Help me converse intelligently with computer guys at cocktail parties.
January 15, 2008 3:09 PM   Subscribe

Help me converse intelligently with computer guys at cocktail parties.

I recently moved to Seattle, where it seems that two out of every three people I meet at parties work in computer science in some capacity. When these people tell me what they do, I would like to be able to have more than a ten-second conversation about it, which is all I can sustain right now due to my painful ignorance. I am so lost that I don't even know how to phrase my queston to MeFi, but basically I am looking for Computer Science Careers for Dummies. What are the various jobs in computer science and how do they fit together? What are some reasonable questions that I might ask in talking to people about their jobs? I'm not trying to act like I know more than I do--that's hopeless. I'm just trying to learn enough to be a decent conversationalist.
posted by Enroute to Computers & Internet (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You know, flattering people with "how did you get that fucking awesome job?" is usually a really good opener for the conversation you want to have. be sure to have pen and pad handy too.
posted by parmanparman at 3:14 PM on January 15, 2008

You could skim Slashdot and bring up anything that interests you (although many of the articles are inflammatory or incorrectly summarized). The YRO online section is more generally accessible. They might enjoy talking about general tech topics more than their jobs specifically.
posted by null terminated at 3:15 PM on January 15, 2008

To understand the mindset, read every comic here:
posted by andreap at 3:20 PM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Why not just embrace your ignorance of computer science and ask them what their job entails? People often enjoy talking about themselves anyway. So instead of searching the net for an explanation of all these careers, use the opportunity to talk to a real live whatever and ask them what they do and how all these jobs fit together!
posted by Joh at 3:26 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Occupational Outlook Handbook provides basic overviews for various jobs. Here's the page on Computer Scientists and Database Administrators.
posted by desjardins at 3:28 PM on January 15, 2008

Additionally - I have a computer-related job that is often misunderstood. Talking to someone who doesn't understand what I do and asks, is quite fun. Talking to someone who thinks they know what my job entails is usually a bit frustrating, since my job (and other computer jobs) often vary depending on the company, project and person.
posted by Joh at 3:28 PM on January 15, 2008

I'm a "computer guy" myself, and at a party, the last thing I want to talk about is work. I spend enough time staring at this stupid machine and dealing with other "computer people" and all the related baggage. And the odds are, if you don't know much about the topic, it's just going to devolve into "Mac vs. Windows" or "my computer is acting weird again" or "what do you think about Bill Gates" or whatever.

I respect the fact that you're trying to do better than most, but please, don't assume that computers are all we want to talk about.
posted by xil at 3:31 PM on January 15, 2008 [6 favorites]

I'm a longtime computer geek and I can't think of anything more boring to talk about at a party than computers. Just be your own, interesting self.
posted by ldenneau at 3:34 PM on January 15, 2008

Response by poster: @Joh

Yes, this is my natural inclination. Unfortunately, they always answer with something along the lines of "I network cross-platform architecture UNIX scripting to the coders and develop the open-source portal quantum vulnerabilities access." Then I go "Huh! So you [insert guess at what they just said]" and they basically come back with some more of the above.
posted by Enroute at 3:35 PM on January 15, 2008

If people want to talk about work, you can ask them what their company does, what they do in the company, how big it is, if they like it, etc. If you don't understand any of the answers, ask them to elaborate! These all work great for other industries too! But I tend to avoid dwelling on work-related matters in social settings, because I hate the idea that my identity is defined by my job. So while I think it's good to get a sense of what people do with a third of their waking hours, I think it is more fun to learn what they do in the rest of of their time.
posted by aubilenon at 3:39 PM on January 15, 2008

Keep asking until you understand. You'll get your education that way and they'll learn how to speak to non-computer people - which is always a plus, whether they realize and appreciate it or not.

It goes without saying that most people don't respect a know-it-all that really doesn't know it, so why bother trying? Most of these people have spent much, much longer than a four year formal education getting to the point that they're at in their understanding, so I'm not sure an AskMe thread will help much anyway.
posted by kcm at 3:42 PM on January 15, 2008

Now this is driving me nuts -- wasn't there just a post from a computer guy asking how to explain what he does for a living to his family and friends and ladies at cocktail parties? Or am I going teh wacko? I can't find it after several different searches, so maybe I am. Or maybe it was on another site. Anyway, my advice was going to be to get the posters together for a conversation.
posted by iguanapolitico at 3:43 PM on January 15, 2008

You could always get into a conversation about your respective crappy managers, and the dumbass things that they do. I can almost guarantee every developer (myself included) has a few of those stories they'd be happy to tell. Even if you don't understand the terminology they're rattling off, the general gist should be easy to get, and to relate to.
posted by cgg at 3:46 PM on January 15, 2008

Response by poster: OP here--I promise I'm not one of those people who dwells on work at cocktail parties! I really only used "cocktail party" as an example, anyway--the point is that most of the people I meet work in computers in some way and at some point in getting to know a person you talk about work. Not in depth, and as stated above, I'm not trying to fake anything. But imagine if you were a nonlawyer, suddenly surrounded by lawyers, and you didn't know what "case," "plaintiff," "defendant," or "litigation" meant. That's basically me.
posted by Enroute at 3:52 PM on January 15, 2008

it's just going to devolve into "Mac vs. Windows" or "my computer is acting weird again" or "what do you think about Bill Gates" or whatever.

Yeah this happens to me, and people are always stunned that I don't know much about this kind of thing. My type of computer guy is more along the lines of "why is this server not talking to this guys report" and "what happened to the west coast?". All that workstation kind of stuff is usually fixed by someone else.... Ask me about my vacation plans.
posted by Deep Dish at 4:08 PM on January 15, 2008

I agree with xil and ldenneau - work isn't really people's favorite topic of conversation.

I would suggest that you follow up "what do you do?" not with "so what does that mean exactly?" but instead "how do you like it?" That way you're transitioning from the dry technical details of their job to their own thoughts, and you give them an easy out if they really don't want to talk about work.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:09 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a computer guy myself, and I just tell people that I write software and move on to other topics. Only if the person is truly interested will I attempt to explain what I do.

There is so much variety in computer jobs that you'll never get the same answer from two people about what they do. In fact, unless the computer people work at the same place (thus a common frame of reference) then it's difficult even for them to discuss what they do.

A good way to learn about people's jobs w/o needing to know the language of their jobs is to ask them about the challenges they encounter, or what they enjoy. They should be able to explain those experiences in more layman's terms, as well as engaging in a more interesting conversation & learning about them instead of their job.
posted by jpeacock at 4:15 PM on January 15, 2008

I guess I'm weird. I'm a manager-type computer guy here in Seattle and I love talking about the tech industry, especially if you're insightful and/or interested in the answer. I'd say the bottom line is to avoid pretending like you know something you don't. "Why" questions often lead to interesting conversations. Just please don't ask us about jobs. Or Jobs.
posted by trembleclef at 4:18 PM on January 15, 2008

If you really do want to understand what they do, you'll have a bit of an uphill battle in front of you. Most people with technical jobs have long since started to assume that strangers won't care about the details. Sure, they'll ask what you do at a party to be polite, but nine times out of ten if you start explaining it their eyes glaze over.

I grew up in a university town, and I had a game I used to play when I met someone who was in grad school. I'd ask what he was studying, he'd give me the one-sentence cocktail party answer; I'd ask for more detail, and he'd hem and haw and say "Oh, well, it's very complicated." So I'd say "Hey, it sounds cool. You got ten minutes? I bet you a dollar you could explain it in ten minutes." Every single time I tried this, the explanation took about five minutes and led to a fascinating — and very educational — conversation. You just need to get past their initial assumption that you don't really want the details.

Of course, this only works if you do want the details. If you don't want a mini-lesson on computing technology, just stick to "How's the commute?" and "Meet any interesting people there?" and all that crap.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:28 PM on January 15, 2008

I'm a computer geek who does it in her spare time for fun - I may not want to talk about my work geek, but my spare-time-geek is fair game :)

However. Often I get asked what I do for a living, and what my job (and spare time computer activities) are, and I have great difficulty putting it into layman's terms. Like any specialised field of human endevour, it's got its own language for a pretty good reason. And in the particular field you're talking about, pedantry and precision of language is encourage for very, very good reason. There's a resistance to generalising the specifics that's conditioned. Makes it hard to talk about unless you know what they're talking about, so to speak.

Take, for example, my current work. I work as a ruby on rails developer, for a startup company, that does superannuation-associated services. That is relatively easy to explain in layman's terms.

A previous job, as a computational scientist, working on geophysics and mathematical framework development was really hard to explain. It required working knowledge of several fields both inside and outside computer science to really fully get the idea across, and I'm pretty sure my family still doesn't quite understand what I did there.

My spare time work is similar. I'm an executive officer for my local *nix user group. That I can explain given about 10 minutes. Or so. Probably. I also assist in organising some local conferences, explaining the names and purposes of which can take a while.

So, you may ask, how did I actually come to understand this stuff in the first place? Obviously I wasn't born with the knowledge. The answer is that I've spent a lot of tme hanging around geeks and talking to them, asking questions about 'what does that mean, anyway?' and developing my technical vocabulary. This includes looking stuff up on the internet when I'm confused about something.

I guess, the difference between computer science, and, for eg, law is that computers are more in your face, and there are more IT professionals than lawyers. It makes a certain level of sense you're going to run across the more arcane jargon faster because there's more of it floating around. And some people in computers really love to talk about what they do, which in a very real sense is impossible without using the jargon.
posted by ysabet at 4:29 PM on January 15, 2008

nthing the suggestion that a good conversationalist wouldn't need domain knowledge to strike up a conversation about that person's line of work.

If this is genuinely interesting to you, you could turn the guys you meet in bars into your very own community college. Most comp sci types that I know would love to chit chat about CS stuff. Ask them to dumb it down for you.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:34 PM on January 15, 2008

Oh, be aware that if you ask "what do you do" you may get a lot more tan you bargained for. My fiance will start drawing diagrams of service-oriented architecture on bar napkins for people who merely asked "So how's work going?" When we were in a long distance relationship and talked on the phone late at night, I'd ask him what he did at work today so I could be lulled to sleep (he was a network engineer at the time).
posted by desjardins at 4:41 PM on January 15, 2008

Computer person here. For a lot of people, asking what the company does (rather than what they do) is a good way to get started. What are the big problems the company is trying to solve for its users? Often, those answers are going to be a lot more interesting then the nitty gritty technical details anyway.

Of course, one of my exes has a PhD in CS, and after knowing him for 5 years or so, I still have no idea what he does. So it's also going to depend on what field they're in in computers.

So basically what everyone else has said.

Also, and I realize this is kind of weird, watch Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel. I am constantly amazed at what a good conversationalist Mike Rowe is, and all he's talking about is other people's jobs.
posted by natabat at 4:54 PM on January 15, 2008

Best answer: Don't ask. If you feel you must ask...

Are you on salary or do you freelance? Which company do you work for?

Do you develop or are you in the support and maintenance side? (Expect this to be "some of both" but maybe they'll give you a lead on which they do more of.)

Do you work with hardware or software?

Are you working with internal (to the company) software/hardware, or things for outside users?

What was your last big project?
posted by anaelith at 6:05 PM on January 15, 2008

Best answer: You could say "so, if you fuck up, what goes wrong?". That will help you understand their role from the regular user's/customer's point of view.

An answer like
  • "the news doesn't get updated on the front page of Yahoo!"
  • "people don't get their welfare checks"
  • "everyone on GMail starts to get V1@gr@ spam" or
  • "have you seen 'Die Hard 4.0? Something like that."
will help the conversation along.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:17 PM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

"I network cross-platform architecture UNIX scripting to the coders and develop the open-source portal quantum vulnerabilities access."

I think the proper response to this is "What the fuck did you just say? Is that some sort of drug terminology?" And then you make fun of them for being a nerd.

My sense of humor might be different from yours, however.
posted by kpmcguire at 10:29 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

iguanapolitico: that was Joel on Software discussion forums
posted by jacalata at 12:44 AM on January 16, 2008

Study philosophy. It is a more universal set of problems then computer science.
posted by ewkpates at 4:50 AM on January 16, 2008

If you're not actually interested in geeky tech stuff, don't ask. There are two types of computer nerds; Those that are oblivious to how boring our conversations are to the uninitiated and those that can sense a bored non-tech person a few seconds into a tech explanation.

With the former, you'll be bored out of your nut. With the latter, they'll think you're making fun of them or generally being odd.

As a tech nerd, I don't have a problem having a discussion about other stuff. What do you want to talk about; Politics, the environment, interest rates, the decline of mainstream news media, religion, shopping, food, pets, the weather, birthdays...
posted by krisjohn at 5:01 AM on January 16, 2008

jacalata: thank you!!! Sheesh.
posted by iguanapolitico at 8:05 AM on January 16, 2008

Best answer: I'm going to try and break down the "so you work with computers" job hierarchy as I see it. This will be massively incomplete, unavoidably subjective, and only loosely applicable as there are so many nooks and crannies in an industry that size.

First of all there are two types of computer people, people who work with computers and people who work on computers. Think structural engineers vs carpenters.

Starting from the "bottom" of the "on computers" scale you have the tech guys. Tier-1 IT, Geek Squad, freelancers, etc. They keep individual systems and small networks running, fix PEBCAK/id-ten-T problems, have a reputation for being easily annoyed, arrogant and insanely over caffeinated. Think of dealing with the most obstinate, irritating person you've ever met, who thinks he knows everything about your subject of expertise and won't take 'no' for an answer. Now spend all day dealing with people just like him. Nobody wants these jobs but they often pay fairly well if you have little experience.

The next couple of levels fall under the umbrella name of Systems Administrators. Aka. Operators, Admins, "network guys", etc. My job is somewhere in here. Depending on the company/circumstance we handle larger networks, specialized computers, servers, essential services, and problems with a larger scope or complexity. We're often tasked with keeping a system that we inherited (from an idiot) running without little details like documentation, source code, and sanity. The BOFH stories are only slightly dramatized from real life.

Up from here are higher, managerial level positions in large enough companies. CTO, CIO, Network Architect, etc. They usually are more manager than tech, often more concerned with ROI and business process than individual technical details. Don't get me wrong, those are absolutely crucial things to worry about from a business point of view, I'm not disparaging them here.

Another branch of the "on computers" track are programmers. They have a similar set of levels with names like Developers, Technical Leads, Project Managers, etc. They write the software we all know and love *cough*. Occasionally they will have bona-fide Computer Science degrees, but that's not nearly universal. Their usual complaints are idiot customers who don't know what they want, changing specifications, and bosses who don't understand the complexity of what they're doing.

There's a fine line here between programmers and the "with computers" branch. Often people who do a lot of programming don't really care about the details of how their programs are run. Scientists who do lots of data analysis, bioinformatics, AI, and simulations are often closer to mathematicians in job description. They write code to be sure, and they need to have excellent programming skills to be effective, but they're primarily interested in the data and analyses thereof. Rarely will they be involved in the design, configuration and maintenance of the systems they use.

Further along the "with computers" track you have your standard office workers using Excel, Word, accounting software, Web Designers who build websites like this, etc, etc.

And of course to add complexity these jobs are fluid and poorly defined, consultants can and do step in to fill in anywhere along the line, and job titles are often poor descriptions of the actual work done. "Other Duties As Required" is sort of the unofficial mantra of the entire "on computers" branch, people who know what they're doing tend to get pulled in either by fiat or simple gravity to fixing all sorts of things that aren't strictly their job.
posted by Skorgu at 9:43 AM on January 16, 2008

I am also in Seattle. I rather enjoy explaining to non-tech people what I do. Using the "best answers" as a guideline: I run pre-release code to make sure it works properly both for customers and for internal users. If I fuck up, code with errors in it may get checked off and passed on to production - the "real world" uses - and then everyone gets to see the bugs. Basically I make developers look good.

The seriously technical part is that I only test code in [archaic database environment], which I have to explain to serious techies, because they will ask what environment you work in.
posted by herbaliser at 1:58 PM on January 16, 2008

Response by poster: Okay! Thanks everyone! The message is loud and clear that a lot of you don't like talking about your work, so I will try to be sensitive to that, but if I do meet someone who does want to talk about it, I at least feel like I have a few ways of dealing with the conversation now. I really appreciate all your help.
posted by Enroute at 4:22 PM on January 16, 2008

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