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Monday, February 03, 2014

The Perfect Match: The Interdependence of Hard and Soft Sciences

Alec Urbach

Alec Urbach, Princeton University, Class of 2017
NSHSS Student Council

(Excerpted from my blog for Princeton University Entrepreneurship Society’s Silicon Valley “TigerTrek”—a competitive Fellowship/Trip to Silicon Valley for selected, young Entrepreneurs)

My mind-changing experience with E-Club in Silicon Valley was consequential and unexpected.  I am the quintessential soft skills person – a guy who is a humanities and social science enthusiast, and who has also followed two passions by starting social enterprise and nonprofit companies. I enjoy the creative process of a business: the brainstorming, the marketing, asking the deep structure questions and wondering about the overarching, game-changing  ideas. When hearing about TigerTrek, I was not entirely certain how comfortable I would be in a program that was knee-deep in computer science and engineering students; I just knew that I had to find out. What followed was an eye-opening, dizzyingly inspirational and profound bonding experience.

Entrepreneurship exists across confluent lines. I have always wanted to believe that, but Silicon Valley proved it to me. In a society that veers hard left and hard right from year to year in its educational philosophies, it is easy to believe, for our generation, that one’s worth after college is measured by whether or not one is passionate, highly-trained, marketable, and most importantly educated  in computer science or engineering. I never ascribed to that. In my few years in social entrepreneurial leadership roles, I have witnessed the global value in bringing together talents and minds that bridge a number of fields—artists and writers, coders and business developers, public speakers and community organizers. But, I didn’t know if a soft skill person could successfully “translate” within an up-tempo, technology-oriented business community. I found my answer in Silicon Valley.

My take-away from meeting master-minds such as Jack Dorsey is that success is a funny thing—not always the result of a carefully orchestrated progression of events. We create opportunities for success when we are given a chance to respond to the unanticipated opportunities in life—like meeting and speaking personally with a presenter who just walked off a TEDx stage; or agreeing to help a friend from another school on an entrepreneurial venture; or attending a philanthropic event, being friendly (instead of ostensibly selling your product), and through this, meeting the publisher for your next book, the agent for your next speaking engagement, or the philanthropist for your present project. Just being likeable and the most enthusiastic spirit in the room can lead to the important conversations that reveal your intelligence and work ethic.

Those of you who are the non-STEM majors, please know that your future goals can pivot in an exciting way if you apply for E-Club’s Silicon Valley Trip. The learning begins when you get into a room with Meg Whitman and five high-level HP employees—none of whom have technical backgrounds. Whitman stated, “Sometimes boards want pure leadership skills over a computer science degree. So, ask the questions, have the background and determine your value proposition (it does not have to be technology)…play to your genius and bring in the people who can do what you can’t…Focus on your friends and connections. Your network is more than a rolodex.” Soft skills people, I’m talking to you—while you are at Princeton, get to know the technologists (you may be hiring them one day) and audit a couple of computer science classes, because, as Sam Chaudhary (Classdojo) informed us, “You become the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time…Even if you are not a coder, understand the technology so you can sell it.”

The valuable advice for those in non-technology fields was ceaseless: Sarah Friar, CFO at Square stressed the importance of “learning to leverage your soft skills, because they can hold a team together.” This advice was followed by Brian Wong’s at Kiip: “Non-coders are the best salespeople because they express technology simply;” namely, they process information  using a varying, creative lens. John Doerr insists that no one can interface with the customers (sales, product management, and design) and succeed in business development better than a talented, “soft skilled” employee.

Doerr explained that a company can either be Mercenary (driven by money; opportunistic and paranoid) or Missionary (passionate about partnerships and meaning). The most powerful companies are the ones that can find the middle ground—those who develop a strong  financial base, allowing them to  exert a positive influence on their field. What does it take to develop that base and that vision? You need a dedicated sales team with an interest in human outreach; and you need people who can creatively “drey” (i.e. “spin out”, as we say in Yiddish) grand ideas. Much of the time, these tasks are best executed by the soft skills experts.

One of the unifying themes in our meetings was the concept of “Hire Different.” If you are starting as a lone founder and you are a coder…hire sales. If you are an idea guy or gal, hire coders. If you are from Princeton…HIRE PRINCETON!