So you graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences with your mind still buzzing after classes on the French novel, the American Civil War, computer science, organic chemistry, existentialism, and other marvels from the World of Knowledge. You're making plans for a career in information technology. Fat lot of good it did you to read Being and Nothingness cover to cover and to memorize the order of events at Fort Sumter. At least you took those classes in computing and IT. That's where the future is, after all.
In reality it's a little different from this. It's true that IU Bloomington has become a fixture in national surveys of the "most wired" universities. But technology is only a tool. To use it effectively takes imagination, initiative, flexibility, and an awareness of the possibilities. In other words, you have to know what's out there. A liberal arts and sciences education gives you that in spades.
Stocks may rise and fall, but the new technologies are here to stay. Universities play an essential role in preparing their students for careers in IT - and at the risk of repeating myself, we're not just talking computer training. Scores of College alumni have entered the new media industry equipped with a background in fields as diverse as biology, philosophy, history, literature, and languages. Their minors and electives are paying off too.
The College talked with three alumni who have successful careers in technologically-oriented businesses. Each one acknowledges the debt he owes to his arts and sciences background as training to better use the tools of technology.
"The College taught me a way of thinking," says John Cornwell, BA'73, "a certain discipline." This held true not only in his own fields of biology and chemistry, but in others too. "There were classes in logic, history, and so on, so you could pull bits and pieces from multiple disciplines."
After graduating, Cornwell worked for a Fortune 500 health-care products company for 10 years before co-founding a new company, Stephens Scientific, specializing in histology. "We manufactured diagnostic reagents to test for diseases like diabetes," he explains. "Early on, we recognized the value of IT for efficiency and productivity." His company became the market leader in its field, a fact he attributes to its early embrace of computer software. "We kept our costs down," he says. "We had a system called vendor-managed inventory, which back in the early '90s was very new. We wrote programs and software for our company and for our trading partners, so that they could keep track of what was selling and what was taking up storage space unnecessarily. We managed all the inventory at our distributor's site and reduced that inventory by 50 percent."
Students learn technology as one tool in their arts and sciences repertoire.
When Stephens Scientific was sold to a large conglomerate in 1997, Cornwell and his colleagues held on to the IT segment and used it to launch a new business: Edifice Information Management Systems (www.edifice-ims.com). "We collect sales data from retailers, analyze it, and send it to the manufacturers," Cornwell explains. "We own the software; our clients buy the service. We were encouraged in this by our old trading partners. Then we expanded from the medical supplies sector to the retail industry." Edifice clients now include some of the largest manufacturers and suppliers in the country, and its trading partners include Wal-Mart, Sears, Bloomingdale's, Kmart, and Macy's.
"I graduated long before the Internet," Cornwell points out. "In college I worked with a slide rule. I remember that hand-held calculators were just coming in." But the multifaceted approach to study in the College helped give him a certain flexibility. "You can see opportunities in the market," says Cornwell, "things that someone who majored only in business might not have noticed." To give himself a thorough grounding, however, Cornwell took as many electives as he could in the School of Business.
"The liberal arts focus of the College of Arts and Sciences was not something I appreciated at the time," admits Bill West, BA'96, managing director of UNext.com in Bloomington (www.unext.com). "Convincing a computer science major to take Greek culture and foreign language courses is a difficult task." But his subsequent experience has vindicated the requirements.
Bill West, BA '96 manages the Bloomington, Ind., branch of UNext.com.
UNext, founded in Deerfield, Ill., specializes in business education and advanced training and develops courses to be delivered via the Internet. UNext's online academy, Cardean University, makes these courses available to businesses and their employees with the aim of helping students realize their creative potential. The company has partners and advisers in the top ranks of academia, from Stanford and Columbia to the London School of Economics. West directs the creation of UNext's online courses, a mandate that requires adaptability and a varied background. He now realizes that those wide-ranging classes in the College primed him for the unexpected. "I can digest diverse topics and new environments quickly," he says. "The liberal arts background prepared me to think, solve problems, and do it fast." And perhaps it also prepared him for the kind of off-the-wall work environments that are now encouraged. Of UNext's Bloomington office, West says, "It's a vibrant place: lofts, toys, games, and high energy. And the product we're creating is among the coolest stuff I've ever seen on the Internet."
"Working in IT for a software company wasn't even on my radar screen while I was in school," says Taylor Hess, BA'98, senior production manager for Wisdom Tools in Bloomington (www.wisdomtools.com). He recalls his first English class at IU in 1994, Introduction to Shakespeare, when e-mail was a recent arrival on campus: "So new, in fact, that the professor was jokingly giving out his e-mail address and telling us he never checked it and actually had forgotten how to log on. At the time, I didn't even have an e-mail account set up." Hess survived the semester, but soon became a convert and "began e-mailing like it was going out of style." After graduating and doing graduate work in IU's School of Library and Information Science, he joined the Indiana University Foundation to work in technical support. From there he moved to Wisdom Tools, a Web-based training company that uses narrative, character, and storylines to create realistic custom-made scenarios for business clients. Besides writing the HTML code that gets these scenarios up and running and other technical and Web-development duties, Hess contributes to the development of future product lines, scenarios, and storylines. His English degree is a particular asset here, and those classes in narrative and dramatic form have found a use he never envisioned as a student.
Hess' background in literature also seems to inform his attitude toward e-mail. He uses it a lot, but admits, "It has taken a toll on my writing skills. It's too easy to be sloppy with e-mail. I've found that I have to be disciplined to write well. It can seep into your other writing if you're not careful." That's something else a broad education in the arts and sciences can give you: a sense of perspective. What of the future of technology, in the eyes of these College graduates - the risks, the benefits? "The biggest risk for companies is not embracing these new technologies," says John Cornwell. "In our work right now, there's a staggering exchange of information between manufacturers and suppliers - massive amounts every week. If you miss out on the possibilities of IT, or fail to see them, you're going to get left behind."
Bill West sees the same danger, but on an individual level. "You have to plan your career carefully," he believes. "It's easy to get stuck in a technology company that isn't going to evolve. And that holds you back. So career planning must be a constant consideration." He goes on to reflect on the future of the industry: "Technology is now a focal point of the economy. The arrival of new and great things that spawn huge sales are no longer seen as windfalls - they're expected." West recalls the boom of the '90s, with a flood of exciting new products: "Then it got boring. The new stuff wasn't as impressive, neither were sales. No one cared about Windows 2000 or Pentium IV. Major introductions in technology are required now just to save the tech industry, and the economy."
Taylor Hess' response is more philosophical. Of the dangers of technology both present and future, he wonders whether e-culture is "fooling us that the technology is more important than the human interaction with it. Our product at Wisdom Tools - and just about any product out there, regardless of the industry sector - depends on humans using it to reach its full potential. Without people engaging and using the tools that technology provides, nothing is accomplished." He sees entertainment culture as a bad choice of engine to drive technical advances and hopes for "less status-oriented technology usage in our culture and more use of technology in smart ways, especially in education."
Which brings us full circle. For who better than College of Arts and Sciences graduates to realize the vision of new technologies devoted to smart things like education and health?