“What Do You Do?”

I have a hard time telling people what I do for a living. I dread the anticipation that results from knowing that at any moment, I’m going to get asked,  “What do you do?” The most recent incident took place a little over a week ago. I was sitting in the dentist chair, mouth open, metallic tools scraping away at my teeth, when the hygienist asked the question.

“I work with computers,” I said, hoping I sounded disinterested enough to for her to drop it.

It is a perfectly true answer, although deliberately vague. Few jobs these days don’t involve working with computers in one way or another.

Let me take the opportunity to set the record straight, to answer the question once and for all. Officially, my title is “Application Developer.” Titles, however, are funny things. They have to be specific enough so that someone with a similar title would get the drift, but general enough to include a broad range of skill sets.

A more accurate description of my job these days would be “Project Manager.” Applications developers tend to write computer code. And there was a time when a big portion of my day was spent in IDEs like Microsoft Visual Studio. As a Project Manager, I’m not writing much, if any, code. My IDE these days is Microsoft Word, or Project, with Visio diagram thrown in for good measure now and then.

Ah, but a Project Manager is a broad description. As I work in the IT realm, my projects tend to revolve around technology. And the technology they revolved around most for me on a day-to-day basis is software. In that sense, I don’t tend to think of myself as a project manager as much as I do a Product Manager. I oversee the birth, development, enhancement, and ultimately the demise of software products.

There are occasions when I am asked the question, when I’d love to answer, “I’m a writer,” and just leave it at that. Of course, telling someone you are a writer leads to other questions. Besides, I don’t make my living as a writer. And when people ask “What do you do?” they are asking how you make your living.

Sometimes, the writer in me is tempted to come up with a more colorful answer to the question. Just once, with a straight face, I’d like to say something like, “I’m a medieval cartographer,” or, “I’m a parachute tester.” Better yet, I’ve had a recurring daydream of answering the question as follows: “I’m not allowed to talk about what I do. I can get both of us into big trouble just for acknowledging that I do anything all at.”

The truth is, I don’t like talking about my day job. I enjoy what I do—if that were not the case, I would not have stayed on the job for more than 22 years now. But I work hard, and when I am not working, the last thing I want to do is being thinking about working. Being asked the question forces me to think about work, and I suppose I resent that a bit.

I recently had new business cards printed for my day job. I wish I had waited until I’d written this essay. I would have added a line to the back of the card that read: “What do I do?” and then provided a hyperlink (or better yet, a QR code) to this post. I could hand someone the card and never have to answer the question again.

One comment

  1. I think you should answer however you feel at the moment. I don’t think it’s true that everyone who asks wants to know “how you make your living”. I think many want to know how you’ve chosen to invest your life.

    You’ve chosen to invest your life in many creative pursuits, all with a technical twist. I think that’s great and might be appropriate to share when you’re so inclined.

    I have a “day job”, a SaaS app and consulting all in different industries. And, that’s just the stuff that provides a financial return. There are plenty of other things I’ve invested my life in that pay off differently. It’s great fun, but I sometimes struggle with the same questions.

    When I don’t feel like answering, I respond with “I do what you do, I solve problems.”


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