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Why an English Major Took a CS Class: How to Get A Foot in the Door of Startup Land

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Margarette Jung
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Published on February 9, 2015

I went to Berkeley and double majored in English Literature and Linguistics. Based on that sentence alone, not many startups I was applying to were impressed or interested. However, once I said the magic words, “I took a programming class at Berkeley,” the interview requests started pouring in. 

I was initially insulted at the change in reaction I got from companies when I played up this part of my background, and honestly didn’t understand the bias until I started working. I was (foolishly) miffed that all the time I spent writing in cuneiform and analyzing symbolism in Chaucer was not impressive enough for these startups to hire me. I wanted people to understand that English Literature is actually highly analytical and that Linguistics is incredibly data-driven, but those are battles that I can’t and won’t win in my lifetime. Once I came to terms with that, and became comfortable playing up my background and interest in programming, I started to use it to my advantage. 

That’s why I tell people: It just takes one class. Really.
I love the internet and had been tinkering around on it since I was in middle school, but I struggled to construct a career path that included my interests in writing, communication, and technology. In college, I did what my idealist self thought was the right thing: “Study what you love!” So poetry and Russian it was. But I did make a small concession for my future career prospects in the form of more tech-based classes and experiences. And honestly, they were enjoyable and educational, and they helped me a lot in the long run—without having to make a full departure from my main fields of study.

I took AP Computer Science in high school, took an intro EECS class at Berkeley, and taught a LaTex class to fellow college students who were primarily Mathematics and Physics majors. I did not want to be a Computer Science major, I did not want to be a coding ninja, and I was not—based on my majors alone—in the STEM/hard sciences camp. I enjoyed computer science on an academic and theoretical basis, not a vocational one. However, it was incredibly fruitful to have these minor experiences under my belt to point to as signs of my analytical ability. 

Why startups liked me more

I was applying mostly for business and marketing jobs at startups, so it’s not like I would be building out products or apps for these companies—not that I would have been able to anyway! But I think many of these founders and hiring managers had such a tough time finding business or marketing people with any technical background that they were happy with even my paltry set of experiences. They could have just hired pure analysts, but would have been missing out on “soft” (I hate this term) skills like writing and communication. Startups on tight budgets need people with a breadth of skills and potential, and even if you have analytical skills with an English degree, it is difficult for people to understand that you are are capable of different styles of thinking until you put a label on it, like “Computer Science.”

How I apply CS to my everyday work

I can’t build out a whole site, but I can:

  • Think of workflows and problems abstractly, and as repeatable processes with rules
  • Have a rough sense of how development works and the amount of time/effort certain projects take
  • Do initial “debugs” technical issues by isolating variables and testing
  • Pick up things like MySQL, advanced excel formulas, basic HTML/CSS quickly

 I did not predict that these things would happen. I thought CS was just my foot in the door and certainly was not thinking about the real-life applications my work would have when I was sitting in the computer lab doing problem sets. I was just enjoying the learning process, and didn’t think that it would be part of my future career in many aspects (management, business, marketing). 

It doesn’t help the “English majors are not just baristas” cause when the business and marketing people in startups say things like “just ask the developer” or “I don’t know how any of that stuff works, it’s just magic.” Even with a basic amount of exposure, people can get over the intimidation they feel about speaking and thinking intelligently about technical work and realize that the fundamentals are quite simple. Take one CS class while you’re at school—not only is it “in” right now, it will also help you succeed in both the short-term and long-term!

Margarette Jung

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