By @SimonCocking review of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World, by  Scott Hartley is a venture capitalist who worked as an investment partner on Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, and as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the White House. Prior to venture capital, Hartley worked at Google, Facebook, and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  Hartley’s book, was named a business book of the month by the Financial Times, and a finalist for the Financial Times and McKinsey & Company’s Bracken Bower Prize for an author under the age of 35.

While the drumbeat of STEM is steady, many of the best companies he was seeing were being founded by people with backgrounds in theater, public policy, economics, political science and sociology. While other VCs herald the death of soft skills, and the irrelevance of the Liberal Arts, in fact, “software eating the world” means that technology is touching more and more parts of our lives. We need more, not fewer people, versed in these varied backgrounds. 

This is a good, readable book, the author has an excellent range of experience and many interesting anecdotes and stories to tell. It was enjoyable to engage with, and cheering to realise how many philosophy graduates have gone on to found and grow companies now worth billions. At the same time I found myself wondering if the whole ‘STEAM’ not ‘STEM’ conversation had already flown the coop a long time ago. When you look at many of the great creative minds of our times, and humanity in general,  back to Leonardo (Da Vinci not Di Caprio, but perhaps both illustrate the point) brilliant people are good at many things. Da Vinci, known as a painter and sculptor among other things, but also the earliest person to sketch the idea for the helicopter. Many brilliant scientists and mathematicians are also, (depressingly perhaps,) often great musicians or painters too. In this context science or liberal arts, or techie and fuzzy, could be seen as false opposites, it is rare for any of us to just be adept in one area of endeavour. As Hartley successfully illustrates, many people with an ‘arts’ training (such as history, philosophy, marketing, creative writing) have then gone on to apply the skills learned to building and leading massively successful tech companies. He cites Mark Zuckerburg’s experience as a liberal arts student as an example of how techies need some fuzziness, though you could also see it as a validation of the need for a well rounded education for all of us. Personally with a first degree in American Studies (History major) followed by subsequent masters in Economics, Software Engineering and then finally a BSc in Digital Technologies I know it’s actually quite common to study on both sides of the spectrum. Good learning skills help you whatever the subject, and learning how to learn is perhaps the greater skill than any particular subject or field you may choose?

Already in Ireland there have been attempts to ensure that all science based post grads also have to do a course on innovation and entrepreneurship, to ensure that they are not merely focused on the product side of what they are developing. As we have probably all seen, if you have a company just run by the product side of the team, it will often spend far too long on building wonderful technology with no clearly identified users or markets. As Hartley is a VC you’d imagine that perhaps he still needs to get this message across to many of the techno-solutionist pitches he has to listen to, seeking his funding. In this context this book may be of real value to get across what is an important but perhaps straight forward message, ‘everything in balance’ and make sure you have people who can communicate and sell your product, as well as those who can build it for you. It’s an enjoyable read and it will be interesting to see what he writes about next.

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