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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More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2012-07-12 Anthony Lawrence
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)