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“So, what do you do for a living?”: A BA/Product Manager’s guide to surviving cocktail parties

By Jhulgan

I used to dread hearing the question, “So what do you do for a living?”  This was often usually asked by a family member or other acquaintances not familiar with the software development lifecycle, IT, or business processes in general.  For business analysts, product managers, and other software requirements types, it’s difficult to give an answer without being convoluted or sounding like Tom Smykowski:

This great post expresses a similar insight beautifully, but many of us struggle with good, one-sentence responses to what it is we do everyday in simple English.  I thought I would plagiarize some ideas that I’ve heard from colleagues over the years and compile them here:

  1. “We help businesses figure out what software they need to build to solve business problems.”  This is a personal favorite of mine that I stole from Marc (who posts under mtalbot on this here blog).  It’s especially relevant to IT consultants/contractors.  Just about everyone knows what software is, and a lot of people understand that just about every business runs on some sort of software to solve business problems.
  2. “We help communicate the business needs of a system in a language software developers understand.”  A variation of this is, “We translate from business to geek”, although I am less fond of the second version because it veers into Smykowski land.
  3. “We make sure the right software is being developed at the right time, for the right people.”  The emphasis here is on the right software.  This response is nice because it allows you to segue adeptly into a discussion about business objectives.
  4. “We help the business get the most value out of their development dollar.”  This response stresses the fact that you are not just a scribe or secretary writing things down, formatting them, and delivering them to the development staff.  You are helping make the tough decisions on which features to cut and which bugs to fix, and quantifying those decisions in terms of dollars and cents.
  5. “We work with the business to find the appropriate scope of a software development project and ensure that what is built is what the business expects.”  Whenever I am asked the dreaded WDYDFAL question, this is what almost immediately comes to mind.  Sometimes I fill in the details of working with pictures to help model current business processes (and desired business processes).

So how about all of our readers?  What answers have you come up with?  Do you dodge this question altogether, or do you sound like a fumbling Smykowski?  Hopefully we can all help each other find good answers to this question.  After all, you never know when you’ll be in a meeting with “The Bobs” and the pressure will be on!

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DebMcD posted on Tuesday, July 6, 2010 9:59 AM
I am a nurse.

This is a particular favorite when asked by elderly relatives.
Leslie posted on Tuesday, July 6, 2010 11:19 AM
I disagree:
Love the video - thanks for posting, but you make the statement, 'Just about everyone knows what software is,' - and then go on to describe the role of a BA in terms of 'software'.

I am not convinced that anyone actually 'knows' what software is - in fact I'd love to see this posed as a question and see the variation on the replies.
(FYI: I was taught at a very young age, that 'software' IS anything that you cannot pickup.)

When we discuss the BA role, I prefer to use the term 'system'. i.e., it is about relating customer/stakeholder needs in terms of 'system' requirements, where the 'system' maybe any combination of hardware and software. (What is missing? People.)


Anyone interested in starting a 'What is Software' thread?
Rae posted on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 12:33 PM
Thank you for the compilation. These are helpful. I work with a PMO and with a wider range of changes than just software development. For others like me, let me offer some alternate phrasings:

1. “We help businesses figure out what software and process changes they need to make to solve business problems.”
2. “We help communicate business needs iin a language software developers and vendors understand.”
3. “We make sure the right projects are being implemented at the right time, for the right people.”
4. “We help the business get the most value out of their project dollar.”
5. “We work with the business to find the appropriate scope of a project and ensure that what is implemented is what the business expects.”

And what I say when asked these days -
6. "We work with the business to ensure that projects implement what the business needs and expects."
Then, if their eyes haven't glazed over yet I will add: "...from selecting the right project at the right time, to identifying business problems and solutions, through implementation and testing of that solution."
This is nice because if people want to know more they can ask all sorts of questions but can easily move on if they don't care.
zarfman posted on Thursday, July 15, 2010 8:33 PM


Depending upon the group I usually tell them one of two things

1. That I wander around looking for interesting people and things to do.

2. That I am a wholesale liquor distributor and a minority owner of a company that produces porn films.

I never admit anything to the contrary.


Marc Thibault posted on Tuesday, July 27, 2010 3:03 PM
I solve problems for cash.

Software is an abstract mechanism waiting for a computer to realize it.
Marc Thibault
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