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Why Liberal Arts is Important to Engineers

· 7 min read
Carl Liu

Definition of Liberal Arts: Liberal Arts is intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (such as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.

I grew up in China and Canada, for both countries, there is a tendency to divide faculties into the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Science. Having worked at Presence, our pioneering AR tech startup, for a year, I realized that liberal arts education is underestimated in the Tech industry. In extreme cases, some engineers even think they should only focus on hard skills like coding, liberal arts is either unrelated or impractical. This blog explains why liberal arts is important to engineers.

Limitation of Engineering Education

In my studying and working experience in the Tech industry, I found there are three major problems that people rarely discuss:

1. Fixed Reward Mechanism

In education, tech interviews, and working as software engineer, the standards for evaluating and rewarding are fixed. Engineers are obsessed with clean code, less memory and computation usage, and test coverage... These standards are questionable, for instance, Dan Abramov once blogged about how obsession with clean code is troublesome. These reward mechanisms might train better engineers but less well-rounded creators in my opinion:

  • If my answers on the exam are elegant, I can ace the course.
  • If I write a perfect algorithm that solves the Hackerrank problem faster than everyone else, in both Time and Space, then I will get a job offer.
  • If we build a better API product than Stripe, people should ditch Stripe and just use ours.

2. Narrow Field of View

Engineers rarely talk to the customer, they simply write code (Well, great companies like Tableau bring their engineers to Las Vegas every year to meet customers at conferences, but in most Tech companies, engineers are only responsible to implement the features defined by their product manager and designers). Once getting used to this bottom-up working model, engineers become backstage runners. However, many influencers such as Paul Graham and Clayton Christensen highlighted the importance of understanding customers in their writing, here is a good quote from Paul in his "Do things don't scale":

A lot of startup founders are trained as engineers, and customer service is not part of the training of engineers. You're supposed to build things that are robust and elegant, not be slavishly attentive to individual users like some kind of salesperson... They'd rather sit at home writing code than go out and talk to a bunch of strangers and probably be rejected by most of them. -- Paul Graham

3. Limitation of Experiments

Science is based on experiments, but in a lot of liberal arts subjects, “experiments” rarely produce unequivocal answers: Design, Calligraphy, Music, etc. For people who study Music, for instance, it is intuitive that a particular compositional genre — be it romanticism, atonality, or jazz — will attract some while repulsing others.

Universal Understanding

The liberal arts were the continuation of Ancient Greek methods of enquiry that began with a "desire for a universal understanding." [1]

I am a strong believer in "Orthogonal Learning", an approach to gathering inputs as much diversity as possible in a learning process. In Computer Science, there is Problem Reduction, which is transforming one problem into another problem. There are many examples of studies in other industries that have helped to explain and solve computer problems:

  • For people familiar with Unity or video game development, the quaternion is a common technique for object rotation used in character movement. I was not aware of this terminology but it is no stranger to folks who studied Physics or Aerospace engineering.
Quaternion (Physics and Aerospace)Leg rotation (Unity)
  • Donald Knuth used a lot of real-life problems to describe algorithms problems in his book "The Art of Computer Programming", the example of using train track design to explain dequeue data structure is fascinating:
Track Design (Civil Engineering)Dequeue (Computer Data Structure)
  • And as a music minor student, composing with chord progression is simply building up a finite state automata:
Chord Progress (Music)Finite-State Automata (Computer Science)

There is Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, which refers to an impression that something happens more frequently than it actually does after we learn something new

Impact on Tech Product

As creators, we have to understand how a Tech product is built. I think there are three levels, there is implementation, design, and culture.

At most software companies, the product is an implementation of a design; on a higher level, a design is inspired by culture. One observation I found is in Steve Jobs's favorite subject - calligraphy:

Case 1 - Sans Serif Evolution

In recent years, brands are moving from Serif to Sans Serif for minimalism, which is identified as the mainstream culture of our era, Google, Facebook, and Airbnb all rebranded their logo to use Sans Serif to look techier, interestingly, so did the traditional fashion brands including Burberry and Saint Laurent.

Serif vs. Sans SerifBrand Logo Evolution From Serif to Sans Serif

I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. -- Steve Jobs

Case 2 - Airbnb

Another case is related to my experience at Airbnb. When we were building customer support products at Airbnb, a research we had was that Gen Z and Millennials (1995+) prefer to resolve product issues with text and messages, whereas Gen X (1964 - 1980) love to resolve issues by calling on their cellphone (Millennials and Gen-Z Hate Phone Calls). This is related to the minimalism culture that arose among the younger generation - "they prefer faster, more direct communication, with straightforward results". As a result, Airbnb invested more on developing better Chatbot and self-solving support products than bigger call centers. On top of this, there was also a shift in Airbnb's Design Langauge Tone of Voice in order to speak better to Millennials in their language:

Brian Chesky himself is a man of liberal arts education, importance of culture at Airbnb has been emphasized not only on the product level but also on the company level (Brian Chesky - Don't fuck up the culture).

Not to mention, a product can also influence design and culture in return from the ground up. i.e. Beethoven has been viewed more as a cultural hero than just a musician, as his revolutionary compositional elements and life story helped to define the Romantic culture of that era. Other examples of product influencing culture include works of Nietzsche, Brahms, Wagner, von Neumann


Professional learning is crucial to engineers, but general learning in liberal arts can also contribute to engineers' career growth as it goes above and beyond just the professional skills and let us become more insightful of the correlation between subjects and understand products from a new persepctive.

Further thoughts I didn't get to elaborate:

  • First Principle thinking and Creativity:

    • Design and build products that root from a culture vs. copying from successful products is completely different
    • When seeing a product, try to understand the culture and context
    • Understand the target customer's language, culture and ideology
  • Ethics:

    • Ethics in A.I.: Trolley Problem

    • Access to Tech

      • People with more access to technology will get more information (people who knows how to use Google, ChatGPT, etc.) than people who don't have access
  • Leaky Abstraction:

    • How to learn a new subject without leaky abstraction problem (understand from high level but missing a lot of foundations due to insufficient education/training)


  • [1] Tubbs, Nigel (2014). Philosophy and Modern Liberal Arts Education: Freedom is to Learn. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.