The Value of the Humanities: A Literature PhD in the Tech World

Submitted by Elizabeth F Self on

Interview conducted by Elizabeth Self, Graduate Program Advisor.

Kevin Tahmoresi ’20 recently graduated with a doctoral degree in Chinese literature from the Department of Asian Languages and Literature. His dissertation, entitled “The Wenyuan yinghua: Selecting Refined Literature,” focuses on a Tang dynasty poetry and prose anthology that, until now, has been little researched in the West. It explores the Wenyuan yinghua’s importance in the reception and understanding of Tang dynasty literature. Mr. Tahmoresi is a busy man - in addition to completing his dissertation and welcoming a new member to the family, he is also employed as a software engineer at Workday, a company that provides enterprise cloud applications for finance, HR, and planning to many large companies, including UW. In this interview, we explore Mr. Tahmoresi’s interests in combining tech with the humanities.

Could you tell me a little bit about your educational background and how you first became interested in studying Chinese literature?

I first became interested in China when I volunteered in a high school in China at the age of 18. Although I didn’t learn Chinese at the time, I became really interested in the culture. After that, I went on mission for my church to Taiwan, started learning the language and really fell in love with China. Later, I majored in Chinese at Brigham Young University; at that point, I really started to learn more about Chinese literature and literary history. After I graduated, I applied to the graduate program at UW and began working with Dr. David Knechtges, my PhD advisor.

How about your work background? What do you do and how did you get started on that career path?

When I was an undergraduate at BYU, I worked in the IT office, and picked up some basic tech skills at that time. Later, Dr. Zev Handel recommended me for a position at the Language Learning Center at the University of Washington, and I started working there in 2013. During that time, a mentor really helped me learn more about technology and writing software. I was able to leverage that into an internship at Workday in 2015, and have been there ever since. I was entirely self-taught, and found that in the world of tech, people really respect skills rather than a specific degree.

Have you found these two parts of your background work together well?

Definitely. Learning a new language, like Chinese, is much like learning a new coding language – you have to learn syntax, you have to learn rules of the language and apply them as you’re trying so speak it. Graduate education also gave me the drive to drill down and look for deeper meaning and deeper answers, which has helped tremendously in my work - in technology there’s always a deeper problem or set of problems you’re trying to reach for.

What advice would you give to students interested in moving into a technology career?

Don’t be afraid to apply for internships, or other opportunities in areas that you’re interested in, even if they don’t seem to match with your major. I found my internship at Workday by going to a UW career fair. I’d never even heard of Workday, but a recruiter started talking to me and asked what I studied – expecting Computer Science or something – but when I told him I studied classical Chinese but had coding skills, it made me stand out. We talked for a while and I was invited to an interview the next day.

Also, don’t be afraid to work hard and put in time outside of classes – this is the time to put in the sweat equity. Develop a plan for this year, next year, and the year after. Things may not go according to plan but try to look ahead to where you’re going. Focus is what matters - set goals and try to stick to them.

What is the value of the humanities to you?

So many people come out of STEM background without soft skills and critical thinking skills to succeed in the workplace. What a humanities education brought to me was a set of skills that allow me to investigate problems more thoroughly and to identify patterns in behavior, work with others, and communicate effectively with those around me. I am extremely grateful for the outstanding faculty and classes that Asian Languages and Literature offered, and the general rigorousness of the program.

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