Episode 8 | Technology Careers for Humanities PhDs

In this episode, Dr. Andrew Keating, Senior Director for Industry and Customer Marketing at Qumulo, joined PhD Futures Now for a conversation about building a career in the tech sector with a humanities PhD.


Andrew Keating

Dr. Andrew Keating is Senior Director for Industry and Customer Marketing at Qumulo. Andrew and his team are responsible for helping organizations manage petabytes of unstructured data, and realize the potential of cumulus file data platform and solutions for their business needs. Previously, he served and go to market leadership roles at Splunk and Box. Passionate about applying technology to business problems and delivering value to customers, he also serves as a consultant and adviser to startups, and is a co-founder of Popcorn RFP, a software-as-a-service platform for procurement that makes enterprise purchasing faster, smarter, and more collaborative. A Silicon Valley native, he studied at UC Berkeley, where he received BA, MA, and PhD degrees in history.

Andrew can be reached at his twitter handle @andrewpk and encourages Humanities PhDs to contact him directly if interested in learning more about technology sector careers.

Audio Transcript:

Jason Mierek (Podcast Intro) 00:05

This is PhD Futures Now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity and graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls, a 16 university consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann (Episode Intro)  00:33

Welcome to PhD Futures Now! I’m your host Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann. On today’s episode, we are joined by Dr. Andrew Keating, Senior Director for Industry and Customer Marketing at Qumulo for a conversation about building a career in the tech sector with a Humanities PhD. Andrew and his team are responsible for helping organizations manage petabytes of unstructured data, and realize the potential of Qumulo’s file data platform and solutions for their business needs. Previously, he served in go to market leadership roles at Splunk and Box. A quick note, at the time of our podcast recording, Andrew was still working for Splunk. Passionate about applying technology to business problems and delivering value to customers, Andrew also serves as a consultant and advisor to startups and as a co-founder of popcorn RFP, a software as a service platform for procurement that makes enterprise purchasing faster, smarter and more collaborative. A Silicon Valley native, he studied at UC Berkeley, where he received BA, MA and PhD degrees in history. Andrew, welcome to PhD Futures Now.

Andrew Keating  01:49

Thanks so much, Maggie. It’s great to be here.

MNH  01:52

First, we thought we would just ask tell us a little bit about yourself and and a little bit about your career journey.

Andrew  01:59

Sure, absolutely. So I got my PhD at Berkeley, I actually went there for undergrad as well was a history major, who spent quite a few years there at at Cal, I have had a few roles now in the tech industry, my current role, as you said, I lead a team that’s focused on what’s called Industry Marketing at Splunk. And this basically involves taking Splunk software products and presenting them in ways that resonate with specific industries like healthcare, financial services, higher education. So the are the IT security needs of a bank different from those of the hospital? And do we want to message and market the software a little bit differently based on on industry? So it’s, it’s a really fascinating roll, enjoy doing it and glad to kind of share more, as we get into some other questions.

MNH  02:49

So we another question that we thought about in preparation for today’s interview is what are your job responsibilities at Splunk? So for example, you’re somewhat in a senior role now. So what were some of the job responsibilities that you had working at a tech job after you graduated with your history? PhD?

Andrew  03:09

Yeah, absolutely. So at Splunk, as I was mentioning, you know, I lead a team. So part of what I do is actually being a manager, and helping people on the team, you know, both do their best work and kind of, you know, lead them and guide them. And then part of what I do is actually kind of rolling up my sleeves and sort of doing projects myself personally, going back in time when I was finishing my PhD. First of all, I had a postdoc that was one part teaching and research and kind of traditional postdoc type activities. And then another part of that postdoc was actually working on technology strategy at UC Berkeley. So I worked very closely with a faculty and staff committee that was planning, cyber infrastructure to support Humanities and Social Science on campus. So that was kind of a first foray into doing some of the work that that I do today.

My next role after that postdoc that was more of a full time role was in program management. And that’s really, you know, similar to project management, except that you know, what you are, as the name implies, what you’re managing and putting together our programs and partnerships. In the case of that role, I was actually working on partnerships between technology companies and universities. So I was able to draw on some of my experience, and just knowledge of how a large research university works and some of the institutional dynamics and politics and all that and then also draw on my background and familiarity with with tech as well. We can get some more into the specific skills. I know that’s of interest as well. It’s actually not a lot of technical skills. So I think, you know, some people here tech industry and they assume that they need to code. That is not always the case. I’ve personally dabbled in coding and I have a little bit of technical proficiency, but probably would not be hired to be writing any code. And that is true of like my team as well. So there’s a whole range of roles and different skill sets. And it depends a lot on the company, the team, the role, and things like that. Glad to get more into that.

MNH  05:17

You mentioned the fact that you partially made this transition into the tech sector through this postdoctoral fellowship that you had. And this is leads into another question that we have for you. How did you make the transition from a humanities PhD into the tech, into the tech sector? Was this an active choice? Or is your PhD related to the first job you initially took in the tech world?

Andrew  05:43

Yeah, no, a really a really good question. And I think, you know, I think as with everybody, when you look back at important developments in your life, it’s partly by chance, and partly by accident, and partly by design. So it’s a mix of both. Partly, in my case, it’s just a kind of accident or birth, I happen to grow up in Silicon Valley, I was always in Silicon Valley in the 1990s. And so I was always kind of just interested in in various aspects of technology. During my undergrad days, I actually worked at Apple, which was a fantastic role, as well. So I’ve always kind of had those sort of dual interests or the interest on the tech side of things.

And then, you know, during my time in grad school, in addition to the kind of traditional teaching research fellowships, things like that, because I had these proficiencies in technology, like I helped manage tech projects in the department, I would sometimes do IT support. So then that in turn, led into the postdoc, which, like I said, was kind of half half teaching and research and academic, scholarly, and then sort of the other half was more technology strategy. And, you know, it was through that work that I met the, someone who ultimately hired me for my next role at the time, he was Berkeley’s Chief Information Officer. So I got to know him. And then this is, again, the sort of accident and chance of things, you know, he happened to be going into a new job himself, right when my postdoc was ending. So I sent him a quick little email to just say, congratulations, you know, sounds like an exciting role. He’s the sort of person that he then immediately replied back and said, Well, what are you doing next? Like, do you want to come have breakfast with me, and, you know, that kind of led into him hiring me on a sort of consulting project basis, which in turn, led into to the full time role. And so I think for a lot of us, you know, this is maybe the historian and me, but there’s a lot of contingency, but there’s that mix of, you know, your passions and interest, like leading you down certain paths, and then, you know, kind of just have, needing to see like, where, where the circumstances take you and like, what opportunities come up.

MNH  07:57

I think there’s a lesson there in thinking through the ways in which relationship building, or networking can be so critical in helping anyone sort of make that transition out of the academy into another career sector, whatever, if it’s in the for profit, or the nonprofit, or wherever you decide to go. Another question that we have for you is, do you think that there’s a role for humanists within the technology sector? And where do you think that humanists could be placed within that sector overall.

Andrew  08:30

You know, it may not be a surprise to you or to this audience and our listeners, but Humanities PhDs bring a tremendous amount of skills, insights, perspectives, diverse perspectives to whatever they do, whether that’s in tech, or someplace else. I think that, you know, it’s important that we say that explicitly, indirectly, even if it’s something we implicitly realize, because there’s so much public discourse out there about having to quantify, you know, the benefits or adopt some sort of, you know, metrics driven, like, here’s what your salary is going to be if you’re a Humanities PhD, and I think that kind of just misses the point. And the point is, you know, to me, Humanities education focuses on you know, we’re spending a significant amount of time and making a multiyear commitment to study and explain various aspects of human culture. In my case, it was history, someone else’s case, it might be anthropology or sociology, or, you know, there’s a vast range of fields and subfields. But basically, what we all share is a deep interest across these fields in humanity. And, and that manifests in our specific field of study.

You know, for historians, specifically, there’s a piece in by the President of the American Historical Association recently, Professor Jacqueline Jones, where she actually I’m paraphrasing here, her here, you know, that historian seek to kind of understand subjects in their full context and it’s a kind of you know, understand the time and place where they live their motivations. And a significant part of the historians enterprise, she, she writes is empathy, and developing a full understanding of why people acted or thought as they did. And as I reflect on kind of skill sets and the tech industry, it actually turns out that that serves me very well, in a tech and business career, because in the tech industry, you know, my colleagues and I spend a lot of time thinking about various humans that are using our software or buying our software or interacting with our technology. And we think about, you know, what is the user experience? Like, if you’re a product manager, if you’re in marketing, you’re thinking about how do I tell a story that appeals to people and that gets them interested to see the potential and the technology? If I’m a salesperson, I’m interested in like, what is motivating my buyer? Where are they coming from? So these are all like very human questions. And so I think one of the skills that Humanities PhDs bring, that maybe others don’t as much is that emphasis on the humanity, the the ability to empathize and understand and analyze where people are coming from. And, you know, to be clear, it sets us apart, other professionals in the tech industry can do that as well. But they’ve not spent multiple years doing that, and learning how to do that in a professional graduate study context, right? definitionally, they just haven’t haven’t done that they’ve learned that in other respects, maybe practical or on the job, or through an MBA program or some some other way.

MNH  11:36

One of the questions we often get from those voices who might push back against career diversity methods, or methodologies will often point to well, you don’t need a PhD in the humanities to do that job. So so why should we continue to do a PhD, if we’re just going to go into a sector that doesn’t require that for for the formal job as a qualification for that job? So I wonder if you could, if you have any thoughts about about that, or how we might be able to respond and advocate for the value of a humanities PhD in the technology sector?

Andrew  12:14

Sure, yeah. And and it is a it is a very valid point. And I mean, I realized that someone with my background, it, you know, I am in the minority or unique, I think we’re all unique in various ways in terms of our career paths and interest. In my own case, personally, I mean, like, I, I took a tremendous, like, I enjoyed tremendously, the PhD program, I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to go through it, and to interact with smart people and read books and teach amazing students and do the research and writing and all that. So I think there’s tremendous value there, regardless of what career we go into. And, you know, there’s a lot of great ideas about tweaking or reforming, or, you know, modernizing or whatever you want to say of like changing the PhD experience. But at its core, the idea of spending multiple years on a sustained, you know, project, commitment, research is compelling.

MNH  13:19

Absolutely. So what advice would you give to current humanities PhD students who might be interested in career opportunities in the tech sector? Or another way of saying it is, what do you wish you had known going in as a student? Where do you start?

Andrew  13:35

I think, you know, just acknowledging and, and telling current graduate students, regardless of their age, or what their life experience has been today that, you know, there’s no one set path, a PhD does not necessarily mean you must go into a tenure track role, or you must be a teacher or a researcher, or there’s not, you’re not locked in. So I think, and I think that openness to considering and exploring, experimenting, trying things out, you know, that’s to be valued in the PhD experience. And so I would say to current PhD students, you know, to consider the range of their interests and let their intellectual curiosities and imaginations kind of help them articulate what they would like in a future career, not necessarily a specific job or a specific career, but just what characteristics of a job are important to them, what do they like to do and what are they passionate about?

And grad school I think is a fantastic time to think on that and to and to figure that out for themselves. You know, in a more practical sense, and this comes back to something we mentioned a little bit earlier, that concept of networking, which is a little bit of a loaded term, it can some people can take it to mean you know, transactional or trite kind of interactions. I think, you know, Maggie, you and I were kind of thinking about it in what I consider the positive connotations of that term, to talk to people to get to know people, to put yourself out there a little bit and just ask someone, if you can have coffee with them, or, you know, spend a few minutes with them and just talk with them. And that that sense of kind of forging connections. I know, it doesn’t come easy to some people. It doesn’t come easy to me, either. Because, you know, there’s any number of reasons why you might say to yourself, you don’t want to bother someone, or you don’t want to take their time or there’s, you know, this potential sort of, you know, this can be a, you know, putting yourself out there is a little bit challenging, but I think it’s something that does get easier, the more you do it. And you know, the worst thing that’s going to happen is someone just won’t respond to your email, or they won’t respond to your LinkedIn message. And what have you really lost other than a little bit of your time to reach out to them.

Deepthi Murali  15:56

I’m going to just quickly interject here, because, yes, Andrew, to everything that he just said. But I also wanted to bring it up right now at this juncture that the kind of commitment that we are speaking about for graduate students to try different things, to try new skills, to develop new skills and training, it’s based on a fully-funded PhD model that is not available to every PhD student across North America, or across the world. I wanted to bring that up, because there is a fundamental, there’s a, there’s a duality here in play, right? Like, on the one hand, there is the ideal of what what what PhD should be and what PhD students can do, because they’re fully funded, and therefore they can have that time to do this kind of research and to explore possibilities. And then there is a reality, especially in state-funded universities where they don’t have that. And so I just wanted to interject and put that in so that, you know, our listeners can also think about those things, those inequities with us.

Andrew  17:08

That’s, that’s right. And I’m glad, I’m glad you noted that, I think, you know, I had, in some respects, of privileged experience, going to getting my PhD at an R1. It was, you know, Berkeley is one of the elite history programs. And so that was reflected, in my experience, I think that for folks who do have to work as either as part of their university funding, or because they’re not funded, and they just need to have money to be able to survive, like there is an opportunity in that to actually see if you can find a job that opens you up to other possibilities and other career paths. In my case, that was more of the Tech experience. And then the flip side, if you’re fortunate enough to be in more of a fully-funded kind of situation, or if you have a year where you have a research fellowship, and you don’t have to worry about the demands of of paid employment while you’re going through your program, then that’s the perfect time to actually carve out a few hours a week to either do some networking or to take some online classes or get some exposure to things that may not be exactly in your, your field of study. And but you know, the funding models are definitely a, you know, a significant issue. And that has a material impact on kind of the the experience of grad school for sure.

MNH  18:31

Since we talked a little bit about the advice that you would give to PhD students. This is something that comes up frequently, because not only do we see our audience as graduate students, but we hope that there’s a number of faculty administrators who are listening to our podcast as well. So I wonder what type of advice would you give to faculty and administrators, especially as they help to guide their PhD students to their postgraduate school lives?

Andrew  19:01

Yeah, absolutely. And I think, one kind of starting point, and maybe this has been implied by a few things that I’ve said, or maybe my own experience is to, you know, really think about and be supportive of students going in multiple directions. And I think there is a lot of kind of implicit assumptions, especially from faculty at r1 universities that all of their students will go on to tenure track careers or something equivalent to that. And so I think, first and foremost, for faculty and for administrators, it’s, you know, to nurture the interests that your students have, and and to really be in tune to what those are.

From a programmatic perspective, coming back to what we were saying a few minutes ago. Um, funding is important, right and and actually providing that material support so that the students have the opportunities to go in these different directions. And then, you know, you know, clearly making those resources available for students making it easy and acceptable and straightforward when people have to ask for help or having to be okay socially and culturally within a department to say, I’m overwhelmed right now, like, I need a break, or I need some more time, or, you know, whatever. It might be like some there, there are things like that, that seem relatively simple and straightforward that I think faculty and staff can pay attention to, and to remind themselves in their particular programs that they need to put the wellbeing of their students kind of first and foremost, and I think a lot of them do that implicitly. But just having that reminder of checking in with the students, understanding what’s going on for them, and really just putting, you know, the, the students at the foreground of kind of what they’re, what they’re doing. And, you know, get most faculty do this, but just having the having the kind of reminders is important.

MNH  21:04

What is the culture like in, in the for profit world or in the tech sector? And how might it there be some similarities or differences in the culture that we experience in higher education,

Andrew  21:17

As I’ve mentioned, I mean, we are in the territory of kind of making broad generalizations here. So there’s probably an exception to every rule. And there’s a wide range of, of differences that you can see, depending on the size of the company, the sort of technology we’re talking about, are they a hardware company, or a software company, I mean, there’s a lot of, there’s a big range, you know, there is some truth to the generalizations. If you’ve watched the HBO show Silicon Valley, that’s absurd and humorous, of course, it’s a comedy, but there, there are parts of that that ring true in terms of some of the perks, and, you know, some of the, the, you know, especially in the kind of pre pandemic days, you know, the sort of stereotypical Silicon Valley office with people going by on scooters, and, you know, snacks and food and all that I’ve, you know, there is some of that, that rings true. You know, tech companies tend to be open and energetic and fast moving, they strive to be kind of meritocratic. And we can unpack that, you know, they may not always achieve that. But those are kind of the stated goals. So they’re not perfect, and they’re not without flaws, by any stretch. And, you know, there is this wide range of experiences and cultures, just as there is within higher education, you know, a small liberal arts college is going to behave differently than a research intensive, you know, university, Publix, and privates. And, you know, we have all sorts of ways to sort of slice and dice, you know, different industries. I think one key point of comparison for me is that, you know, most tech companies place a strong emphasis on treating their employees and their customers very well. So on the customer side of things, you know, software is increasingly purchased and consumed as a subscription, which means many companies, business models and revenue depend on renewals, which means, you know, keeping customers happy, otherwise, they’re not going to renew, you see this, even with kind of consumer technology, and, you know, buying the latest iPhone, or the latest gadget, if you didn’t like the last one, you’re probably going to switch and, and buy something else. So companies think a lot about how to keep their customers happy, and to keep them as repeat customers, on the employee side of things, you know, a lot of tech companies will realize and acknowledge that their employees are a significant competitive advantage to them. So they will, they will go to great lengths to treat their employees well, to retain them, and to basically keep them out of given out a given company. And many companies, this is just simply an article of faith that you treat your employees really well. This in turn at its most extreme can lead to those, you know, Silicon Valley, excess perks and things like that, that we sort of roll our eyes about. But the good side of this, I mean, if I take, you know, my, my company, as an example, as part of the response to COVID and the pandemic over the past year or so, you know, Splunk where I work, gave the entire company for extra holidays, one per quarter, to have, you know, additional three day weekends. They also, you know, set up some guidelines to address you know, Zoom fatigue, and to have certain days where, you know, it was just understood that you wouldn’t have meetings unless it was by exception. And then they also gave an additional benefit beyond our vacation and sick days. They gave us six weeks of paid time off called pandemic days. And this was designed to basically give people certainly if you got ill or a family member did, but then it was also designed to give us time if we needed it for childcare for for family care obligations or just to take care of things that were taking longer, because of all the complexities associated with lockdowns and pandemic and all that, what we found, interestingly enough, at least in among my colleagues and people I’ve talked with about this is that we ended up many of us ended up not actually taking a recording, as many of these days, as we thought we would, just because our managers were understanding. And so if you had to go pick up your kids, and you just had to be offline, or you had to go take your kids to something or whatever, you know, you didn’t actually log that as a pandemic day your manager just understood, and you got your work done. So, you know, that’s one kind of example of just a company that, you know, is concerned about people and the human aspects of this. And I think, you know, a difference with academia. And again, this is a generalization is I think a lot of higher ed tends to think about the institution, more than than the people. And, you know, you see this in a lot of a lot of different ways. And I, and I want to be careful in saying that, because I think there are a lot of caring Well, meaning people within higher ed institutions. But if you look at policies that affect employees, if you look at policies that involve faculty and staff, even things down to like, as silly as at Berkeley, you know, you had to pay for parking, and parking and transportation was all very complicated. And that costs a few extra $100 per month. And it was this whole involved thing. you contrast that with a tech company where, you know, one company where I work, they, when I showed up on my first day, and they give you your employee badge, they say, Here’s your train pass, like and the company just paid for it, because they just wanted to reduce that friction for employees. So there are a lot of like little examples like this, where I think higher education just in general, is oriented towards institutional goals and thinking about, you know, not necessarily putting people, whether that’s students, faculty, or staff at the Center have kind of policies and making it as easy as possible for them. And you know, there’s positives and negatives all around in every different industry. But that’s kind of one one key point of contrast that I see.

MNH  27:20

Our PI, Antoinette Burton, another historian, you know, of British imperialism and Empire. One of the things she often asks whether it’s our speakers at our workshops, or students who, who might be looking for careers outside the academy, she often asks, In what ways do you can you still engage with your research? So I don’t know that if you have an answer or thought about that, but that’s something we do think about, is there a way that we can maintain a connection with our research lives if we do develop a career beyond the Academy?

Deepthi 27:54

And Andrew, just to add to that, do you miss it?

Andrew  27:59

Yes. And, you know, definitely, I mean, I think over time, you know, my engagement has sort of fallen off. In the first few years, I was still kind of had had some articles going and, you know, conference speaking, and all that. And so over time, it does, you know, your path diverges, I do miss it, and I do miss the the experience of, you know, getting to spend, I mean, I spent a good six months or more, you know, in the UK doing the research, and focusing in just on a subject, and that’s something that I don’t get to do much of it in my current life. And the topic is something that, you know, I stumbled upon in this very contingent kind of way, and that piqued my interest, and it holds my interest now, still, even 10 years or so, or so, later. So, and yeah, I think the other points of kind of keeping up in terms of reading and paying attention to what either colleagues published or people in the field publish, I’m not doing it as intensely, of course, as in a graduate program, or if I was in an academic job, but being able to, you know, kind of continue my own, you know, reading and, and just familiarity with some of the scholarship that’s out there is one way that I kind of keep up and then when you see something that’s related to your topic, that’s, that’s actually in the news more broadly, that’s, that’s another sort of sort of way that you can be reminded of your work.

MNH  29:33

Thank you so much, Andrew, for sharing your wisdom and your advice and tips and a look just a little bit about your career story and biography. Deepthi and I and everyone at PhD Futures Now! and each WW really appreciate your time and the advice that you’re giving to all of our audience. So thank you.

Andrew  29:53

Thanks so much, Maggie. You’re very welcome. Great to be with you today and hope this has been good For your listeners, and they can certainly reach out to me if there’s any specific questions or, you know, certainly network that work with me if, if they would like.

Deepthi (End Credits)  30:12

Many thanks to Andrew Keating for joining us on this episode, Andrew can be reached through Twitter at @andrewpk. Before we sign off, we have a request for you. If you’re a student or an academic or a higher education professional listening to this episode, please consider subscribing and following us on your favorite podcast streaming channel. We would also love to hear from you via social media. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @phdfuturesnow. In our next episode, we are going to talk about humanities PhDs and careers in the nonprofit sector. Until then, stay safe. Thanks for listening.