Why Writers and Actors Are About to Be in High Demand in the Tech Industry

Woman with script on stage
IPGGutenbergUKLtd/Getty Images

Tech jobs are booming.

In 2017 alone, tech companies posted ads for almost 3 million job openings.

You might think these jobs are only for people with a background in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. But Rurik Bradbury, the global head of conversational strategy at software company LivePerson, has noticed a new hiring trend: Tech companies working on artificial intelligence (AI) are looking for employees with a humanities background.

Many of these workers studied in fields often thought of as “unemployable,” such as creative writing or acting.

“For 20 years or so, all we’ve heard about is how there’s such a shortage of people in STEM,” says Bradbury. “What we’ll see now is another change of course.”

While STEM majors are needed to create artificial intelligence software, humanities majors are often the ones that bring it to life and teach it to communicate with real people.

With expertise in “soft” skills like interpersonal communication and creative development, humanities majors aren’t unemployable — in fact, they are essential to conversational design.

Yes, these are tech jobs for humanities majors.

What is conversational design?

At LivePerson, software developers create artificial intelligence for businesses, particularly the chat bots that provide customer service, in a process known as conversational design.

“AI itself is quite dumb,” Bradbury says. “But it can be improved.”

Creating those improvements is the job of designers who work with bot software to “teach” it how to interact with humans in a way that feels natural and helpful. Conversational design does involve software development and programming. But it also requires creative skills more often found in professions like acting and writing.

What skills do actors and writers bring to AI?

“There is a lot of non-technical work,” says Bradbury, describing the process of conversational design. “Instead of designing interfaces made of multiple screens and buttons using code, the new challenge is to create conversational flows using plain language. It’s not actually “programming” at all because it is natural language.”

To keep customers happy, business AI needs to respond naturally no matter what path the conversation takes. For that, Bradbury says, tech companies need designers with creative skills — not just a STEM background.

Which creative skills are vital for developing artificial intelligence?

Dialogue writing

Software development always requires designers who can write code. But artificial intelligence requires creative writing too.

Writing and communication skills are in high demand in conversational design because bots need scripts to follow. The ability to combine casual and professional writing is particularly valuable. “There is a difference between “good” writing, as an essayist or English professor might define it, and “effective” writing,” Bradbury says.

AI companies need writers who can write natural dialogue customers will easily understand. “Clear writing and communication is key for creating bots,” Bradbury explains. “Without it, the experience [of talking to AI] will be very frustrating.”

Acting and improvisation

Two skilled designers Bradbury knows were trained actors who had attended drama school. Their experience developing and expressing a character’s persona allowed them to create a believable personality for bot software.

“Think of bots as Method actors,” Bradbury jokes, referring to a popular acting technique. “It’s not just the writing part. It’s also getting into the role, understanding what the bot is facing.”

Improvisational acting also helps the process of conversational design because bots need to interact with real humans, who are unpredictable. Designers with an improv background can predict the different scenarios bots might encounter and create appropriate responses.

Interpersonal skills and empathy

“An important skill is understanding subtle cues in text,” Bradbury says, in order “to work out quickly if a customer is happy or unhappy.”

For example, a customer using a bank’s chat software might need to close an account because they bought a house in another state, while another might need to do the same thing because a family member died. Though the result these two scenarios is the same, the customer’s emotional states are very different.

An effective chat bot needs to respond to both customers with empathy. AI companies need designers with strong interpersonal skills to predict customers’ needs and create the appropriate response scripts.

Customer service

Because customer service is one of the fastest-growing areas for AI in the business world, workers with a customers service background play a critical role in conversational design.

“One thing we learned recently is how effective it is to utilize the domain knowledge of people that have… ‘on the ground’ experience communicating with customers,” Bradbury says. “They have a lot of learnings that are impossible to replicate when using people who have not been customer facing, even though the credentials of these other people might seem better on the surface.”

Designers with customer service experience can predict how customers will react to a given situation. This lets them create AI that responds appropriately and helpfully.

A customer service background is also vital for troubleshooting, giving designers insight into why an interaction didn’t work as expected and how a bot can perform better in the future.

Creative coaching

The conversational design field is relatively new, and jobs within it are still growing and changing.

But many designers take on the broad role of “conversational architect”: the designers responsible for looking at what is possible, what can be improved and what goals to work toward.

Bradbury described conversational architects as creative directors or coaches who look at the big picture and “guide” a bot toward those goals. These designers need to spot patterns, identify trouble spots and think of solutions to problems.

To be an effective architect, Bradbury says you need to think creatively about the future the way a coach does. “You have to think about all the possible range of what can go right or go wrong.”

How to be a strong tech job candidate (without a STEM degree)

Hands typing on laptop
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

So how can you turn the soft skills of a humanities major into a high-profile tech job?

1. Get involved in the tech industry, even without a job.

Attend conferences or networking events in your region, then talk with the tech professionals you meet.

Using your non-tech background as a conversation starter will not only make you stand out, it will also give you an opportunity to showcase how that background makes you a strong, creative candidate.

2. Apply for a conversational design job, even without a STEM degree.

Identify the relevant skills from your background, such as your training in improvisational acting or your time in customer service, then highlight them in your resume.

If you are writing a cover letter, use that as an opportunity to show your knowledge of conversational design by explaining how these skills map onto the responsibilities outlined in a job description.

3. You don’t need a new degree to add a few tech skills to your resume.

Look for computer science classes at your local community college or adult learning center. If money is tight, you can find free online classes or apps, such as these 10 apps that can teach you how to code.

“The best conversational designers have both domain expertise and a great ability to communicate in a way that gets the key idea across to customers,” Bradbury advises. “It’s about having an instinct and knack of giving people what they need and understanding what question a consumer is really asking.”

Katharine Paljug is a freelance writer and editor. Visit Katharine-Writes.com to access her free library of resources for business owners or follow @kpaljug on Twitter, where she tries not to complain about how winter is cold.