One of the more common generally acceptable questions you hear when trying to get to know someone better is, “who do you work for, what do you do?” My family has always been at an advantage over me when this comes up, since my father is a teacher, my brother is a teacher, and my in-laws include teachers, a lawyer, and a corporate tax auditor (my father-in-law is still a super nice guy, I swear).
When it comes to me, though? Well, I work for a company you’ve never heard of unless you know something about aviation, we do things to airplane parts that you probably never knew was necessary using a highly advanced process I can barely explain, and I write software that checks for…
By this point in the conversation, I typically notice eyes glazing over, or worse, rolling back into my victim’s head. That’s usually about the same time when someone else quietly starts a new thread of discussion that everyone jumps at like starving sharks sensing a seal with a nosebleed.
On the rare occasion when I do manage to hold someone’s interest long enough to explain that I’m a software engineer pretending to be a writer, they follow up with wanting to know what that really means. Few people understand how a computer works or how electricity becomes Microsoft Word; to most people, personal computing is a type of modern voodoo. You roll the bones, kill enough chickens, reboot enough times, and eventually Windows and/or that Internet thing might get you pictures of your grandkids on vacation at Disney.
So, as a practitioner of the modern rites of voodoo, how do you describe what you do without talking over someone’s head, boring them to death, or having them scan for the emergency exits from the corner of their eyes? After years of living with the problem, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that, frankly there just is no good way. If someone seriously seems interested in how it works, though, I’ll offer them an out by asking if they really they want to know. If they (unwisely) push forward, first they get a quick run through using as much high-level layman talk as possible.
That typically clears away 90 percent of curiosity without killing any kittens.
A handful of people want to know more detail occasionally, and I usually chalk that up to them doing research for a geek sitcom or looking into building a self-aware artificial intelligence with the intention of challenging the US Government for global dominance. Whatever, I try not to judge. But inevitably, at some point in the explanation, whomever I’m speak to will stop me, cock their head, and state (not ask), “Oh, so you’re an I.T. guy.”
That’s roughly about the same time I start wondering how disappointed my wife, kids, and mother would be if I was arrested for slapping someone.
Since I don’t want my children to grow up with an absent father who they can only remember in a spiffy orange jumper because of a dime stretch in the “joint”, I restrain myself and explain that while I might, technically, work in the field of information technology, IT is not what I do. I could go on for some length about why I bristle at the suggestion, but well, that’s another post. To give you just one reason, though, allow me to offer this common perception of an IT guy:
As with most good SNL skits, it’s funny because there’s a nugget of truth in the exaggeration. Sadly, when many people think of IT, though, Nick is the kind of person they think of. And I just don’t want to be associated with that guy.
Maybe I should consider the orange jumpsuit. At least then people would understand when I said I worked in a laundry.