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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Who am I and what do I do?

One of the toughest questions I encounter in day to day life probably sounds simple on the surface: what do you do? Basically, it's what someone says when they wonder what you do for a living. There's also that review on Amazon which says I don't convey who I am or what I do or believe. There are so many ways to answer it, and most of them feel suboptimal for one reason or another.

Maybe this post will help.

There's the generic route, where I say something like "I work with computers". Well, okay, maybe 20 years ago, that meant something. Now, just about anyone who has an office job falls into that bucket. Even the people taking your order at your favorite restaurants can say that truthfully.

I could go a little more specific than that and add something which implies that I actually do things which involve the actual care and feeding of these computers, rather than just being a user. Then I might say something like "I'm a programmer" or "I write programs". Both of those are true, but they also strike me as being rather generic. I mean, lots of people do that sort of thing, especially here in the valley. Saying "software engineer" wouldn't help. You can't throw a rock around here without hitting two or three people with that title.

Going beyond that, there's the "I'm a systems administrator" angle, and that starts adding a little more detail. Not too many people seem to describe themselves that way, possibly because of the stereotype of being brainless NOC monkeys: lashed to a pager and acting as "remote hands" for the real brains who are far away. There's also that tendency to slot such people below so-called software engineers in the valley's caste system.

Even if I said all three of these at once, it still wouldn't capture what I actually do. I mean, how do you explain that you're the sort of person who dives into a completely unfamiliar environment, migrates it between two APIs you've never seen before, and makes a pile of parts spit out useful data in 24 hours?

I was at a civic groundbreaking event not too long ago, and tried to convey this as "... building the full stack, from the hardware and cabling at the bottom to the web site interface at the top". I just got a polite smile from the person I had been talking to. Obviously, that description did not connect with him.

I've tried the "outcome" approach too, where I say something like "I made something which lets you log, record, and replay radio traffic later through a nice web interface". That tends to get a conversation started, but it also misses so much of the other things I do. I mean, it's a long way from wrangling gnuradio and SmartNet data to talking about casting off the shackles of Makefiles!

How can you express both of them at the same time without blathering on and on forever? As far as I can tell, you can't. A polite conversation switches directions after short intervals, so droning on about anything, particularly yourself, is just dumb.

Even with all of this, I've only managed to cover the actual hands-on technical nerdery which is in my life. What about all of the meta stuff, like writing? Over the past year or so that this site has been up, I've churned out at least a post every day, to the tune of over 325,000 words, or 1.9 MB if you prefer. That would be way more than your average novel, and indeed, I rolled up a good chunk of that in my book.

Then there's the whole training thing. People need to do something they've never done before, like redesigning their office network to chop things into new subnets and VLANs. They've never heard of 802.1q tagging before. Well, that's where I come in.

Maybe the problem isn't one of training but rather troubleshooting. Sometimes I act as a stuffed animal level one support tech, but more often than not I have some kind of suggestion to share, because deep down, these systems are really all based on the same fundamentals.

So which is it? Software? Hardware? Administration? Architecture? Training? Troubleshooting? Documentation? Analysis and narrative? User support? History and nostalgia?

How about yes to all of them?

So what about beliefs? Basically, I can deal with the nuts and bolts, the bits and bytes, and all of that, but not at the expense of interfacing with real people. Everyone gets a fair shake by default. The only people who wind up being labeled as ramrods or bozos are those who have gone to great lengths to actually earn it.

I believe that lying is one of the worst things anyone can do. The things which really rile me up from a bunch of my stories is when someone claims to know something when they don't. It's not even that they just picked it up incorrectly. Oh no. They actually have no idea, but cannot admit it, so they just make stuff up.

It's okay to not know something, assuming you aren't making a business out of claiming that you do know it. That's just another lie.

That's my attempt at explicitly listing the things which are woven throughout these posts. I hope this helps.