The tech industry is booming in Seattle — from big names like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, to startups and mid-sized companies too numerous to name. Many Seattle Pacific University graduates work in technology. And for a growing number of SPU alumni, the key to a successful technology career is coming from a surprising place: a philosophy degree.
Yes, really. In fact, the connection between philosophy and tech is more logical than you might think.
The connection is just that — logic. “It teaches you how computer science and philosophy go together,” says philosophy major Qadar Omar ’16.
Logic plays a key role in both disciplines. Armed with a two-course series in logic (among other skills) SPU philosophy majors have been highly successful in tech careers, says Associate Professor of Philosophy Rebekah Rice — even though it’s not a traditional career choice for their major.
For the past six years, Rice has been keeping track of philosophy majors’ career paths.
“Graduate school of some sort is common,” she says, “but when we look at the folks that are working, we see a heavy emphasis on business in tech.”
Even through the economic recession, SPU philosophy grads’ careers remained steady.
“They are used to putting forward arguments,” she says, “and so our students interview really well. Our students get into entry-level positions, and then they are very promotable.”
Now, tech-inclined philosophers have a major designed just for them. Beginning in the 2016–17 year, the philosophy major’s new technical track combines courses in topics such as logic, ethics, and metaphysics with key computer science and programming courses.
While creating the new track, Rice and other faculty spoke with SPU alumni working in tech to figure out which courses and skills would be most valuable. Ben Olsen ’09 says he uses the skills gained in his philosophy major every day. He’s founder and CEO of Analytics Guild, a startup that provides training in data analysis. Olsen works with two other SPU liberal arts majors, including the company’s director of advanced analytics, Christo Lute ’11, a fellow philosopher.
“The ability to focus on a given problem for a long period of time is an underrated skill,” Olsen says. “What philosophy does is give you a problem that’s almost inscrutable to begin with and requires you to spend time with it.”
Working with big data, Olsen says, is the same. “It requires an incredible amount of focus and mental discipline.”
With the tech-philosophy combination, new grads will be prepared for a variety of career roles — especially for positions that work with both technical staff and non-technical people, like sales or clients.
That’s the role Omar is seeking after graduation. At SPU, he added computer science courses into the mix with his philosophy major, and taught himself a programming language — Python — on the side. Upon graduation, he already had a potential job offer on the table.
So what stood out to Jeff Gough ’02, the philosophy and communication double major who extended that job offer?
“Character,” he says. As founder of two tech companies, True North Service and Vehicle, he’s hired a number of SPU graduates into technical and business roles. He looks for a spirit of humility and a hunger to learn new things.
“The liberal arts (major) is good in that you often get people that are well-rounded,” he says. “You can take someone like that and they’re effective at many different things and they learn to specialize on the job.”
For Omar, that path is a perfect fit. “Tech is booming in our city, so it made sense for me to pursue it,” he says. “I want to be challenged more than anything.”
Did you know?
The tradition of liberal arts education goes all the way back to classical Greece and Rome. Liberal arts majors are designed around fields of intellectual inquiry, such as philosophy, mathematics, or literature, for broad general knowledge, rather than professional or technical qualifications. All SPU students pursue liberal arts courses as part of their general education requirements, regardless of their major.