An Unassuming Key To Career Success In Tech

January 12, 2017


What do you do for a living? It is not an easy answer. At least, it shouldn’t be for people in tech. We are talking about a crucial part of our personal brand and, in many scenarios, the thing that defines us.

And we bomb it.

Most of us totally tank that question with an answer that, at best, poorly represents our livelihood and, at worst, cripples our personal brand. When asked we spend our days, we freeze and make one of two critical mistakes.

The most common mistake is being too vague. “I work with computers.” Really, how exciting. Do you know anyone who does not work with a computer? Even my 70-year-old electrician Googled a part number last week.

Ok now I am bored

Going too vague is often a result of accessibility. We look at our audience and assume they know nothing about the acronyms that define our day-to-day job. And that’s fair. The 70-year-old electrician probably does not know about SEO or PHP or GTM. In fact, I doubt he wants to. That leads us to the next issue.

Another common mistake is being too specific. Think job titles and fewer than 8 syllables.

  • Programmer
  • Full-stack developer
  • Data analyst

Respond with your job title and watch the person’s eyes. They start scanning for exits like Jason Bourne while their internal monologue screams “Get me out of here!”

Run away from this boring person!

Why do they want to throw themselves through a window, parkour off a parked car, and disappear into the night? Because you just told them the most boring thing imaginable. They asked about what gets you out of bed in the morning, what lights the creative and inspirational fuel in your soul.

You rhetorically burped in their face by responding with a job title.

Let’s not do that. Develop an answer to that question – often your first impression – that represents you and keeps your audience from injuring themselves on double-paned windows. Here are three keys to success.

Be One Thing to Everyone

This is not easy. For years, I carried around 3 versions of myself and the weight was cumbersome. Industry peers got all the acronyms and technical details. The technically illiterate got a pacifyingly vague I-work-with-computers version. Everyone else got something that sounded like an inopportune Wikipedia entry: “I do search engine optimization, which is…”

Don’t do that.

Be one thing to everyone. Craft something that is interesting for your industry peers, accessible for those without a clue, and engaging for everyone else.

Be Engaging

People usually ask “What do you do?” to start a conversion. Your response should foster that discussion by being engaging. Just to be clear, I don’t mean controversial or confrontational. It should be interesting. Job titles and vagueness are not engaging.

You: “I’m in sales.”

Soon-to-be-bored person: “Oh, ok. My… uh… father-in-law worked in sales.”

Riveting dialog here. I doubt this person really wants to talk about that jerk that always manages to say something offensive at Thanksgiving. Instead, how about this:

You: “Companies are so swamped with data these days that it can be hard to make simple decisions. I connect them with smart people who can make sense of things.”

Interested person: “Technology has a way of making some things more confusing. What kind of companies do you work with?”

First, sales is boring. So is “marketer” and “programmer” and whatever else. Second, and more importantly, “sales” does not prompt a follow-up question or discussion. Say something that inspires the other person to join the conversation.

Be Able to Use One Breath

In other words, get it out in two sentences. Journalists use a short lead paragraph to hook readers, to encourage them to invest in the rest of the story. The first words to leave your lips are the lead paragraph. Make those words encourage people to hear the rest of your story.

Your job description is putting me to sleep

This is what happens when you drag on and on and on and on. The person starts thinking about their grocery list before being hooked.

So Andy, What’s Your Perfect Answer?

Not today. Listen, if I recite my answer, it will inevitably influence yours. You don’t want that. Craft your own then test drive it as you meet new people. Watch how they react and tweak it to get a response.

Now I am interested in your job

Plus, I’m not that easy. I’m not just going to give it away. Find me and introduced yourself. We can both test drive our answers together.

Any other guidelines for this list of dos and donts? Add them in the comments.