How to Garner Engineering Respect with an English Degree


I work in a building of 2,000 engineers. Where the most compelling language is written by programmers. Where English is as relevant as “C++,” fiction usually has “science” in front of it and a cloud that hosts is the closest existing thing to pathetic fallacy.

It took about two weeks of working at Microsoft to figure out that the English skill set is not always completely aligned with the world of engineering. As one of the only new hires that did not come from a business or STEM major, I became acutely aware of my computer science shortcomings. Wasn’t “C#” a note on the piano? Wasn’t a “syntax error” something grammatical? My ideas for new features were stymied by a limited understanding of what was even possible to code. My product suggestions were derailed by a lack of perspective on the level of effort required. If I spoke English, my engineering counterparts spoke Parsel-tongue. And if I wanted to get anything done, I would have to speak Parsel-tongue too. Which seemed to mean MOOCs in Java, /r/learnprogramming, and endless redirects on Wikipedia. Dark wizardry.

So I set about scoping the necessary steps to achieve marginal tech prowess. If one of my ideas was ever going to get built, I needed to command respect (or at least attention). An intimate knowledge of Virginia’s Woolf’s diaries did neither.

So I spoke with many engineers. I enrolled in Codecademy. I read The Dynamics of Software Development. Until one of my developer mentors (or pitiers) stopped me; at the end of the day, it wasn’t going to make that much of a difference whether I could turn a button on a screen blue. Microsoft didn’t need more coders. What it did need was a deep knowledge of market landscape, people who could instigate passion for technology and business acumen. These are things developers may not have. These are things easily tailored to an English skill set. Let me show you how.

1. Know the Market.

As rampant readers, we are well-positioned to cover serious industry ground. We read and synthesized all six Jane Austen novels (plus the two unfinished ones) in 10 weeks. We can read a TechCrunch article in 60 seconds. So, TechCrunch. Also: AllThingsD, PandoDaily, Reddit, Quora, Slashdot, Gizmodo, Ars Technica, VentureBeat, Engadget, The Verge, Mashable, Kickstarter.

Once you get your feet wet, find a VC or angel investor you like, and follow the people they follow on Twitter. Consequently, your Twitter profile will probably have enough traction to qualify for a Quibb.com account. So apply for one, using your work email. Quibb is an online community where members share what they’re reading for work. See what a software engineer at Amazon is reading, or an interaction designer at IDEO or a trends analyst at Google. And ask thoughtful questions as you go along. You may not have any idea what an API is, but a demonstrated interest and well-informed curiosity can warm the heart of a coder.

Industry landscape is valuable context for any meeting — regardless of whether you know backend workings of the feature or product in question. For example, you may not know squat about the security measures required to safety-proof tablets for students, but knowledge of the recent iPad fiasco in Los Angeles public schools is valuable context for a discussion on the topic.

2. Develop a passion for technology, and cultivate it in others.

It’s hard to do all that reading without getting invested in something. Robot baristas at Briggo taking human error out of your morning coffee. Crowd-funded travel site Trevolta, is ready to make your dream trip a reality. Or what about TacoCopter, aiming to deliver tacos via unmanned drone helicopter in the Bay Area?

Use your communications skill set to translate tech speak into people speak, and activate other enthusiasts. Do it on your blog (and make that public), do it in your tweets, do it in your conversations. You may not speak Parsel-tongue, but you can speak the hell out of the vernacular. Be ready to give that 30-second demo or 60-second elevator pitch.

3. Business Acumen.

This one might actually be a stretch. But I think (hope) it comes with experience in the corporate world. With conference calls, meetings, deck creation, feedback, talking to your manager, seeing your projects succeed and fail. God knows we can annotate. So bring a pen and paper to meetings, and keep tabs on your experiences. They’re not ones you can get from a computer.


This post originally appeared on Huffington Post.

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