When the most recent Star Wars movie came out, fans seeking to purchase tickets flooded an Austin cinema’s website, temporarily crashing the server.

At the time, students in Southwestern University Professor Debika Sihi’s digital marketing class were working with a popular theater chain to compare the effectiveness of its advertising strategies in Texas and New York. They were nervous about how to share the news that all of their data was “filled with expletives,” Sihi remembers, laughing. “I told them, ‘The company probably already knows, but just say: Consumer sentiment is negative.’ People were posting somewhat horrible things.”

Using the latest technological tools to help real businesses is a core component of Sihi’s courses; understanding the implications of that technology—on people, society, and the environment—is a natural byproduct of Southwestern’s top-ranked liberal arts curriculum, which incorporates the humanities, fine arts, and social and natural sciences. A liberal arts degree teaches students to think broadly, critically, and collaboratively, all skills that are crucial in the tech space.

“There are the technical aspects of technology, but there are also the legal, ethical, social, and psychological aspects of technology,” Sihi explains. “Our students take classes that touch on all of those things. They are exposed to technology from a different lens. That’s super important.”

Despite recent hiring freezes and layoffs at major technology companies, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the sector will grow faster than any other industry in the next decade. The median annual salary for computer-related and IT positions is more than twice as high as that of all other occupations. With its proximity to the so-called Silicon Hills, students at Southwestern are well positioned to take advantage of this trend and excel in jobs in which technology is not the point but plays a predominant role.

Familiarity with new technologies and basic data analysis are key in any job, Sihi says. “Almost all careers now touch on technology. My job is not to teach students how to be proficient in every software but how to navigate new platforms generally.”

Brian T. Jackson ’95 credits his ability to chart the ever-churning waters of digital media and technology in part to the liberal arts training he received at Southwestern. He has benefitted from being plugged into the latest technological developments throughout his career. In 2011 he left a job he loved—working in international advertising for CNBC—to pursue an opportunity at Google-owned YouTube.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” he says. “Viewership was declining in TV and increasing in online video, and I wanted to move into a higher-growth media opportunity.”

Jackson has been with Google ever since. A member of Southwestern’s Board of Trustees since 2014, he currently heads Google’s e-commerce partnerships team and has worked with technology giants such as Amazon and eBay and with leading retailers, including Walmart and Target.

“Navigating ambiguity is a core value we look for in people who come to Google: folks that can figure out what to do when they don’t know what to do,” he says. “That’s a skill I can directly map back to my time at Southwestern.”

Jackson, who grew up in New Braunfels, is the first of his immediate family members to graduate from college. His father spent his entire career at Sears (as a high school student and during summers at SU, Jackson worked for his dad selling refrigerators, washing machines, and riding lawn mowers); his mother held several positions at a local bank. When an older friend recommended Southwestern, Jackson “fell in love with the intimacy” of the school and campus.

“I really wanted a very deep and intense academic experience,” he says. “Southwestern was absolutely perfect.”

Sihi says Southwestern’s size is a huge advantage in addressing complex topics such as technology, and one of the reasons she wanted to join the University’s faculty in the first place.

“I have the very best students,” she says, “and the small environment helps bring that out. We can have conversations with a class of fifteen to twenty-five people very differently than we would in a class with a hundred people. We have time to give everyone a voice.”

In Sihi’s classes, including a capstone course on innovation, she prioritizes visits and lectures by alumni working in jobs at the leading edge of technology. Students also read widely from outlets ranging from popular media such as Wired to academic journals, and they engage in hands-on experience with actual data sets from real organizations. Every summer, she updates her content based on new technological developments and alumni feedback about what students need to succeed.

“Students often think about technology in a very monolithic way,” she says. “But technology can be done in so [RB1]many different ways. Alumni expose students to how the skills they learned at Southwestern translate to what they’re doing now.”

Sihi has been honored for her innovative approach in the classroom; in September, she was one of three finalists in the Marketing Management Association’s Teaching Innovation Competition. She was selected based on her idea of using a web annotation tool, Hypothesis, to create a rich online discussion environment that allows students to comment on articles directly in the text. This opportunity to participate outside of the classroom is beneficial to more introverted students who might feel uncomfortable raising their hand, said Sihi, who first learned about Hypothesis from Southwestern’s Center for Teaching, Learning & Scholarship, which supports faculty development.

“Southwestern was a great leadership lab for me.”

Meanwhile, Jackson is proof that a career in technology does not require a technical degree. He chose international studies as his major and completed his honors thesis on gender in modern German film. He also chaired Southwestern’s editorial board, which oversaw student publications; served as part of the Student Foundation, which helps represent the University before various constituencies; and played the saxophone in different bands and in the pit orchestra for student musicals.

Jackson says Southwestern “was a great leadership lab for me. There are enormous opportunities there for students to create something new or to step into an existing organization and feel what it’s like to lead.”

© chris conroy photography © chris conroy photography

At Google, Jackson heads a group focused on helping partner companies monetize their retail operations by, for instance, promoting certain sponsored products on their e-commerce sites. He says the “seeds” of his leadership style can be traced back to his time at SU.

“I tell my team to assume that no one else is in charge until you’re proven otherwise,” he explains. “That is really something you can play around with in a small community. Try things out. Be entrepreneurial. Have a voice. You can lead where there are gaps.”

The features Jackson loved most about his time at Southwestern—the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum, making connections between seemingly unrelated topics or ideas, and a community that fosters curiosity and learning—are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education and part of what Southwestern now calls its Paideia approach.

He says those skills are also crucial components for a career in technology.

“Eventually, technology will take over a lot of the repetitive tasks of life,” he adds. “What will be left is what’s fundamentally human in all of us: the need to think and to write and to persuade. That’s really the power of a liberal arts degree.”

Today Southwestern students looking to enter the tech world benefit from the rapid influx of tech companies to the Austin area in recent years, including Apple, Tesla, Samsung, Google, and many more. Future tech talents at SU are also supported by the University’s award-winning Center for Career & Professional Development (CCPD). Each semester the center hosts at least one recruiting event featuring technology-related employers; in addition, SU’s online networking platform, PirateConnect, allows students to find alumni who can act as mentors or share information about potential jobs.

The CCPD helps students develop industry and alumni connections related to their field of interest, including technology, in order to determine a path from their campus to professional experience,” says Adrian D. Ramirez, CCPD’s director. “Southwestern University’s interdisciplinary curriculum and structured co-curricular programs provide students opportunities to develop the skills required for a variety of careers in the technology sector, be it in Austin or elsewhere.

Faculty also help connect students to job opportunities. Sihi, who serves as a judge for a start-up accelerator in Austin, often puts students in contact with people she knows or meets. Alumni remain the best resource, she says, listing several who regularly engage with current students, including Macey Eamma ’16, who works in marketing at LinkedIn; JT Marek ’19, a senior research engine marketing manager at PMG Digital Agency;

Daniel Mataya ’14, a senior consultant at EY; and Blair Orr ’19, an account executive at cybersecurity software provider Rapid7.

“We have amazing alumni,” Sihi says. “They pay it forward a hundred times.”

If you have questions about supporting the initiatives mentioned in the article, please call the Development Office at 512-863-1211. For more information about other priority initiatives at Southwestern, visit thrive.southwestern.edu.