What do you do? Does your boss know?

Many jobs are hard to describe, but technology jobs are harder than most, even to IT management

If you're an IT pro, the innocuous question "What do you do?" puts you in a quandary. If a layperson is asking, to avoid a long and potentially tedious explanation, you might say: "I work in computers." But that sets you up for silly follow-on questions like: "Oh, you design Web sites?" or "Really? My laptop has been doing some funny things recently -- may I tell you all about them?" Unless you're a Web designer or a PC tech, most people have no frame of reference whatsoever for your job.

Socially, this is no big deal unless you're looking for a date, but it can be a huge problem when dealing with management. Most non-technical managers operate on a level similar to that of the woman I observed in a computer store yesterday: She couldn't grasp why her laptop needed a power supply, because it already had batteries.

[ Read the classic InfoWorld article by Tom Kaneshige on the widening gulf between techies and management: "IT workers pushed to the limits." ]

A yawning knowledge gap separates ordinary folks from those who keep the ship of tech afloat every day. When times are good, things seem to bump along regardless. But when times are tough and cuts need to be made, management needs to know exactly what you do, especially non-technical IT management. Not being clear about your work, your responsibilities, and your skills poses all kinds of hazards.

Take the example of Terry Childs. His managers clearly had no real idea of what he did beyond "make the network run," and they treated him and his position accordingly. Had they understood the depth of knowledge and experience required to build and maintain a network of that size, maybe they would have hired another network admin with sufficient skills to take over if something happened to Childs. They certainly should have -- years ago.

To make matters worse, laypeople have no way to determine how much work is getting done. You could spend all week on a particularly challenging network reorganization project that will pave the way for future additions and clean up years of sloppy administration -- and when you're done, it looks exactly the same to the casual observer. Spend a week converting from an ancient version of Solaris to OpenSolaris 2009.06 on a bunch of production servers, and the only way others would even know about it would be if you screwed it up. The upside to this work is that it makes the IT infrastructure more agile, reduces time required for maintenance, and paves the way for new projects and tools that can help the company move forward. But no one outside of IT may ever know about it.

Those who don't share the same skill set need more than just a configuration diff from a switch to get the idea. They need pictures and concrete evidence.

This is why even the most CLI-centric admin should be using network monitoring and mapping tools like Nagios and trending tools like Cacti. You can sit just about anyone down in front of the Web interface for a reasonably large Cacti installation and hammer home the key points of what IT does. Most people are blown away that IT monitors every aspect of the infrastructure from switch CPU usage to the airflow and ambient temperature in wiring closets and computer rooms. Network maps are slightly less impressive for some reason, perhaps because they're harder to digest, but a good Visio rendering of a network can't be beat.

It's a fact of life that IT lives in the shadows, only attracting notice when there's trouble afoot. It doesn't help that most businesses consider IT to be a cost center. So deal with it: Internal marketing is part of your job. Take the time to blow your own horn and let people know what you do and how important it is to the overall company, not just when you're proposing your budget, but when you reach milestones that provide value to the business. Make it an educational experience with some nice visuals and it won't seem like shameless self-promotion. After all, if you can't provide a cogent account of what you've done, nobody else is going to.

So tell me, what do you do?