What I Do For A Living

It seems that I have always had a difficult time explaining to people what I do at Microsoft. It's not that I'm unsure about what I do - the details of my job have always been crystal-clear to me and I love what I am doing. It's just that I can't find a way to explain things in a way that doesn't result in blank stares from anyone who isn't a geek. (This problem isn't limited to me, though; my non-technical wife simply responds "I have no idea what he does" when someone asks her what I do for a living.)

Here's a perfect example: when I was a Program Manager on the Internet Information Services (IIS) team, people would often ask me what I did for Microsoft, and I would reply with something like, "I help design and implement the web publishing protocols for Microsoft's web server."

Other Person: [Blank Stare]

I would attempt to remedy the situation by adding, "You know, I design Microsoft's implementation of Internet technologies like the File Transfer Protocol, WebDAV, and the FrontPage Server Extensions."

Other Person: [Blank Stare]

In a sometimes-futile effort to salvage the conversation from complete disaster, I would interject, "You like to use the Internet, right? Well, your computer is on one side of the Internet, and my team helps build the other side of the Internet. That's kind of what I do."

That comment would usually be met with a slight spark of recognition, which was sometimes followed by a half-muttered, "That's nice."

At one time or other during my tenure as a Program Manager on the IIS team I was responsible for a smattering of disparate technologies; things like FTP, WebDAV, FPSE, FastCGI, PHP, URL Rewrite, IIS Express, Log Parser, etc. Most of those technologies garnered little to no interest for the average person, and many of my coworkers found them pretty boring as well. Just the same, I personally found every one of those technologies completely fascinating. (Why else would I spend eight years trying to get just one new command added to FTP?)

A couple of years ago I left the IIS program management team and I joined the writing team which is responsible for documenting Microsoft's ASP.NET framework; and if you have to ask what that means, then you are probably not interested in the answer.

Still, people would ask me what I do for Microsoft, and I would try to explain my job with statements like, "I document the Application Programming Interfaces (or APIs) for Microsoft's ASP.NET."

Other Person: [Blank Stare]

I would try to nudge the conversation along by saying things like, "I help people write web code."

Other Person: [Blank Stare]

Skipping ahead in the conversation, I would usually make a last-ditch attempt by stating, "Let's say you wanted to create a website; if so, you might read something that I wrote in order to help you get started."

Sometimes this remark would illicit a hint of acknowledgment, but usually I just got another blank stare.

This leads me to a few days ago. My wife and I were at dinner, and a waiter asked me what I did for a living. In the back of my mind I started to say something like, "Well, these days I'm documenting a set of APIs that Java programmers will use with Microsoft Azure technologies [blah blah blah]..."

But what actually came out of my mouth was, "I could explain it to you, but I'm pretty sure you wouldn't want me to. Trust me."

I like that answer. I think I'll stick with it in the future. :-)

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