[Australian Politics] Yes, the arts are important to software design.

I saw this blog post commenting on the absurdity of a policy of the Australian Minister of Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, to cut government funding to 57 creative arts courses.

To any Australians reading this, allow me to share my story. It is the complete antithesis to what Simon Birmingham thinks of creative and arts majors.

I suppose that Birmingham would prefer we all major in "sensible" things, like computer science. That's fine. After all, the world continually needs more software engineers.

Except, there is a huge difference between software engineering and studying computer science in school. In 1997, I tried to major in computer science at my undergraduate school; only to find that I just could not pass the calculus courses required to advance in the major.

As a result, i switched majors to the "blah" subject of history; something perhaps even more disdained than the arts. All I learned from a history degree was how to research complex topics, how to write compelling reports in an organized fashion, how to break down big ideas into smaller components...

In 2003, I was accepted for a fellowship to study Journalism at the University of Texas, where I earned an M.A. in Journalism, writing on the science and technology beat. Again - very "namby-pamby", what did I learn from that? How to talk to people? How to break down complex pieces of information and explain them in a way that my audience could understand? How to make a compelling case and seperate fact from opinion? Psh. I was doomed.

Except, that's not how things turned out. I turned those "namby-pamby" degrees into a 10 year career in as a content marketer for some of Austin's high-tech industries, where my work not only brought in leads and revenue, but brought value to the company as well.

Eventually I did decide to become a software engineer, and took an "advanced software engineering immersive" (think trade school) to boost my career. While there were some extremely smart people there, all with different skills and talents, I found that my background in the soft arts gave me a distinct boost when learning to solve problems.

Breaking down complex problems into little ones? That's the same whether you call it organizing an outline or Object-Oriented programming. Writing reports and making a case to non-technical people? That's called a "spec report" and if you don't have one, you're dead in the water, as there's no way that the CFO is going to approve your project if you don't make the case to spend the money on it. Talking to people? Scrum meetings and whiteboard sessions.

More importantly, there's always some new technology to learn about and use, or some esoteric feature of the language. Software engineering isn't about what you know but what you have the capacity to learn, and the fact that I spent so long in the library writing up reports serves me well when I spend so much time on Google searching for obscure syntax and complex ways of organizing code.

More than that, I also took some graphic design courses and photography courses - required by my journalism major. I can't say that I'm an artist, by any stretch, but graphic design is so important in the web development world, there's an entire language written for it which is a must-know, "CSS" or "Cascading Style Sheets." Photography also helped me learn visual composition, which comes in really handy when a large part of the content of the web is images and video production. Oh, and you need to understand cinematic theory and musical appreciation, otherwise you'll put the wrong soundtrack with your video and lose your end-users.

Some software engineers can get by just fine without the creative study - but that's usually because they're paired with someone who has studied those fields. In fact, User-Experience is a major part of our field, and without it, Amazon.com would look like Geocities. Do you really think Apple made the iPhone without graphic designers in their software team? Do you really think Apple would exist as a company if it wasn't for their emphasis on great design in all things?

More importantly, I love software engineering and find it's one of the most creative things out there. But I was convinced that I would hate it, back in 1997, because of the inflexible curriculum that considered computer science an adjunct of the mathematics department, and the discouragement of professors who said I would never succeed in the field without at least a B in Calculus II.

I've been a software engineer for two years now, and I have yet to need calculus. If I should happen to need advanced maths for a problem (such as the 3D trigonometry needed for the Haversine function with geolocation), I feel confident that I can learn enough maths relevant to my problem in a short period of time, where I'm not under constant time and peer pressure to know the entire field before I'm allowed to do even the most basic things.

Of course, the dirty secret of computer programming is that functions that calculate calculus models tend to be computationally expensive, which is why you actually shouldn't use calculus or complex mathmatics of any type if there's a better way to get the answer.

I suppose the point I'm making is that even from the most boring, bottom line, efficiency model standpoint, a society is less productive when you restrict choices in major to this way.

There are a lot of great software engineers who would not be software engineers if not for their study of the arts. And if you force students whose natural talent is creativity into fields which do not let them use that talent, you will end up with a bunch of mediocre technical staff. In either case your technological teams will not be able to design, coordinate, communication, and develop software as effectively as they do now.

Birmingham doesn't get that you can't shoot arts in the heart without shooting science in the gut. If he did, he wouldn't have proposed this policy.

Brian Boyko

Read more posts by this author.

Austin, Texas

Subscribe to Brian Boyko

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox.

or subscribe via RSS with Feedly!