Symbolic Systems: The Hot Major Among Highly Successful People

Reid Hoffman, Marissa Mayer and Mike Krieger all majored in Symbolic Systems. We reveal why this hot major is producing entrepreneurial superstars.
September 18, 2013

What do Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger have in common? They all majored in Symbolic Systems, Stanford University's hottest major. A Symbolic Systems major is described as "The Science of the Mind." This area of study looks at the relationship between humans and computers: For example, how to endow computers with human-like behavior and understanding, and how to design computer software and interfaces that work well with users. It's a multidisciplinary major that blends computer science with psychology, linguistics and philosophy—a powerful combination.

This major obviously attracts interesting people who have become highly successful. How can this multidisciplinary approach help you as a budding business owner?

Connection To Entrepreneurial Superstars

Joel Lewenstein, designer at Quora, notes that one of the many benefits of a Symbolic Systems major is that its focus on technology provides a tool-set to quickly and easily begin solving problems through different computation systems. As he puts it, learning to program gives "the ability to quickly get noticed by investors, employers and fellow technologists ... It's fascinating to think about the range of possible problems that need solving in the world and the ways well-designed computer systems can solve them."

In this video, Hoffman talks about how the Symbolic Systems major influenced his career and led to his success. It trained him in interdisciplinary thinking and allowed him to bring both creativity and discipline to his approach. This is central to thinking about patterns like virality. It helped him look at patterns in terms of "which marketplace will work, which payment system it will work with, which social network will ultimately prevail" and led to a lot of the choices he made in what he founded and financed. 

Michael Olsen, a social entrepreneur and technology consultant, was asked in an interview how his multidisciplinary degree helped him succeed in building a career predicated on technology. Olsen says his training helps him bring a more rounded approach to his Internet consulting business. For example, one part of his education has helped him to use his creativity in persuasively pitching ideas to clients, while the technology part helps him balance his approach for successful project execution.

How It Affects Your Hiring

Of course, not everyone is going to run out and hire an individual with a Symbolic Systems degree. But what can we learn from the success of this program?

Hire a mix of generalists and specialists. One aspect to consider when hiring staff is to have a diversity of skill sets and abilities. There is value in filling some positions with capable generalists, who have multidisciplinary knowledge, rather than always focusing only on specialists. Take an inspiration from Steven Woods, engineering director at Google Canada, who states that the best product managers at Google "often have multiple backgrounds in humanities and in a technology area."

Hammans Stallings, senior strategist at Frog Design, also shows how blending social science and arts studies, for example, was a recipe for success. He studied psychology and economics and says that a multidisciplinary approach of business and creativity helps him see, for example, how people make decisions and understand how market mechanisms work. Using a generalist rather than a specialist approach allows him to come up with more interesting solutions that would not have been possible if he believed in only one approach.

Don't automatically discount those who have degrees in the humanities. Take philosophy, for example: Not only does Stanford draw on philosophy in its Symbolic Systems major, but it's now even an emphasis in some high schools. The Squire Family Foundation, for example, believes that of all disciplines, philosophy teaches not what to think but how to think—to not simply answer questions but to question answers: to think critically, question assumptions, plan, and anticipate obstacles. Who wouldn't want this type of person at the table?

Focus on whole brain thinking. While the notion of right-brain and left-brain personalities has now been debunked by recent scientific evidence, it doesn't mean that some people aren’t more creative, while others more analytical and logical. If you need help in understanding someone's thinking preferences, consider the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI). Research has shown that there are four basic styles of thinking that make up the whole brain model: analytical, sequential, interpersonal and imaginative. As Michael Morgan, the company's CEO, says, "Teams that are unbalanced in terms of thinking preferences won't be effective."

Be on the hunt for people who not only have hands-on technical training but who can combine this with the ability to understand how people think and communicate. In other words, focus on increasing whole brain thinking in your company. It's a winning combination for any business.

Read more articles on leadership.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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