Stuff A Computer Programmer In Your Arts Hole

Possible evidence of what I suggested yesterday regarding the need to discuss all the career paths available to arts grads comes in a post last week by Alex Tabbarok Marginal Revolution blog.

Tabbarok opens by reviewing graduation data he used in a book he published showing more students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in visual and performing arts in 2009 than in “in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined.”

So what has happened since 2009? The good news is that enrollment in STEM fields has increased dramatically. The number of graduates with computer science degrees, for example, has increased by 34%, chemical engineering degrees are up by a whopping 49.5% and math and statistics degrees have increased by 32%.

The bad news is that we are still graduating more students in the visual and performing arts than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined. As I said in Launching nothing wrong with the visual and performing arts but those are degrees which are unlikely to generate spillovers to society.

In the comments section there is a lot of discussion about the relative usefulness of different majors. The following observations about the mix of proficiencies one needs to create a successful product in computer science caught my eye.

Floccina February 4, 2016 at 10:04 am

The CS majors could be made easier. There are hard programming tasks and easy programmings task, there IMO are even programming where less intelligent people can do a better job by making interface that is easier to understand. Some programing task require less intelligence and more art. So perhaps there should be an easy Computer programming major. And perhaps it would make us all better off by increasing total production.

Fill disclosure I am a programmer who not so smart. When I have a difficult algorithm to write that I cannot look up I get help from a smart person.

Andy February 4, 2016 at 11:09 am

I agree. I’m a liberal arts major in English and Information Studies (not programming), and lucked out by finding a job that trained me in administrative computing. CS majors are really needed for software engineering but for programming for basic business processes they can really screw things up, often because their communication skills aren’t that great. The setup we have at my university – train liberal arts majors in computing – has worked well because they draw smart people from areas and occupations that emphasize communication and critical thinking. I’m always hearing horror stories of young CS majors who overengineered systems to the point of unmaintainability and can’t be reasoned with.

An inch below that, someone comments that Apple was able to produce a successful product because Steve Wozinak was a genius at writing effective code and Steve Jobs knew that the user interface needed to be simple and attractive to users.

The problem with Tabbarok’s view, which is generally shared, is that it assumes a computer science major gets plugged into a computer science job hole and a psychology major gets plugged into a psychology job hole and if there are no corresponding jobs needing to be plugged into, then those majors are useless.

This ignores the fact that the value of computer programs, chemicals, medicine, etc., don’t become self-evident upon creation. Like it or not, marketing, advertising and design communicate something that draws attention and causes people to value those items. Whether that thing deserves to be valued is another conversation altogether.

Would you have even known of the existence of the original Macintosh 128k, much less wanted to buy the boxy thing if it weren’t for the iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad? Why did VHS trump Beta when the latter was the superior format? Acai berries always had the same nutritional qualities so why were they miracle berries one year and barely mentioned the next?

The value of something isn’t completely dependent or proportionate to its usefulness.

From a certain point of view, the computer science, chemistry and biology degree really only has value because the creative team at a marketing firm has made the software, artificial sweetener or drug important. Even then, the product may fail for intangible and unexpected reasons just as high budget movies do.

To some degree, more computer science jobs create more creative jobs and creative jobs help create more computer science jobs. This sort of interdependence is illustrated by the success of Amazon, Google and Facebook. Nobody would be hired in one group of jobs if the other area was deficient. (Lord knows, whoever keeps updating the TOS for Facebook has nearly screwed things up a number of times.)

This gets back to what I was saying yesterday. Everyone is done a disservice when they are told actors can only act, violinists can only be in an orchestra, psychologists can only get jobs in clinical, counseling and school psychology.

God help us if a tuba player starts a technology company!

This isn’t to say that there is no value in pursuing a discipline toward a highly specialized end. There is a lot of training, study and practice behind orchestra musicians, surgeons, major league baseball players, ballet dancers, etc. It is widely acknowledged that there are only a few such slots available to the tens to hundreds of thousands of practitioners (except surgeons, of course, I hope there aren’t that many people practicing surgery for fun).

Those who don’t have the ability and will to operate at an elite level shouldn’t have other options closed off to them by a siloing mentality if they have skills that overlap well into other areas.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Stuff A Computer Programmer In Your Arts Hole”

  1. I went to the trouble of getting a doctorate in music performance, with aspirations to teach at the university level. I graduated with some great experiences, but in the bottom of the great recession…

    So like any good musician, I improvised. Five years later I’m a senior programmer and work from anywhere I want. I have ended up with a very technical career, but I bring a lot of creativity to it, as well as my ability to write, speak, defend ideas (hello dissertation!), and get stuff done.

    I’ve long said that the best degree to get is one that makes you think, write, create, and grow. That will be different for every person.

    I still play- a lot in fact – but I am just as excited to learn new things on the job every day. That’s what makes a good employee; their willingness to jump in, figure it out, and get the job done. Not their degree field.

    • Yes, I have heard similar stories about musicians to programmers. Perhaps tech companies need to expand their recruitment efforts. Glad to hear you are thriving and enjoying things


Leave a Comment