. Rather than learn tech and then try to find a problem, let’s study problems and then try to apply tech to those problems.