“So, you do what for a living?”

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There’s a chance that during this time of year, when gathering with friends and family you haven’t seen in ages, or with people who just simply forget everything about you after they meet you, you’ll be asked the question, “so what do you do for a living?”  Some of my friends and family actually do work or dabble in the IT world from time to time, so when I’ve answered them with “IT Product Manger”, they usually are able to closely approximate what I do.  For the rest of my family and friends, most of whom have no exposure or familiarity with software development, “IT Product Manager” doesn’t really convey the right message.  I’ve tried.  When I respond by telling them what my title is, the typical exchange goes something like this:[i]

“Oh, so you’re a project manager?  What kind of project do you manage?”

“Well, I’m working on helping implement manufacturing execution software for an auto manufacturer, but I’m not a project manager, I’m a product manager.  Our project manager doesn’t really know what he’s doing and I don’t want to take the credit (or blame) for what’s going wrong there.”

“Oh, so you’re like a programmer?  You write the software and then install it?”

“No, I don’t do that, not anymore. I used to, but anyway, I help make sure that the software actually does what it’s supposed to for the business…”

“I see, so you sold the software to this company—you’re like an account manager, right?”

“Not exactly, I find out from the business what the software is supposed to do and then communicate this to the people who write the software.”

“Oh, I see, so you’re like a go-between.  Huh.  I don’t know anything about making software, but why doesn’t the business just tell the people who write the software exactly what they want?  Seems like kind of a waste of time, heh, heh.”

“Well, it’s a different skill set really.  Developers are lousy at um, well nevermind, you’re right.  My job is a waste of time, and I don’t really add any value to the project.  I wish I was a college professor or a plumber so I could pat myself on the back more often.  Hey this eggnog is good, right?”

The conversation has deteriorated at this point, and then usually after an uncomfortable pause and a few gulps of booze, I’m asked my second-least-favorite question in an attempt to avoid an awkward change of subject:

“Hey didn’t you major in philosophy or something? What’s your philosophy of life?”

The attempt fails.

For business analysts, product managers, and those in the business of eliciting, producing, and managing software requirements, it’s difficult to give an answer to the dreaded “so what do you do for a living” question without being convoluted or sounding like Tom Smykowski. Although, I must say that I do have mad people skills.

It’s actually the bane of the Product Manager’s existence that we struggle with coming up with good, one-sentence responses to what it is we do everyday.  How ironic that our role is one of distilling and formalizing complex ideas from the business into language that can be easily understood by programmers, testers, and users.  On the other hand, we can’t really accomplish the same goal in a social setting.  Worry not, for I am here to help.  I thought I would plagiarize some ideas that I’ve heard from colleagues over the years and compile them here.  The next time your creepy uncle who sells jewelry and steak knives for living asks you what your job is, try one of the following:

  1. “We help businesses figure out what software they need to build to solve business problems.”  This is a personal favorite of mine that I stole from my colleague Marc.  It’s especially relevant to IT consultants/contractors/professional services types.  Just about everyone knows what software is, and a lot of people understand that just about every business runs on some sort of software to solve business problems.
  2. “We help communicate the business needs of a system in a language software developers understand.”  A variation of this is, “We translate from business to geek”, although I am less fond of the second version because it veers into Smykowski land.
  3. “We make sure the right software is being developed at the right time, for the right people.”  The emphasis here is on the right software.  This response is nice because it allows you to segue adeptly into a discussion about how you help companies meet their business objectives.
  4. “We help the business get the most value out of their development dollar.”  This response stresses the fact that you are not just a scribe or secretary writing things down, formatting them, and delivering them to the development staff.  You are helping make the tough decisions on which features to cut and which bugs to fix, and quantifying those decisions in terms of dollars and cents.
  5. “We work with the business to find the appropriate scope of a software development project and ensure that what is built is what the business expects.”  Whenever I am asked the dreaded WDYDFAL question, this is what almost immediately comes to mind.  Sometimes I fill in the details of working with pictures to help model current business processes (and desired business processes).
  6. “We ensure that the software the business needs to be built actually gets built.”  I usually add a line about babysitting development, but sometimes that just makes it sound like I’m an overpaid babysitter.
  7. “I work with the business to ensure that organization, process, and IT changes are successful.”  I owe this one to one of our blog readers, Adrian Reed.  I actually really like this one because it highlights our involvement in change management.  This is something that a person who sells steak knives can even understand.  (Note:  Selling steak knives is a fine profession and I do not mean to denigrate it.  I personally own some very expensive steak knives which I bought from some very nice and bright people.)
  8. Some of our friends at modernanalyst.com have offered the following, more creative responses, which I am quite fond of and use as a last resort if nothing else works:
  1. I solve problems for cash.
  2. I wander around looking for interesting people and things to do.
  3. I am a wholesale liquor distributor (note:  make sure that you don’t use this one if the person asking actually is a wholesale liquor distributor, or you’ll find yourself in a very embarrassing one-sided conversation about the state of the liquor industry).

Be warned.  I’ve tried a variety of these responses with some limited success.  I’ve probably described my job to my mom using at least one or more of the above responses and she still doesn’t know what I do for a living.  She thinks that I do the same thing that my dad does.  My dad is retired from the military and writes proposals for government contracts.

Interestingly enough, I’ve discovered that the confusion around the role of an IT Product Manager isn’t limited to the community outside of software development.  Recently, at a birthday party, I was speaking to a software developer who asked what I did.  I used the response “I work for a company who helps businesses figure out what software to build.”  His response was a snarky, “Oh, you’re one of THOSE people.”  Sometimes it’s just better to say “IT Product Manager” and let their imaginations run wild.

[i] (Note:  The names/projects/context in this exchange have been obscured or excluded completely to protect the guilty.  Any similarities to persons or projects living or dead is purely coincidental and will be denied categorically):


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