Responding to reactions towards my job title

When people ask what I do for a living I say that I’m a software engineer. Nine times out of ten I will get the following reactions - “I’m not very good with computers” or “oo that sounds hard”.

My comeback to the former is that I quiz them about what that person finds difficult when it comes to computers, and then I explain that they actually know more than they realise and it wouldn’t take them long to adapt to new technology if they were put in that situation. For example discovering common features in a particular set of applications or websites may mean they also work in other applications and websites which means they can approach new things with some added confidence.

I discovered recently that there is actually a term for this joined-up experience: synoptic learning. Synoptic learning is the principle whereby experience, both through comfort and familiarity, with one part of a subject can help increase understanding with other parts because they’re able to create connections to what they already know.

I consider myself a “power user” when it comes to desktop operating systems and smartphones; I’m quick at doing what I want to do and I’m quick to learn and adapt when things change. What irks me though is when applications redefine well-defined UI patterns or keyboard shortcuts so they result in unexpected actions. These slow me down, however I can generally adapt and adopt new muscle memory. But this is unlikely to be the case for non-technical users and can cause confusion, distrust and ultimately the feeling of being patronised by technology. It is important that we help our users to feel comfortable with our software by not breaking the “well understood” and guiding them in a non-patronising way through the unfamiliar.

Regarding the “oo that sounds hard” response I explain that fundamentally I just solve problems with computers. I find that this is usually interests people further and I describe how I tell the computer to evaluate an input and return an output in some form. A few times I’ve found people are actually really interested in how certain aspects of technology work, i.e. curiosities they’ve always had but have never had the opportunity to be explained. Sometimes these conversations have even gone into explaining boolean logic and if/else statements and loops.

In my experience, if you don’t patronise non-technical people when you’re explaining what we do as developers they are actually genuinely interested and have some respect for our craft; especially if they can relate what we’ve said to their own experiences.

Recently I did a guest lecture explaining “life as a software developer” to the 2nd and 3rd year computer science students at the University of Lincoln. A large number of slides were about the communication side of the job. I don’t just sit all day staring at a computer screen; I communicate with my colleagues in the morning standup, on Hipchat, in meetings and over lunch and I communicate with myself through drawing on whiteboards and making todo lists and sketching out ideas.

But most importantly I communicate with those around me outside the workplace: my family and friends. I tell them what I’m up to because it helps build a support structure around me so that they understand some of the challenges I may face which explain why I’m knackered, or why I’m really pumped and fancy going to go to the pub for a pint and celebrating.

Regardless of how I anticipate someone reacting when I’m asked what I do, when I say I’m a software developer (or engineer; I use both words interchangeably) I always say it with pride knowing that through the work I’m doing right now I’m making others happy.