What do you do at work?

 IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 2002

The other night at some dinner function I was seated next to a stranger, who I soon discovered was a professional auctioneer.  He asked what I did for a living, and I replied that I was an engineer.  We spent the next two hours talking about how he managed auctions.  Never once did he ask what I did as an engineer.

 Unfortunately, this absence of interest in learning more about what engineers do on their jobs is completely typical   Through the years of my career I have been to countless social events in my local community.  On those occasions I have met strangers, acquaintances, and old friends, and the cumulative hours of conversation could be measured perhaps in years.  But in all those conversations I cannot recall a single time when someone has asked me about what I do on my job.  Not once!  Friends and acquaintances know Iím an engineer, and never ask about my work.  Strangers ask my occupation, and discovering that I am an engineer, invariably ask nothing further.

 This indifference even seems to invade the family itself.  I recall a ceremony some years ago when I passed out awards at a company dinner.  To lighten the occasion I had the idea of asking the spouse of each winner for their own description of what their mate did at work.  Not a single one of them had a clue.  Worse, I got the feeling that they really didnít care all that much.  I never did anything like that again Ė too big a risk to take.  I saw some husbands and wives glancing at each other in strange ways afterwards.

I began thinking about this conversational black hole, and I considered whether or not I ask other people what they do at work.  My answer was that sometimes I do, but that often I donít, and that it is entirely dependent upon the particular occupation.  So let me give you the quiz I gave myself.  Imagine that youíre at a party, and that you strike up a conversation with a stranger, who confesses to one of the following occupations: high school teacher, lawyer, surgeon, artist, local store owner, insurance salesperson, real estate agent, CEO of a large company, middle manager, accountant, or marine biologist.  This is a test -- which people do you ask further questions about their work?

 The correct (i.e., my own) answers are that I ask further questions of the high school teacher, the artist, the store owner, the real estate agent, the CEO, and the biologist.  For the rest (lawyer, surgeon, insurance salesman, middle manager, and accountant) I change the topic of conversation.  Probably each of these people thinks he or she has a fascinating job, but Iím just not all that interested.  I think there are two factors to consider: is the work potentially interesting, and do I have enough general knowledge about the subject to carry on a reasonable conversation?  I am afraid that for the general public engineering fails both of these tests.

 These days I have a lot better exposure to what other people do on their jobs than I did in past years.  When Iím trapped on trains and at airports, I hear people doing their work via cellphones.  They usually speak in very loud and important voices, and it is almost impossible to ignore them.  These conversations are seldom boring.  They are much worse than that.  On an interest scale they go negative way past boring into the region of offensiveness.  Often it is as if the speaker has read in some business school book about how real business people are supposed to sound, and is trying to impress the overhearing public about his own acumen.  I think how I would hate to be on the other end of the conversation, and how little I would be tempted at a party to ask further about this particular business.

 Are we engineers really so boring?  Is our work so devoid of interest, or so obscure that no one wants to hear about it?  My frustration is that I really believe engineering is intrinsically interesting, and that most engineers have job-related stories worth hearing.  Lots of exciting things are always happening in technology -- doesnít anyone care to hear about them?

 But maybe the rest of you get asked all the time about what you do at work.  Iíd hate to think Iím the only one who isnít asked, but perhaps Iím just the Rodney Dangerfield of engineering.  What about you?  Do strangers inquire about your work, or do we just have to take turns telling each other about what weíre doing?

Robert W. Lucky