Although I’ve happily used several of their apps (Basecamp, Highrise, Campfire), until recently, I had never read their company blog, Signal vs. Noise, which frequently has interesting observations from Friend, DHH and others.
Today’s installment by Fried, called “I’m a tailor“, addresses a issue I think we all have when we’re asked what we do by a non-technical person. I’ve struggled with this personally for years, and some refer to it as the “parents test”, i.e. can you explain what you do to your parents.
Paul recently applied the doctor analogy to product management, which works pretty well, and one classic analogy for software development is comparing it to building design and construction, e.g. architect (my old title), engineer, etc.
Even though these map pretty well to what we do, one problem is that these professions all require rigorous certifications to attain, making the comparison a bit disingenuous. I once had a colleague back in my consulting days go off the reservation about how software developers should not be called engineers. That was a fun lunch.
For a while, I thought using the phrase “I solve problems with software” would be a good one to use. Then I heard myself say that and wanted to vomit. Turns out it sounded a lot more pretentious out loud.
So nowadays, I duck the question completely, usually with a “do you really want to know” or something similar. Since most people are only making polite conversation, they give up pretty quickly. The downside to this approach is that I come off as a jerk, not that I wouldn’t anyway, but more so.
Anyway, I like Fried’s characterization of his role as a tailor, but the garment construction analogy may not have enough roles for all of us. I suppose a large firm has both designers, who sketch the garments and possibly make patterns, and people who do the actual construction.
Unfortunately, this model brings to mind a sweat shop, and I’m sure the developers wouldn’t appreciate their role in that analogy.
This discussion reminds me of the classic Office Space moment when Bob Slydell, consultant, asks Tom Smykowski very pointedly, “What would you say ya do here?”
For now, I’m sticking with architect as the real world analog of what I do, but I’m open to other suggestions.
So, how do you describe your technical job to non-technical people?
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