What is it that you do?

What is it that you do?

One of the hardest questions that I have to answer is "what is it that you do?" What that question really means, of course, is "what do you do for a living?"

I was talking to someone recently, who occasionally hires me to do 'systems stuff', and he asked me essentially that question. He said, "if you could describe in one sentence what it is you do that would make you special (from a hiring perspective), what would you say?" It felt sort of like an interview, without the formalities.

I've given lots of different answers to that question, and the answer changes depending on who I'm talking to, and what we're talking about. Now, I have worked as an independent computer consultant for years. I'm also an author who has written several books, been a regular columnist for several magazines, spoken on radio and television, taught courses, edited magazines, and done lots of other strange wonderful things along the way. I'm a systems and network administrator. I'm a systems integrator. I build and host website. I take care of peoples email. But that's not really what I do. It's not just what I do.

Perhaps because I hadn't really expected the question at that moment, I paused and scratched my head for several secons before saying something like this:

I'm one of the world's great generalists. I'm the person every company needs to, and actually wants to hire because I'm amazingly good at finding interesting solutions to perplexing technology problems. Having worked with, in, and around all kinds of computing technology for many years, I have built up a huge breadth of knowledge in the industry, and I am also amazing at research. If you're stuck and looking for answers, I'm your guy. I can look at things from a bird's eye view, and pull all the pieces together to make it work. And because I follow the industry, I won't just suggest old pat answers to new problems. Sounds great, but as a result, I also happen to be the guy that nobody knows what to do with.

And, if I didn't make it clear, I also happen to be a superb writer who excels at making technology easy to understand. I also write some great fiction.

If you can tell someone that you are a Java developer, or a PHP programmer, or a web designer, or some kind of specialist, there's no problem whatsoever. But a generalist? Who hires full time generalists?

And so, almost 20 years later, I remain an independent consultant. And I'm still trying to explain what it is I do.

I'm going to end this with a question. How many of you out there consider yourself generalists and are finding it just as difficult to explain what you do?