We’ve all heard the rap that liberal arts degrees are supposedly worthless in the “real world” and students with them need to learn skills in science or technology. But in the words of Mr. Steven Paul Jobs, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” People with electrical engineering prowess can always be found, but sometimes it takes dreamers of the kind the liberal arts subjects attract to produce amazing technological breakthroughs, as these 10 tech pioneers have proven.
The world may never have had PDFs if it weren’t for the years this computer wiz spent turning Adobe Systems into the top desktop publishing company in the world. Who’d have thought a liberal arts student would rise so high in the tech world? Before earning an MS in math and a Ph.D. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, Charles Geschke graduated from Xavier University with a Bachelor of Arts in classics. He met John Warnock while working at Xerox, and together the two invented Interpress, the forerunner to Adobe PostScript, an essential component of desktop publishing. Both have since gone on to win National Medals of Technology and Innovation, and the company they started continues to transform the experience of desktop publishing for users.
If someone asks you what you can do with a liberal arts degree, you can say you’ll become one of the tech industry’s most successful entrepreneurs ever. Way back in the ’80s, Steve Case, born in Hawaii, was “using picks and shovels to build the Internet,” a claim worthy of Al Gore except in this case, it’s true. Case co-founded America Online and went on to serve as its chairman and CEO, while championing the possibilities of social media, which is so ever-present today we forget there even was a time before Facebook and Twitter. And he did it all with his degree in political science from Williams College.
Odds are you have hundreds of emails and maybe three or four still-unused discounts from Groupon, the online couponing service that took the world by storm around 2010. The man at the wheel of the daily deals ship is Andrew Mason, founder and CEO and class of 2003 music major at Northwestern University. The pianist and former rock band member says he doesn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur, but rather a guy who “likes to build things and do things.” Unfortunately, some have blamed Groupon’s falling fortunes on Mason’s lack of business experience. Be that as it may, Mason will stand as a tech pioneer for years for creating an innovation that’s since been emulated by hundreds of companies, and never with the same degree of success.
If you define liberal arts subjects as those that make it difficult to become a multi-millionaire after graduation, economics certainly qualifies. But David Sacks did just that by helping create online banking service PayPal, which was later sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. That was 2002. Within 10 years he had launched Yammer, a social networking site for businesses, and sold it to Microsoft for $1.2 billion. Apparently Sacks learned at Stanford that selling online platforms for a billion dollars equals good economics. He’s also had a hand in the successful sites Yelp and LinkedIn, as well as Geni, a new family tree networking site.
His own alumni magazine called this tech titan “an unlikely tech entrepreneur.” Although Ben Silbermann graduated from Yale in 2003 with a degree in political science, he found himself working in Google’s sales department after a stint in D.C. After becoming a devoted fan of tech blogs, he decided to get into the startup game because he “felt like this was the story of his time, and he just wanted to be close to it.” And boy, did he get close to it. After bringing in a couple buddies (who also had nontechnical backgrounds), the three managed to grow the fledgling photo curating site known as Pinterest into a tech behemoth worth “a kajillion dollars.”
With its trademark Adaptive Learning Platform, online company Knewton is seeking to be the torchbearer into the next major stage of education. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to online learning, it uses data to personalize the experience for students, which Forbes has compared to employing the world’s smartest tutor.” The whole operation is the brainchild of one big-dreaming liberal arts grad, Jose Ferreira, who not only parlayed his B.A. in philosophy from Carleton College into the gig as Knewton’s CEO, but also worked as a strategist for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, an exec at Kaplan, a derivatives trader, and a venture capitalist. We’re betting he didn’t even need that MBA from Harvard to do all that, either.
When your technological innovation draws comparisons to Minority Report, you know you’ve got a cutting-edge product. As the CEO of startup Leap Motion, Michael Buckwald is leading the charge to bring users the mousing experience Tom Cruise had as a futuristic cop in the movie: namely, no mouse at all. The company is actually Buckwald’s second; the 23-year-old started business appointment service Zazuba.com while a student at Georgetown University. He surely didn’t get the training to pull all this off in his classes, as he was a double major in the liberal arts of philosophy and poli sci.
You don’t have to be up to your ears in motherboards all day to qualify as a leader in the tech field. Nick Denton founded Gawker Media — the parent company behind popular blogs including Gizmodo and Lifehacker — which has changed the face of online publishing. But this politics, philosophy, and economics graduate of University College, Oxford has also gotten into the tech game by helping start a technology and innovation networking site and a news aggregator for businesses known as Moreover. And recently, Denton has been turning his tech knowledge to the question of how to make online publishing more profitable, and he may have found the revolutionary answer.
Green has the unfortunate distinction of being known as the guy who turned down a $400 million job at Facebook. No, wait, a $17 billion job at Facebook. Let’s just say, a lot of money at Facebook. Faced with possible expulsion from Harvard, Green told Zuckerberg no and stayed on to finish his degree in social studies. But the story has a happy ending, as Green is working with Facebook after all, on a feature called Causes, which lets friends suggest charities to each other. He may not be making half a billion dollars, but he’s earning praise as a tech revolutionary and Causes seems to be a worthy endeavor.
Oct. 1, 2012 marked the end of an era: after 39 years (eight of them as chairman, president, and CEO), Sam Palmisano was leaving IBM. During his time with the global tech company, Palmisano was an integral part of IBM’s switch to Linux, and later its move out of the fading P.C. market and into more software and services. He had joined the company in 1973 after graduating from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in history. A football standout, he had passed on a tryout with the Oakland Raiders to join IBM’s sales team. Despite his liberal arts background, he won several business awards during his career and was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the London Business School.