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Ralsina.Me — Roberto Alsina's website

What I do for a living

So, what do you do for a liv­ing?

—Hard­est ques­tion ev­er

When­ev­er I am speak­ing with peo­ple who don't know me [1] that's the ques­tion I dread.

If some­one asks my wife what she does, all she has to do is say "I'm a lawyer". If some­one asks my moth­er, she'd say "I am a re­tired teacher". Ev­ery­one un­der­stands what a lawyer does, or what a re­tired teach­er did.

If some­one asks me... oh, boy, that's hard. I usu­al­ly weasel out by say­ing "I work with com­put­er­s" but that has sev­er­al prob­lem­s:

  • They as­­sume I re­­pair PCs

  • They start telling me how their win­­dows box was slow un­til they in­­stalled some kropotk­i­­na which su­per­­gar­bled their frob­noz­­zles [4], then ask me my opin­ion on frob­noz­­zle gar­bling. For or again­st?

It's re­al­ly hard to ex­plain that yes, I work with com­put­ers ev­ery day, but I al­most nev­er open one (in fac­t, I have a pol­i­cy of not touch­ing my cus­tomers com­put­er­s), and I have no idea what a frob­noz­zle is.

I have tried say­ing "I work on serv­er side things, like mail servers and such. I in­stall them, sup­port them and al­so con­sult­ing work, ex­plain­ing com­pa­nies what the best ways to im­prove their ser­vices are.".

That one usu­al­ly gets glassy eyes and a gen­er­al "what?" look.

I could lie and say I pro­gram for a liv­ing, but that's not true. While I pro­gram a lot, it's usu­al­ly not for mon­ey, and what lit­tle I do for mon­ey is just us­ing pro­gram­ming as a sysad­min tool.

I could say "I'm a sysad­min" but most peo­ple have no idea what that is. It does tend to end con­ver­sa­tion­s, though, so it has one thing go­ing for it.

Nowa­days I could say "I have a com­pa­ny", which is true (we are awe­some, you should hire us to do what­ev­er it is we do, more de­tails at­man­ager­s.­ )

So, I usu­al­ly man­age to work around this ques­tion, but I have a prob­lem: I'm not telling the truth, or if I am, I am not telling the truth in spir­it be­cause I am not con­vey­ing what my work is, but on­ly what I do.

So, this post is about try­ing to ex­plain what the hell I do for a liv­ing, in an­oth­er way, which is more ... in­ter­nal­ly true, so to speak. This is re­al­ly hard to do, so I am try­ing to just let the writ­ing flow, maybe you can un­der­stand what I do even if it's not clear­ly ex­plained.

I work with com­put­er­s. I make them do what I want them to do. When­ev­er a reg­u­lar us­er sits be­fore his key­board, he tries to make his com­put­er fol­low his or­der­s, which vari­able rates of suc­cess. I al­ways suc­ceed.

Some­times, I am logged in­to a com­put­er that man­ages da­ta for thou­sands of peo­ple. They all are on my care. No, it's not their lives at stake, but a lit­tle part of their fun, or work is un­der my care. I help them. I care about them, and I want their fun, their work to be smooth and pleas­an­t.

Of­ten the com­put­er will not do what they need. I will try with my craft to make it hap­pen. I will write lit­tle pro­gram­s, search for oth­ers on the In­ter­net, care­ful­ly piece to­geth­er a puz­zle and make their needs be ful­filled.

I will write or in­stall and con­fig­ure those pro­grams and do it well, be­cause I am skilled, I have lit­er­al­ly decades of train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence, but I will most­ly do it be­cause I like or­der and func­tion. I like when things flow unim­ped­ed, I like when serendip­i­tous ac­ci­dents make things just click to­geth­er.

I do those things for a liv­ing, yes, be­cause I need to make a liv­ing. And lat­er, when I'm off the clock and my boy is asleep and I have my own time, you know what I do? I do the same things be­cause they are fun. And I will both­er writ­ing a 1300 word post about how I mi­grat­ed my blog's com­ments from one site to an­oth­er be­cause it was fun.

Yes, I know, to most peo­ple that would not be fun at al­l, it would be a bor­ing job, and they would hate do­ing it. And that's one of the many rea­sons I am a lucky man [5]: I have fun do­ing un­usu­al things. That's re­al­ly luck­y, be­cause if my idea of fun was watch­ing "Gos­sip Girl" I would nev­er have found any­one to pay me to do that!

But go­ing back to what I do for a liv­ing, I cre­ate things. I don't cre­ate large, im­pres­sive things, I am not a bridge builder, an ar­chi­tec­t, I cre­ate smal­l, use­ful things and try to do it with a cer­tain taste or el­e­gance. I am more like a sil­ver­smith do­ing cut­lery. Sure, I'll try to make it nice to look at, but it must cut a chunk of beef first.

Yes, I work with com­put­er­s, but how does that con­vey what I feel when af­ter a sol­id day of work I can see that what was a lot of stupid com­put­ers and ca­bles are now a work­ing ma­chine that can make 50000 phone calls a day?

How can I make any­one see the beau­ty in 3 hard lines of code that do noth­ing but print a bunch of num­ber­s?

How can some­one who makes a liv­ing any oth­er way un­der­stand that I think things and they be­come re­al? No, not re­al as in a puff of smoke and there they are, but they be­come re­al through work and ef­fort and think­ing and curs­ing, which is what makes them re­al­ly re­al.

I know most of this will sound like mys­ti­cis­m, but it's not, it's my hon­est truth, I re­al­ly feel all these things as I work, all these things are my work. Some­times when I crack a hard prob­lem I want to fuck­ing sing [7] that's how awe­some it feel­s.

So, that's what I do for a liv­ing. I work with com­put­er­s.

Cris / 2009-12-22 17:51:

As a Linux sysadmin, I know exactly how you feel. I think I'm going to reference people who ask what I do to this blog post. Great job, thanks.

Roberto Alsina / 2009-12-22 18:14:

thanks :-)

Tim / 2009-12-22 18:39:

This is fantastic! As someone with "systems administrator" as their job title, I can totally relate.

Roberto Alsina / 2009-12-22 18:45:

Thanks for the kind words.

Donald / 2009-12-22 21:31:

*chuckles* I just tell everyone I'm a babysitter. When they see an older guy like me, it usually befuddles them and they look at me with the please-elaborate/you're-screwing-with-me expression. A lot of times, they just go, "huh" and move on. Those who go "huh" usually come back 3 weeks later asking what I do again.

Jason / 2009-12-22 21:53:

I just say I'm an entrepreneur, and if they press further: "You sound like a smart man/woman, do you have a few minutes? I'd like to introduce you to Amway." and they leave me alone.

Penguin Pete / 2009-12-23 03:34:

Although I'm an online freelancer, I have an eerily similar experience trying to explain what I do. And wrote an eerily similar post about it here back in March:

Apparently, online work will not be discovered until the year 2045.

UbuntuWay / 2009-12-27 01:18:

"Así que eso hago para vivir, trabajo con computadoras."
Excelente articulo! :D

Kenny Meyer / 2009-12-27 13:59:

It's great that you stand by yourself by being sincere and I highly sympathize that.

You should always do that, what you do best and like most. And that's what YOU are doing!

matigro / 2010-01-28 12:58:

Si vas a una feria de artesanos y prestás un poco de atención al comportamiento de ellos, verás que entre ellos, miran sus trabajos, los tocan, se preguntan y siempre terminan con un ¡te felicito, muy lindo!
Y si a ellos le preguntás qué hacen, te dirán 'Soy artesano', ahá pero... ¿qué haces para ganar dinero? Creo que los que trabajamos con el software de las computadoras tenemos ese mismo espíritu.
¿A quién le importa que 100 líneas de código sean esteticamente legibles? Sólo a alguien que ha lidiado con eso :)
Y si... ¿sabés la cantidad de consultas sobre 'mi computadora anda lenta' cada vez que les digo que laburo con computadoras? jejeje. No se como será en los países con mejor educación, los que están mas modernizados, yo pienso que ellos deben entender lo que es un sysadmin o un IT Consultant. ¿O será como acá que terminamos siendo los loquitos esos de las computadoras?
Saludos, cantate una que sepamos todos (O sepamos mas o menos)

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