Computer Science is a Liberal Arts Degree

Marianne Bellotti
3 min readMay 19, 2022

Thinking about programming as just math and engineering robs programmers of critical skills they need to build effective technology

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For the last three years the emphasis in my career has been safety. I was first exposed to the community of safety researchers and practitioners at Strange Loop in 2017 and now I’m coming a bit full circle by doing a full 2-hour workshop on safety for Strange Loop 2022!

One of the important take aways I have from deep diving into this field is that there’s a lot of research that was done outside computer science that addresses challenges current software engineers struggle with, some of it done decades before these problems appeared in software. I’ve started to feel like I’m watching a bad disaster movie where very smart people make reasonable but dangerous decisions without understanding that. I keep thinking “…wait, don’t you know what Rasmussen said about this?” But of course …. how would they know? How would they even know to look for such research?

The traditional concept of a computer science degree focuses on computation, because when CS started as a field the people who programmed computers were also the people who built them, or designed their operating systems or contributed to compilers. All work where a thorough understanding of math and engineering are essential.

But these days software people who do anything like that are in the minority. The bulk of software work today is about integrating computation into human driven tasks, predicting and anticipating how people think, what they need, how they react to new communication and work methods. Despite much chatter about the need for CS programs to better prepare students to work as software engineers, the delta between what professionals need to know in order to build successful systems and what schools teach is moving in the opposite direction.

If the point of a CS education is to prepare people to work in software (and that assertion is debatable!) then a good computer science education needs to give people enough exposure to the domains that study how people think and behave and organize for them to know how to occasionally break down the silos.

We need to think of computer science as a part of liberal arts, in other words. This…

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Marianne Bellotti

Author of Kill It with Fire Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones)