I think that this is a dreaded question for many programmers and others in fields with a scientific or mathematical bent. How do you explain the full extent of what it is that you do and why it’s valuable without being dismissed as just another creepy nerd? How do you fight the stereotype of unkempt basement-dwellers living with their parents, spending most of their time on the Internet because they’re too socially awkward to interact with people in other settings?

About a week ago there was a discussion about this on programming Reddit. The original poster, a programmer, feels a sense of inferiority because while others can succinctly explain the “awesome” in what they’re doing, he cannot. I sympathize with this sentiment. I love what I do but how do I transfer that passion without drowning the other person in the technical details? It feels like without the finer, technical details, my job description becomes distilled to “I make websites.”

Really? That’s it? That’s what I do for a living?

But is the problem really that what we’re doing isn’t interesting to the layperson? Web developers built Google, Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, and many more technologies that people use every day. We are building cool web applications that, while they might not gain the same degree of popularity or critical mass, can potentially provide just as much value. If we didn’t think that web development was an awesome career, a lot of us probably wouldn’t be doing it.

(And by the way, if you’re making money doing something you have absolutely no passion for, you might want to try and fix that.  Just sayin’.)

So why do we have difficulty getting people to identify with this?  Perhaps this comment from the Programming Reddit discussion might shed some light on the topic (emphasis mine):

Obnoxious braying girl: (To me and a friend) Oh, i bet i can guess what you do! go on, let me! (Obnoxious braying girl makes a few guesses about my friend’s job, eventually works out he does some sort of admin thing in publishing, polite words exchanged about this field) Obnoxious braying girl: (to me) Hmm.. you’re… a graphic designer? Me: hah! god no OBG: A journalist? Me: Well, that does sound like fun, but no (back and forth for a bit until she eventually asks me what i do Me: (in jokey, self deprecating tone) – I’m a massive nerd, basically – I program computers and make websites for people OBG: oh, right… (she stares down into her drink) Me: (trying to salvage this conversation) – so, and what do you do? OBG: Oh, i work at a corporate events company! it’s really exciting, basically we…. Cue 15 minutes of skull-numbingly boring monologue about basically being a travel-agent for corporations. It puzzles me though – why is anyone who doesn’t work with computers given licence to go on and on about their job (Despite the fact that asking people about work is basically a social nicety and not interesting at all to anyone socially), wheras anyone whose interests (whether work based or not) include anything technology or science-based are automatically percieved as boring socially-inept people who can’t talk about anything else? Fuck that shit – next time i’m introduced to someone I’m going straight into explaining recursion.

There are a few things that one could criticize here but the point I’ve decided to focus on here is the blatant self-deprecation. If you read the rest of the comments in the discussion, you might notice, like I have, that this is actually surprisingly common — it’s like many of us have been conditioned to believe that what we do is simply not interesting to a vast majority of people, so we might as well just say “I do computer stuff” and get it over with.

Alun Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of New Scientist magazine, would beg to differ (emphasis mine again):

Science writing used to be slightly apologetic: [puts on whiny voice] “this is all going to be terribly difficult, but I’ll try and make it easy for you”. Like they’ve sugar coated something you don’t really want to take. Our goal was to really change that – change the people and the ideas – to be self-confident. Science often suffers from this sort of cringe factor – “I’m a boring scientist, you probably don’t want to talk to me”. My policy was if you’re talking to someone else the approach is: “what’s happening in science is the most interesting thing in the world, and if you don’t agree with me just fuck off, because I’m not interested in talking to you”. You had to have that kind of attitude. That tended to be the kind of attitude of people in the arts: [in snooty voice – think Brian Sewell] “Of course I am doing something interesting”, so I took the same attitude. If you’re not interested, I don’t want to explain to you – you’re just a fucking idiot, so get out of my way! And it worked, because if you write like, “I’m really interested in this, it’s not only interesting its really important. If you can’t see this, you’re probably a moron!” It works. It has to be true to a degree. Otherwise it’s just piped bullshit, or triumphalism or something. The thing is, it is really interesting and important. People from the sciences do often have massive inferiority complexes.

I believe that what I do is interesting, important, and valuable. If I didn’t, I’d be doing something else. And so, I will endeavour to find a way to convey that value and importance and when someone asks me what I do, that is how I will answer.

Anyone who absolutely can’t identify with my passion for what I do is probably somebody I really wouldn’t like anyway.