80,000 Hours: Oxford recently hosted a panel on careers in technology, co-hosted with Codelaborate, featuring four people who did arts degrees but ended up working in tech and loving their jobs.

We think tech is one of the most promising sectors, so are interested in how to start a career in technology, even if you come from an arts background. Here’s some rough notes I made on the panel (note that they may not accurately reflect the views of the panel and haven’t been checked by them).

The panel included:

  • Matt Clifford – studied Ancient History at Cambridge before doing a degree at MIT, worked in strategy consulting but quit to start Entrepreneur First
  • Jackson Gabbard – studied English at a small college in the US but was one of the first engineers at Facebook London
  • Nabeel Qureshi – studied PPE at Oxford, worked in consultancy but now works at startup GoCardless
  • Steven Shingler – studied double bass at the Royal College of Music in London, but now works at Google as an engineer.

How did they end up in tech, and what clues might there be for other arts graduates who want to go into the sector?

  • All had, at some point, taught themselves computer programming.
  • The two software engineers stumbled across it by accident (one wanted to design a website for a friend’s band and another wanted to set up a printer network to print promotional materials), but quickly found themselves obsessed, working long into the evening trying to get things to work.
  • The other two had taught themselves coding, but ultimately transitioned into management and business development roles.

I think the lesson here is: even if you’re not from a tech background, it’s worth trying out programming in case it grabs you.

Bear in mind, although some people are grabbed immediately, it’s difficult to learn to program for its own sake, and you can still succeed in the tech sector even if that’s not for you. It’s most engaging when you need to use it to achieve something important to you.

All the speakers agreed that it’s highly useful to have at least some programming knowledge if you want to go into the sector (even if you want to work in sales or management). These companies have a strong ‘engineering’ culture, and it’s hard to understand what’s going on without.

Is tech a good place to be if you want to make a difference?

Matt pointed out that tech has allowed people to design products that reach a billion people, while still in their 20s. This is one of the most significant changes in the economy in the last couple of decades. Today, if you want to maximise your impact, software is one of your greatest tools.

In tech you can either make a big difference directly (e.g. Elon Musk) or through earning money to donate (e.g. Bill Gates).

For making a difference directly, the panel was enthusiastic about using tech to improve public service delivery (e.g. education, health), as well as the potential of transformative technologies.

One panel member had worked to prevent abuse through Facebook – an area where even a small improvement can create a huge impact due to the massive scale of the network. When we think about making a difference in technology we tend to think of startups and brand new sectors, but a small improvement for a billion users is a big impact.

Who should start startups?

Matt made a lot of interesting comments, which he later summed up in a medium article.

He also pointed out that it’s possible for non-tech people to found tech startups, provided they have an extremely good understanding of a particular problem they want to solve.

What should your strategy be early career?

The panel emphasised the value of:

  • Learning as much as possible.
  • Working with people you can learn from.
  • Exploring for several years before you start to focus.

If you want to learn to program, doing open source is a great place to start.