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What do you do for a living?

© November 2005 Anthony Lawrence
November 2005

The other night my wife and I pulled up to the bank in our shopping center and as I jumped out of the car I almost bumped into one of my wife's childhood friends. We hadn't seen her in several years, so while I attended to the deposits and such, she and my wife sat in our car and chatted. When I was done, they weren't through catching up, so it was decided that she'd follow us back home to talk more.

Ordinarily my wife would have been apalled at anyone coming back to the house right now. The place was in complete turmoil, under assault from painters and carpenters and electricians, and with stuff piled everywhere in preparation for a yard sale. No ordinary, non-contractor visitor would ever be allowed to step foot into this mess. But this was a very close, long time friend - it's ok to let your hair down with friends like that.

I still had some work to finish up, so I headed for my office while my wife and her friend reminisced. After a half hour or so, I was still tapping away at the keyboard, but my wife had started giving a tour of the ruins. As my office has already been blessed with new carpet and the attention of painters, she of course brought her friend there. My desk may be a jumble, and there was a pile of stuff on the floor in preparation for my Geek Yard Sale, but as bad as that looks, in comparison to the rest of the house it was relatively neat. That's an opinion from my viewpoint, though; I doubt her friend would make the same appraisal. However, after observing piles of books, dead and near dead computers and the like, she turned to me and asked the natural question:

"Just what is it you do for a living?"

Umm.. I hate that question. I hate it because I don't really know how to answer it. Seriously. I don't know what it is I do. No, that's not right: I know what I do, but I don't know how to give the top line of the resume version. I can just say "Computer geek", but that just leads to more questions: "Oh, do you do hardware or software?". Hmmm.. well, I do what it takes. I'm not going to tackle a motherboard with a soldering iron, but I do have a soldering iron in my tool kit, and have used it now and then. Do I do software? Sure. Web pages? Yes. Databases? Sometimes. Microsoft Windows? Usually no, but it depends..

Sometimes I'll take the flippant route: "I do as little as possible for as much money as I can get". To some extent that's true. I don't mind plucking the low hanging fruit, but it can't hang too low. In other words, though I could come put more RAM into your machine, and I understand you are willing to pay my ridiculous rates for that service, I don't want to do that. I need a little challenge. And although the easier stuff is nice, I'm not happy if I don't get some mind-bending, really stressful, hard projects now and then. I like that kind of thing. For me, the most interesting problems are the ones that a few other people have given up on, the ones that defy logic. If that pays well too, that's even better.

Some people like to puff up their work. Their company name is "Grand Unified Foobah International" and they are the "Chief Executive Officer" even though their basement office is even smaller than mine. Or they drop names: "I do high level consulting with firms like GM, Knight-Ridder and so on". Maybe they do. I could drop some names too, but for me, helping the little guy is a lot more satisfying. I don't even want big accounts; they suck up too much of my time. So not only don't I seem to know what I do, but you've never heard of most of the people I do it for. That's not impressive.

So I told my wife's friend the truth. I don't know what I do. It's computer stuff, mostly Unix stuff, and I have a pretty big web page you've never heard of either. She raised her eyebrows and repeated "Unix" back at me, so maybe she has some idea what that means, but who knows. My wife gets excited about my web page: "It would take you years to read it!" she'll brag, to which I often add "But why would you?".

Do you know what you do? Honestly and for real? Maybe somebody gave you a title that you can use when you get that question, but do you really know what you do?

See also: What's your game?

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Sat Nov 5 14:55:57 2005: 1287   MikeHostetler

I struggle with the same thing. My official title is "QA Engineer" but I do much more development than a common tester. Our staff has too many things to do for a small staff than one job title can have it. I generally say "computer programmer" but it's not quite right either -- I take care of too many Linux boxes for that. And most people don't know what a computer programmer really is. My wife tells people that I'm a computer programmer and their eyes get really wide.

If I had my druthers, I'd say "a computer geek who does weird stuff".

Sat Nov 5 15:18:21 2005: 1288   TonyLawrence

I'm so glad you have that problem too ;-)

I wrote this weeks ago, and kept putting off posting it because I thought I must be the only one with this problem - surely everyone else must know what they do..

Finally I said the heck with it and posted it. Glad I'm not the only one!

Sat Nov 5 15:32:21 2005: 1289   BigDumbDinosaur

Do you know what you do? Honestly and for real?

I usually give the (real) short answer, "I fix computers." For most people, that is sufficient. However, I will periodically get quizzed by someone who reads PC magazine with regularity and thus feels better informed than the average computer user.

"Do you do Windows?"

Uh, I try not to.

"Can you help me with an Outlook Express problem?"

No. That's too much like trying to bail out the Titanic.

"I'm developing a new database for my business. What do you know about Access?"

Oh! You're working with "databases for dummies."

"What do you think of Linux?"

Best thing since multiple orgasms.

"My PC has a virus. What should I do?"

Switch to Linux or buy a Mac.

That's how I sum up what I do. <Grin>

Mon Nov 7 11:40:45 2005: 1298   Dean

I'm so glad other geeks hate this question. I thought I was the only one. I loath this question! I'm asked it constantly and the response I give is "Software Engineer" or "I design software". I don't go into depth. Even if they ask "So what does that entail?" I simply say "A bunch of nerdy geeky terms that you would become bored with" and smile and get on with the conversation.

What annoys me is when people try to dig deeper. "No, really, what is it that you do? I won't get bored". YES YOU WILL! I'm not considering everyone is retarded and below my level of intellect. I'm seriously not. I'm sorry, but if I can write code and hack in Linux, anyone can. I make no deal of putting myself on any platform because of what I do because I think it's a pretty simple job... Nevertheless, I can't explain it in short terms. I guess I'm stupid. I can't cram the technical details of my job into short talk. You won't know what the hell it is I'm saying when I tell you I'm a C++ developer on Linux platforms. If I say that, you'll come back with "What's C++? What's Linux?" I'm sorry, we don't have the time for me to explain that. Because if I say "C++ is a programming language and Linux is an Operating System", we'll get 1 or two responses. The first will lead into the second. 1) What's an Operating System 2) So is Linux like Windows? Shut up! Stop it! Please, for the love of all that is easy and meaningful, just stop digging. You don't care. You honestly don't care about the technical aspects of my job! You'll go home tonight and sleep just fine without knowing what C++ and Linux is! Or if you see me online, You'll go about your workday just fine not having to know what my chat screen name "intargc" means. Save us all the frustration and sanity and just accept "I work with computers". Smile and say "Oh, well at least you have a job" and let's laugh and drink our beer without much more mention of our jobs. Deal?


Mon Nov 7 11:47:47 2005: 1299   TonyLawrence

Wow :-)

So there are more of us.

I'm so glad I finally posted this. C'mon, where are the rest of you lurkers? Is there anybody reading here who DOES know what they do and can answer that casual question without feeling uncomfortable?

Mon Nov 14 01:53:08 2005: 1342   Sledge

I paraphrase Hank Hill, from King of the Hill. I tell people that I sell networks and network accessories. I usually add that I design, install and service networks and network accessories.

I get really annoyed when we call ourselves geeks. If I am a computer geek, then Michael Jordan is a basketball geek, Milla Jovovich is a modelling geek, and Joe Montana is a football geek. We are not geeks. Geeks bite the heads off live animals. Is that what you do, somehow related to computers?

We make things possible. We publish dreams. We enable achievement. We realize aspiration. We do it behind the scenes and others take credit for acomplishments that are not possible without us. I am ok with that, in fact I seek out opportunities to contribute to other's success. I am not looking for respect, but I expect not to be disrespected. Accepting the handle of geek legitimizes disrepect.

I will not call myself a geek. When someone who relies on my expertise calls me a geek, I tell them "I am not a geek, I am simply more talented than you. A lot of people are, you'll get used to it." Then I promise not to try to do whatever it is that they do for a living if they promise not to try and intall hardware/software, write programs, etc.

For those keeping score at home, Ozzy Osbourne *is* a geek.

Sat Nov 12 21:01:30 2005: 1344   TonyLawrence

Football geeks, carpenter geeks, bus driver geeks.. I like it :-)

Sun Nov 13 06:11:20 2005: 1345   BigDumbDinosaur

Football geeks, carpenter geeks, bus driver geeks.. I like it :-)

I guess that makes me a reptile geek. My wife calls me a geek now and then but never within earshot of others...she knows how much I detest that label.

Wed Nov 23 20:28:57 2005: 1379   infinity

good write up. :) Perfectly understandable by many :)


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What do such machines really do? They increase the number of things we can do without thinking. Things we do without thinking — there's the real danger. (Frank Herbert)

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