Thursday, June 24, 2004

"So, what do you do?"

Got my hair cut yesterday - normally that wouldn't be a big deal but I was about six weeks overdue and thought I was going to be going out of town next week and my long-time cutter Jorge is on vacation and breaking in new cutters has been a traumatic experience since I first started wearing my hair a little longer in junior high and got hack jobs a couple of times, so it was. But it turned out to be fine and Carl did a great job and now I can save about 10 minutes of getting-ready time in the morning and all is right with the world. This is all getting around to the conversation I had with Carl, which began with "So what do you do?"

Jesus H. Christ - don't ask me that!! I have never known how to adequately answer that question. When I first graduated and went to work for IBM, my standard response was either "I do computer stuff" or "I play keyboards". The former I could usually get away with because while most people kinda knew what a computer was, they had no real idea what people did to support them. A vague answer like that was perfectly acceptable. For people that really did know about computer support, like Mom or my uncle Ted, then I could comfortably expand on that to talk about IBM mainframes and SNA networking and a whole host of other acronyms. The latter was my smart-ass answer, refering to most of my day being spend at the keyboard of an IBM 3278 green-screen terminal attached via an IBM 3274 controller to a cluster of IBM mainframes, mostly 3081s and 3084s, although I'm old enough that when I first started working we still had an old S370/168 that we were supporting. I'm sure that for most of you, your brains locked up as soon as I started spouting out model numbers and acronyms - hence the problem. Unless you knew what SNA, VTAM, JCL, NCCF, NCP, MVS, TSO, JES, etc. meant, there wasn't a lot I could tell you that would illuminate "what I do" any more than "I do computer stuff".

Much later, after moving from mainframe support to Unix server support to managing people who provide Unix server support, it got both harder and easier to answer that question. By that time lots more people used some kind of personal computer at work, some were starting to get them into their homes and suddenly everyone was a frickin' computer expert. Which now meant that they still had at best a vague idea of what it was that I did, but they were sure they knew much more about it than they really did.

Then I changed jobs to one that was probably the hardest to describe (and was mercifully shortlived). There was a period of time when the IT infrastructure support and management was "sold" internally within the company I was working for - instead of mandating its use by all the businesses in the company, we basically had to compete with groups that were providing their own support as a sideline to their real job. That meant we needed sales reps - "account managers". Let me tell you, that was NOT a role that I was particularly adept at, but even worse it made the answer to the question "so what do you do?" almost impossible for me to answer in any meaningful way without spending at least a half hour describing the company structure and corporate culture and a whole lot of ridiculousness that still probably wouldn't mean anything to anyone. Hell, we didn't really understand it ourselves.

So now, I manage people that do computer stuff. More specifically I manage a team of people across a number of sites in the US and Canada that engineer computing solutions and install Windows servers and Unix servers for our customer. That means I'm part people manager, part troubleshooter, part customer service rep, part workflow manager, part budget manager, part technology planner, part contracts expert (hah!) and almost entirely interupt-driven. For all the technology out there, I really use four things every day (almost every minute of every workday): e-mail client, web browser, instant messenger and Microsoft Excel. Sure, there's some Powerpoint thrown in and on rare occasions a need to use Word, but it's primarily those four. And a phone. Since almost no one that I work with on a regular basis is in the same town as I am, I get to do all this from home, which is something else that's sometimes hard to explain. So how the hell do I answer that question?

Carl: "So what do you do?"

Tony: "I do computer stuff."

Carl: "Oh, okay. Cool. Good that we're getting some rain, huh?"

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