Leverage Humanities Skills in the Tech World
March 14, 2022
Think you need to pursue a STEM major to succeed in the tech world? Think again! In this episode, we meet Annie Hallman, one of countless humanities majors who have built a successful tech career by combining skills gained through the humanities with technical capacities acquired on the job. Annie reflects on her journey and how her English major equipped her to become a leader in her field.
Annie Hallman, Scott Muir
It's been interesting, having a very technical career. And sometimes I'm shocked at how far I've come with an English degree, to be honest, because I get questions on my interviews. And I'm interviewing for senior science positions in companies and they're like, “You have an English degree. How did you get here?” Everyone always asks me, “how did you get here?”
This is What Are You Going to Do with That?, a podcast where we explore everyday folks' decisions to study the humanities as undergraduates and their pathways to fulfilling careers. I'm Scott Muir of the National Humanities Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting the value of the humanities on campuses and in communities. With the popularization of STEM as a shorthand term for areas of study extending across diverse natural and applied sciences, some may assume that a specialized scientific education is a prerequisite for a successful career in the tech world. In reality, countless humanities majors have achieved success in a variety of tech industries, combining skills acquired through the humanities with various technical capacities to create a distinctive and highly valued skill set. This should come as no surprise. After all, technologies are created by and for people, and they are utilized within broader social and historical contexts, which present unique challenges and opportunities. Ultimately, the success of any given technology depends upon the ability of those who produce it, to effectively communicate its value to those who might use it. In our global economy, this usually requires surmounting substantial cultural and linguistic barriers. Clearly, folks who study the humanities have a lot to offer tech companies, for they possess the knowledge and skills to help tech companies better understand what the communities they serve really need. In this episode, we meet Annie Hallman. Annie chose to study English, despite having a longstanding interest in science and math, after she experienced how studying global literature expanded her mind and her world. Like many students, she did not know where this might take her. She simply trusted herself and kept moving. Then 9/11 happened, prompting Annie to join the military. She found herself tasked with harnessing advanced technologies to distill and share critical information. It was then that she discovered how broadly applicable the skills she had acquired studying English really were. Let's return to her story now.
I was born and raised in a very small rural town in Alabama, called Fayette. I was a student athlete, and I just knew I was going to go somewhere where I would get a scholarship. Fastpitch softball. First, I got a scholarship at a community college where I played for a couple of years. And then I transferred to the University of North Alabama to continue to play in a Division II school, that's how I ended up at what you would call UNA. But as far as my humanities degree choice, that was a little different. I actually went into college as a freshman pre-med. I thought that I was going to be an eye doctor. And that's where I was headed. I love math and science. And equally, I loved literature, and I loved English. But, you know, most of the things that I heard growing up was, “Oh, you're too smart to do that, to go into the humanities. You need to do something where you can, you know, earn a living, in other words, get a job.” So I had a preconceived notion that, okay, I need to do something that will pay my bills.
Can I stop you there and just ask, like, who those messages were coming from, if you remember? Or was it kind of just in the water?
It was just kind of in the water, but everyone, you know, my family, too. I think that was coming from them. They were, you know, always encouraging me to do something where I would make a good living, in other words. And I think that's mainly because my parents both struggled a little bit. My dad didn't go to college and my mom didn't finish. She was like one semester away from a double major degree in, like, sciences. I think they just didn't want their kids to have that same struggle. So not that they told me what to major in, but it was always just kind of like, oh, you know, “I'm glad you're doing this.” And then I got into school. And my freshman year in college, I realized that I loved my literature classes. That's the part I got excited about. I really loved to write. I felt like in those classes, I was starting to think a little bit differently, my sort of critical thinking skills were engaged a little bit more in, like, my English classes. I was really interested in narrative in general, and learning about all the different literatures all over the world, this sort of way that things are connected globally through literature. And that really excited me. It helped to open my mind, especially at a young age.
I grew up in a very rural area. And I didn't know a whole lot beyond that, when I began my path. And I feel like that choice to kind of go down the path of studying humanities opened my mind to global thinking. I seemed to enjoy the classes more and just do better academically, which really shocked me my freshman year in college. I wasn't expecting that. And I just decided that I wanted to change my major, and that I didn't want to do pre-med, and that I would rather pursue an English degree and do something different. And maybe at the time I thought it was going to be, like maybe teaching at a high school, you know, like teaching English or something. So I changed everything. At first, my parents were not very happy about that. So then that set me on an entirely different path. It didn't take them long to come around. I think they were just a little, you know, taken aback at first that I had such a pivot, but I was happy with it. Always was, from that point on. When I decided to go to UNA, studying English with a minor in journalism. And I wrote for The Flor-Ala, which was the newspaper for the University of North Alabama. I was a student writer in the public relations office as well. So I really got to do a lot of interesting things. It's kind of where the application of the things that I was learning started to take place. So being able to do a type of journalistic writing, where I had certain beats around the campus I had to cover. I had to find stories. I had to not only just cover the things that were there to cover, but had to do a little bit more of seeing what's interesting, and what can I find? And what can I write about that I could relate to the community and to students about what was going on at the university and what's important? And I started doing that, and I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. And then I graduated, and I had this degree, and I didn't know what I wanted to do.
I kind of just didn't know what I wanted to do. And then September 11th happened. And that really, I think, for a lot of people, and maybe a lot of college students at the time, I don't know, it really put some things in perspective. Sort of like, what was I doing? Like, how was I contributing to the safety and welfare of not just my own self and my own family, but what have I contributed to this country? Or what have I contributed to national security as a whole, or even globally? Like, what could I do? Or could I do something else? I started thinking about how could I apply what I know in just really being able to read a room?
Can we slow down there for a minute? I wanted to talk more about “reading the room.” So, you know, where that came from and a little bit more about what you feel like the gift is there.
Being able to read a room is sort of like a visual narrative. I feel like when you study people, in my case, it was through their stories. But learning about people and culture, how people tell stories. What are they trying to communicate through what they're saying? And as an English major, you really had to pick that apart. I mean, you really have to know. What is an intent? What is going on here in this scene? And you can apply that to real life all the time. And it kind of became a thread that I could see, even as a student, you know, working in journalism, just talking to people, and really listening to what they had to say. This skill that I have could be valuable to apply on a national level. I looked into the FBI, I looked into the CIA, and started thinking about maybe doing some analytical work. I talked to a person who was actually in the FBI. I think I was 25 at the time, and you know, the FBI was basically like, “You're really young and you have zero experience. We usually like to take people when they’re a little older. Maybe you should consider a background in the military. Maybe you should do military intelligence.” And I was like, “I don't even know what that is.” So I looked into that. And I was like, Oh, that could be interesting. And the only service at the time that would let you choose your job before you went in, was the army. And I took a test. And they told me, I could choose whatever I wanted to do. And I told them that I was only interested in doing something in the intelligence field. They said they would also pay back student loans that I had at the time. And they were the service that would pay back the most in student loans. So I was like, well, I could go into this, I could do it for four years, I could get a skill, I could get a [security] clearance, and my student loans would be paid off. So that doesn't sound like a bad deal. I had chosen to be an analyst at the time, an imagery analyst, which I thought was very fascinating. So that's how I ended up on the path that I am on today. I decided to try to figure out a way to sort of meld things in my life that mattered to me and my experience and background into something that looked like a career.
So I did that for four years, I was in the Army. And they trained me to be an analyst, which was an interesting way to marry the technology and narrative. Because as an analyst, you have to provide reports. And in my case, it was being able to visually analyze a situation and tell a story about what's happening. So I was really good, and still am I would say [laughs], pretty good at writing a report. And I found that I quickly became like team leads in situations where I had to be the person who proofread all the reports. I had to quality check all the reports, before they could even get passed to anyone else, which was all due to having a background in English. The writing of the report, I could tell for a lot of the analysts I worked with, was probably the hardest part of their job. It wasn't the technical parts, because we were all trained very well to do your job. But it was conveying the message that you need to convey. And in our line of work, it's not only conveying it well, but it's conveying it very accurately. And very specifically. And clearly. And I feel like my background, it did, it set me apart. I was able to write really good reports that were very clearly thought out. And I was able to also very quickly jump into leadership positions to where I was mentoring analysts. So I became the person who taught analysts how to write reports. I was teaching just basic grammar. I mean, a lot of kids, I call them kids, go into the military at like 18. They've just come out of high school. And a lot of them that's as far as they've gone. And no fault to their, you know, education thus far. It's just now all of a sudden here they are writing reports for an English major. So I felt like well, here's a good opportunity for me to help them convey their messages and learn how to do this as well.
2002 was when I joined the military. So I'm almost 20 years into this career. I got out of the Army, but I've continued as a civilian and as a contractor to work in defense where I've worked in what's called geospatial intelligence now for 18 years. I still do a lot of mentoring and teaching when it comes to conveying messages both visually, because we’re in a GIS and mapping environment, so both visually and verbally. And putting that together has been really interesting. I do more of the like program management type work, I'm leading teams of people. And I've found myself in a sort of interesting position of being a liaison between scientists and engineers and they're end users, like the people they're developing technology for, which, most of the time, are military members. So I'm able to communicate with both sets of people and help them sort of communicate with each other. And there's a place for everyone. I mean, there's a place for, you know, these scientists and engineers who are super smart, and they just want to sit down at their computer and not talk to anyone and just knock out a bunch of code. And I'm thankful for them. But then I can go out and talk to the customer and say, “Hey, we’ve got these really smart, capable people, they can do this. Is this what you need? Or what do you need? And I can go back to them, and talk to them and have them do what needs to be done. So there's a place for everyone. And I do feel like having a background in just being able to communicate effectively, really matters. I mean, I feel like that's one of the reasons why everyone puts on a job solicitation, you know, “communicates effectively.” The company I'm in now, I had to actually give a presentation as part of my interview, because they wanted to say, “Okay, you're a smart, capable person, but can you relay that information to someone who doesn't know anything about what you're doing?” And that's a skill. It really is. I always talk about these benefits of having a humanities background. How it's made me a better analyst, studying narrative, and being able to use that, in my career, to my advantage, and the advantage of the people I'm working for and with. You know, I've been hired again and again. So I think that people see that. There's so many ways you can apply a background in humanities, because in almost every job, there's a need for connecting the dots. I feel like I've found a way to apply that into a real world scenario, into a career. That I've been able to marry science and humanities into one. And it's been really fulfilling for me. You know, you can do both, you can be trained technically, you can have a background in humanities, and when you put the two together, it's a great combination.
You know, I'm just curious what you would have to say to somebody who's in that point in their life where they are considering, you know, they have a passion for the humanities and are considering pursuing that, but they also have people saying to them, “You know, I don't see the transaction here. I don't see where this gets you.”
I think what I would say to someone who's trying to figure out what they want to do, is that you don't have to figure it out., for one. Most of what you learn in your career is going to be in your job, in your actual job and what you're doing. You know, they go down one path, they think they're going to do something, they end up doing something else. I think that's more of the typical thing that happens. I mean, I started out pre-med and I ended up an English major. And now I've had an 18-year career in defense, doing technical work. And it's nothing that I would have ever imagined that would have happened when I was a freshman in college. I like to tell people to keep an open mind. Follow the paths of your interest and figure out ways to apply them. Because there's always something there that you can do. But I do feel like everyone has to do what they're comfortable with. [And] make decisions based on their interests, things that will keep them going. You know, I keep choosing the things that just keep motivating me to do something more. I think I've found a passion for learning about people and who people are. And that also in turn, has just helped me figure out, along the way, like who I am. And where I am, you know, as far as the things that I pursue and interests that I have, morals that I have. And the way that I think is not pigeon holed or confined. And I think a lot of that has to do with being able to, you know, just study people, study the world. I have a lot of gratitude for that. Being open to the possibilities of what can happen in a career and in a path in school and college, for me, has worked out great. It’s not always been easy. But it's worked out and it's been a well-rounded journey [laughs].
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