You do WHAT?

People often ask me what I do. It’s a reasonable question and I don’t draw too much attention to myself on the whole so there is no reason why anybody should know. I’ve been prompted to write a few words on this now because a few recent enquiries have made me smile.

Firstly my sister asked my 10 year old nephew what he thought I did for a living. His answer – offered without any deliberation – was that I was a footballer. I have no idea where he got that from but I love it and when my passport comes up for renewal shortly I might proffer that as an occupation. On another occasion I had posted an entry on twitter about a NewsBiscuit submission of mine that had been published and somebody asked me if that was what I did for a living. A perfectly innocent question but if you have seen my submissions you will know nobody is going to pay me for them.

Most recently one of my work colleagues asked me what I did – again a reasonable question but it is symptomatic of modern office life that you can fail to know what somebody sitting a few yards away does. It was much worse at my previous employers where there were vast tracts of open plan office staffed by transient workers often employed by partner companies. Barely a week would go by without a delivery guy asking me where I could find Person X and when I said I had never heard of them he would trundle off only to be seen getting a signature from said recipient seated a couple of desks away. Somebody I might have been on “nodding terms” with for a year without ever knowing their name or business.

In my defence I’m not a shouty type. I love chatting with people and will field any question but I don’t tend to naturally just talk about my affairs unprompted to all and sundry. Some people are very different – you can know the intimate details of their life story even though they are positioned nowhere near you and may not even be aware of your existence. I remember a visit to Barcelona – I was on the roof of a famous building called Casa Mila styled by local creative genius Antoni Gaudi taking in his incredible chimneys, but I can’t remember much about the building. All I can recall is the infuriatingly omnipresent American lady who had arrived on a cruise ship docked in the harbour and spent 20 minutes bellowing out to her (presumably deaf and/or suicidal) friend the minutiae of her European Tour itinerary plus her dissatisfactions with seemingly everything in her life. I tried to circumnavigate the roof as far away from her as possible but she had the unearthly ability to hijack all of the 5 recognised sense plus a few others yet to be ratified. It was a good job there were anti-jump (or anti-push) fences around the perimeter.

Here is the “man in the street” description of what I do. I develop, enhance and support computer systems at the national charity that I work for. I specialise in data and databases but the beauty of working for an organisation of this size with an entire IT department numbering a couple of dozen staff is that you get involved in a wide range of work streams. Historically I have been a web developer and I still do some of this now albeit playing second fiddle to our resident expert Matt. I particularly enjoy meeting the people who use or commission systems to try and understand what they do and where system related opportunities lie or problems exist. It is greatly rewarding to deliver a new system or enhancement that you know is going to improve daily life for somebody, especially when it means the user will be released to channel their valuable time on the interesting and important things – the primary activities they should be focussed on – rather than tearing their hair out on an awkward system that is unnecessarily demanding.

My desk at work
My desk at work

Unfortunately IT people get a bad press because there is a rather outdated view that they are geeks from another plain who are incapable of communication with normal people. I’ve met a few people like this but they are the exception rather than the norm. In my experience the people who tarnish the image of my industry the most are some of the middle managers in larger IT organisations who create a needlessly complex language to mystify their art and safeguard their jobs by making it appear they know something you don’t. The truth, and I can assure you of this from my experience, is that they are either essentially non-technical people who haven’t a clue about basic hands-on IT or that they have been promoted from a technical background and feel that they have to adopt this mumbo-jumbo to get along.

An IT middle manager yesterday
An IT middle manager yesterday

Having worked in the classic environment where clueless middle managers have been left alone to breed and multiply over time while a threadbare stock of technical specialists have been undermined, overworked and ousted beyond any point of sustainability, I feel so lucky to now work in an organisation exhibiting none of this corporate cholesterol. I appreciate my current job all the more having witnessed at close hand the phenomenon of these self-important middle managers genuinely believing their own hype. These are highly paid influential people that often can’t tie their own shoe laces and would leave Sir John Harvey-Jones speechless were he to improbably rise from the grave again and audit such a workplace. There’s a book in this subject and one day I might just write it. The point I am trying to make is that the modern IT professional typically combines technical ability with good communication skills and business awareness. You can put them in front of a customer or sit them next to the CEO and the conversation will flow, in fact this is what I would advocate.

There is of course a lot of jargon in the business, far too much in fact, but that’s an unavoidable by-product of an industry based around new concepts that you can neither see or touch and as IT professionals we should be pitching our language according to the audience. Here’s a random sample of a few of the things I have been working on recently…

    • Designed a protocol and developed a database toolset for the automated transfer of data payloads from internal servers to our external hosted environment (including a rather cool stored procedure that returns a dataset of a recursive file listing obtained from a remote server via FTP).
      Translation:Developed a solution that means that information entered by staff onto our internal website gets reliably copied over to our national website overnight.


    • Created a database driven job that uses a dotNet assembly to obtain geocodes for our resources via web service calls.
      Translation:Developed a solution that enables website users to view properties found on our database in a Google Maps style window


  • Architecture, physical design and implementation of a central data hub for the organisation.
    Translation:Creation of a means of sharing data between different systems within the organisation using a standard approach.

There’s a lot more going on too but hopefully the above details give you a taste of what I get up to regardless of whether you are an IT person. A lot of it is quite analytical and some days you are in the zone and scorch through your workload while other days you seem to stare at the screen intently hoping in vain that it will all start to fall into place. There’s not much you can do with half an eye while chatting although on some days this would be welcome!

So now you have an inkling of the sort of thing I do please feel free to ask more or ignore it as per your disposition. Just remember, I’m not some guru if you need your PC fixing, printers are a mystery to EVERYBODY – not just you, and offers to sign professional football terms or get paid to write satirical news articles will be gratefully received.

I’m not holding my breath.