How do you explain your job to your parents?

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On a recent trip to Germany I visited my parents and, as it was Christmas time, caught up with various relatives whom I hadn’t seen in 2 1/2 years.
At every get-together questions about my job inevitably came up. Now let me preface this by saying that after living overseas for the last 11 years, people sometimes still seem to think I’m on this extended holiday, backpacking around the country, living in eternal sunshine, spending my days lazing around at the beach, writing emails from a local café and visiting museums on a Wednesday morning. Backpacking around New Zealand is how this whole adventure started and given that all my university and professional years happened in New Zealand and Australia, without anyone ‘witnessing’ what I’ve been doing, a lot of them appear to think I’m still on holiday.

Above the Marlborough Sounds, South Island, New Zealand

So, understandably, they often ask ‘Eva, what is it you actually do?’
The answer ‘I’m in consulting’ doesn’t satisfy them and the options ‘I work in IT’ or ‘I do stuff with computers’ sound very 2003…
This means I had to think long and hard about how to explain to them what I do.
I should also mention that most of the people in my family are either in the medical field or in teaching. So they don’t really come across data like people in the corporate world. But there still has to be a way to explain effectively what I do all day.

I came up with the following analogy which worked for my parents.
I suggested they imagine the process of weaving a carpet. The database (let’s keep this simple and just go with one source at this point – no need to get overly ambitious!) is like the big spools of wool or other threads in a carpet factory, providing threads (data) from various locations, in many colours, qualities etc.

These threads then get aligned, combined, sorted and assembled by the weaving machine, or our ETL tool. The weaving machine determines the order in which the threads come together to provide the desired design. At this point I might drop words like Alteryx and ETL, depending on the attention levels of the people across from me. Tableau comes in once we have woven our threads together.

In Tasmania (just to break things up a little here)

My initial thought was to describe Tableau dashboards like the carpet, the final product, but as Andy rightly pointed out, Tableau isn’t just the end product and pretty picture, but rather the start of a new process of analysis and data investigation.
So let’s see how we can take the analogy further.

I suggest that Tableau is the tool that lets you carry out quality control on your carpet and its design. It can work like a magnifying glass to check whether all the threads are woven in their proper place, and to check whether the final design created by the weaving machine is as you expected or completely different.

But Tableau is also a means to combine various small carpets into a bigger patchwork design, which lets you discover new trends, patterns and insights.
Tableau can further be used to share your design and creation with a large audience to communicate to them what you have found, in a very visual way. And in a very fun and interactive way for your carpet buyers, who have only seen pictures and heard descriptions of your final product before, Tableau lets them discover the design for themselves, giving them the magnifying glass, and an ability to virtually run their fingers over the surface, feeling and appreciating the threads, the fin
al material, the quality of what you created.

And I have to say, my parents kind of got it. They understood what I was talking about. I don’t know if they can really connect this analogy to data and ‘IT stuff’, but maybe I’ll have a better explanation the next time I speak to them about it.

On Mt Wellington, Tasmania (maybe I really am travelling a lot?)

A helpful development has been that of various fitness tracking devices and their accompanying apps. Sometimes when people ask me what I do, I simply look at their wrist and make my life easy by saying something (very simplified) along the lines of: You know how you get these dashboards on your phone informing you about your sleep, your steps, your resting heart rate and all those other metrics every day?

I do something like that but for businesses and help them look at their data in a visual manner so they can see how their organisations are performing and whether they are heading for a new personal best or a heart attack…

How do you do it? How do you explain your job to your parents, grandparents and friends?

One comment

  1. Great take on this impossible task of explaining what we as Alteryx/ Tableau and BI minded people do! Good idea with the fitness dashboard comparison, most people below 50, (50 and outside the IT world!) should be covered.

    I’ve experienced with a different approach which seems to work.. at least if my grandma is not lying! I usually start out by asking something like “well you know that everything a company do today is going through or is registered by a computer?”. Usually they, of course, do. Now, since all this information is stored and saved in the company’s computers (no need to talk about servers, “computer” is sufficient), we are able to go back and look at this information and learn from our good and bad decisions. In other words, we can learn to make better decisions.

    My job is to help companies make better decisions, by extracting the information of their business and let them find answers to all of the questions they have, like “what could be the reasons I’m attracting fewer and fewer new customers”?

    Usually we’ll have a short dialogue and they have some ideas about my role that I can confirm or deny.

    Either that or I just say I’m a Data Masseur!


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