So, What Do You Do?

Photo by xmatt on Flickr used under Creative Commons

Photo by xmatt on Flickr used under Creative Commons

Paul, Rich and Chet are big fans of Jason Fried, the founder of 37 Signals.

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?

Find the comments.

AboutJake

a.k.a.:jkuramot

30 comments

  1. Non-technical? I don't even attempt to describe it anymore – even to techical people. If I ever get to be able to describe it to my mom, I guess it's all over for me in terms of my carefully crafted mystique – MUHAHAHAHAHA (Unfriends another 50 people just because be can).

  2. I typically make mention of my very short attention span and if I haven't seen a shiny object go by yet and am still focused on the conversation, I explain that my job involves lots of different types of tasks. Some days I help customers fix broken stuff, other days I research to find ways to do things better, and occasionally, I get to spend time giving training or presenting a session at a conference.

    I always worry that if I don't try to explain it, I'll sound insulting–as though they couldn't possibly understand it. And if I over-explain it, they really won't understand it. It's a thin line…to satisfy requires you to take into account the audience and often, their mood or demeanor.

  3. Out of the office until 25-Nov-2009. I will respond when I return.

    Ultan Ó Broin | Director | Applications User Experience | +1 (353) 87 757-0215 254 (mobile)

  4. Audience definitely matters. I've started leading with something easy like “I work for a big software company”; the reaction dictates how much (or more commonly little) the person cares about continuing. Sometimes people will ask for more information, but it usually peters out when I get to the part where I try to explain that I no longer write code, but still design product.

  5. I usually just leave it at, “I type and swear at computers for a living.” Best case, it creates a bond (that description covers lots of work lives). Worst case…well, they probably knew I was a bit odd before we got to that point in the conversation. 😉

  6. You meant to say “he spliced together a bunch of *dead* pieces”. So, what you're saying is your job is like that of a grave-robbing-mad-scientist 🙂 I guess somedays it feels that way in development.

    I do like the angry mob with torches part of the analogy, sounds like my days in consulting.

  7. I love it and may borrow it, but you're dodging the question a tad. When pressured to give a real answer, how do you elaborate?

  8. I say “I work on a helpdesk”, which I do some of the time. The rest is working on developments, working with business users to work out what they want, writing SQL reports, doing UATs. It all sounds very dull and tedious. People get the helpdesk – they probably think I work in a call centre. My official job title, when I look at it on Oracle HR, is something daft like “Systems Engineer”, and I think, I'm so not an engineer, it's funny. In my mind, engineers make stuff with real life things you can touch. I can imagine the conversation: Q. What do you do? A. I'm an engineer. Q. What do you make? A. Nothing much, I just sit on my butt all day long and move my right hand around a bit, and click a mouse.

    PS. no negative reflection on those who are proper software / systems engineers, I'm just talking about myself here!

  9. Dan: “I always worry that if I don't try to explain it, I'll sound insulting–as though they couldn't possibly understand it. And if I over-explain it, they really won't understand it. It's a thin line…to satisfy requires you to take into account the audience and often, their mood or demeanor.”

    Jake: “Audience definitely matters.”

    Kris and I have experienced this…in regards to Kate and the doctors. Like us (software, err, oraclenerds?), doctors feel more comfortable in their own language. When Doc comes in to speak with us I can always see he/she is trying to gauge our medical intelligence. Usually Kris will pipe up with the equivalent of, “Yeah, Kate's running a 3 node Oracle RAC Cluster on 11gR1” and Doc is off and running in his own language, i.e. he doesn't have to dumb it down (for Kris anyway).

  10. Great minds and all that stuff…opened up reader to catch up, read Jason Fried's article and then yours. It has to be great minds right?

    I thought tailor was a good analogy, especially for him (and probably you). Computers, to the vast majority, are basically left to the practicers of the Black Arts. Now you want to talk about software?

    I think if I were a helpdesk guy, I would find it far easier to describe what I do. I fix computers and networks and stuff.

    Databases? Forget about it. Which by the way is how ORACLENERD came to be…most people had heard of Oracle (the company) so it sort of made sense.

  11. Well, as noted above, it depends in the audience. For non-techs, I often follow up with, “I'm an IT guy, but not the kind that comes to fix your PC at work. I'm mostly hiding in a cube somewhere working on databases that run large business systems, making sure they don't go down.” Even if they don't use a computer a lot for work, the idea that there's a big computer running things that “goes down” at inconvenient times is pretty commonly understood. After that, people tend to either fill in the blanks on their own (“I have a cousin/sibling/uncle who does that!”) or move on to more interesting topics, like themselves, assuming I remember enough of my social skills to ask, “What about you?”

  12. Well, you know, the “next big thing” changes so rapidly in software development that the splicing dead pieces analogy isn't too far off. 😉

  13. Good point about doctors, but unlike we geeks, they have to relate to n00bs all the time. Maybe support is the exception.

  14. This is why I lead with “I work for Oracle”, which either leads people to a general conclusion or leaves them with a blank look. I'm all for people making their own assumptions 🙂

    It is funny to think that the buggy computer that plagues us all is a pretty common image to everyone. Wonder what that guy would look like in cartoon form?

  15. Helpdesk is something people get. When I worked in sales support back in the day, even then, people got it. I guess like John says above, everyone understands that computers break, and someone has to fix them, whether on the phone or in person.

    You mention the point my friend had years ago about engineers vs. developers. Engineers build cities and bridges and circuits, etc. tangible things that require certifications and training b/c they might kill people if they're not done right. Right/wrong/indifferent, software development doesn't have the same rigors.

    Interesting take.

  16. Apparently great minds struggle to quantify what they do to laymen 🙂 I wouldn't say I'm a tailor, knowing what Fried does and knowing, well, what a tailor does. I guess PM would be the clothing designer, sketching, cutting patterns, etc.

    I might have to rip off your thoughts here and combine them with John's.

    Leading with “I practice the Black Arts.” When pressed, “I type and swear at computers for a living.”

  17. What, you've never (at least mentally) used the term “Frankensteinian” to describe a cobbled-together system of “old and busted” and “new hotness” apps?

  18. Lucky you! Me, *I've* administered systems that used a 10g RDBMS, 9i App server, and an 8.0.6 ORACLE_HOME to drive the forms interface. And that was before hooking it into external systems of dubious quality. 😉

  19. “I do technical voodoo” – if my eyes look wild and frantic when I say it, the conversation or the people move onto something else. If that doesn't do it, I offer to show 'em the shrunken heads of users I've collected. That usually wraps it up.

    BTW, I started with the term “virtual voodoo” – liked the alliteration but found myself too easily hooked into a conversation on virtualization. “Technical voodoo” works much better. Still thinking on how to work in the phrase “open, integrated and complete” into the mix…

  20. “I do technical voodoo” – if my eyes look wild and frantic when I say it, the conversation or the people move onto something else. If that doesn't do it, I offer to show 'em the shrunken heads of users I've collected. That usually wraps it up.

    BTW, I started with the term “virtual voodoo” – liked the alliteration but found myself too easily hooked into a conversation on virtualization. “Technical voodoo” works much better. Still thinking on how to work in the phrase “open, integrated and complete” into the mix…

  21. Yikes. I suppose a joke about shrinking already tiny heads might be in order 🙂

    Wow, that virtualization problem must have happened in a pretty technical conversation. I'm guessing that was an pretty heady event.

    I'll bet you'll be using “open, integrated and complete” a lot more in the months to come.

  22. I tell ppl that I make expensive computers run more efficiently and reliably, which is fairly close to the truth (I'm a systems/network admin).

  23. Nice, support and operations jobs are a bit easier to explain. Seems like those of us in development run into issues describing the nuances of designing and building software.

  24. I tell ppl that I make expensive computers run more efficiently and reliably, which is fairly close to the truth (I'm a systems/network admin).

  25. Nice, support and operations jobs are a bit easier to explain. Seems like those of us in development run into issues describing the nuances of designing and building software.

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