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Slouching Toward Tech

A Reluctant English Major Finds Fulfillment in Databases (Quote From Her Mother: "Who Knew?")

by Jill Dyché
09/21/2007

Jill Dyché is a partner and co-founder of Baseline Consulting, a technology and management consulting firm specializing in data integration and business analytics.

Unlike the vast majority of my friends (a group that I consider to be annoyingly happy-go-lucky), I had no fun in college. For me, it was an amazingly stressful time. Before I'd finished freshman orientation, I realized that I'd had unrealistic visions of how I would traverse the expansive bridge between high school and undergraduate life. I discovered, instead, that the bridge was not a broad and vast trajectory upward, but rather a dusty and meandering footpath frequented by familiar high school acquaintances bumping into me as they lurched forward on the same journey.

I was an English major in the days when it was simply too demeaning to declare oneself among the teeming ranks of the pre-law. I have studied Donne, Derrida, and DeLillo, I can recite all thirteen speeches from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and, if asked, I could come up with a trenchant analysis of the religious dogma in the works of Milton, Dante, and King James, himself. (I know you won't ask.)

Nowadays, according to The New Yorker, fewer than four percent of college graduates have majored in English and there are more degrees awarded annually in Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies than in all foreign languages and literatures combined. But back then there were lots of us. And those of us who decided not to become lawyers didn't know what to do with ourselves after we had received our degrees.

In my senior year, while mulling over the cost-benefit analysis of moving back in with my parents after graduation (verdict: no cost, but also absolutely no benefit), I enrolled in a technical writing class. My first assignment was to write a description of how to do something. For some odd reason I can't recall, I chose "How to Make Cheese." I didn't know it at the time, but I had a knack for entering the mind of the end-user (that would be the cheesemaker). I got an A.

I decided to pitch myself for an internship writing how-to manuals. No one in the vicinity of UCLA was making cheese, so I found a high-tech firm—Honeywell Information Systems—that needed help documenting its new relational database product. I didn't know a database from a Dorset Blue, but I decided to give it a go.

I discovered quickly that I wasn't "technical" in the true sense of the word. I had to study, do research, and talk to a succession of, well…men. These guys could riff on the advantages of symmetric multi processing over massively parallel processing and go on for far too long about the advantages of cost-based optimizers and the perils of Cartesian product table joins. They were hard-core geeks, they were flat-smart, and they were impatient with a woman in her twenties asking them questions about why they'd designed their code just-so. I had several "these are not my people" moments.

I also met some technical women who had arrived at the same place I had via a completely different road. These women were unlike me in so many ways: comfortable with trigonometry, conversant in multiple coding languages, and ultra-competent when it came to absorbing new technical concepts. They had degrees from the other side of campus. My own insecurity was short lived: most of the girls actually "got it" and were happy to share their knowledge. I collaborated with them whenever I could, all of us leveraging the accompanying skills synergies. Across my career, it's been technical women who have taught me about teamwork.

With their help and with some esteemed teachers, I became technical too. I learned how things worked, and how to explain how they worked to people who weren't technical. It was a skill that served me well as a writer, trainer, systems engineer, consultant, and business owner. I didn't have a single mentor but multiple teachers from whom I gleaned a valuable lesson: there are far more people who can understand technology than there are those who can understand technology and communicate its business impact. Communication skills are currency in a high tech career.

I met people who made everything way more complex than it needed to be. (You've probably met a few of these folks yourself.) But I learned something from them, too: having critical-thinking skills is way more important than whether you pass trigonometry, do handcoded integrals and derivatives, or write your own compiler. (And thank God for that!) My liberal arts education might not have taught me much in the way of the latter, but the former comes in quite handy indeed!


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