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What does an IT person do? Answers from around the globe

The holiday season is fast approaching, when IT and DevOps professionals around the world answer a perennial question at the family dinner table: What does an IT person do?

While you might only face down this puzzled, “But what does an IT person do?” question at Thanksgiving or a particularly chilly New Year’s party, the ability to describe vital IT tasks to non-IT people proves invaluable when you collaborate on a cross-functional DevOps team, request IT budgets from business leadership, or go for a job interview.

We asked a handful of SearchITOperations contributors to share how they communicate the meaning of IT department, data center, operations and the like to aunts and uncles and teenage cousins. Here are a few attempts to nail down the meaning of IT, from an IT operations manager, virtualization expert, containerization consultant and more.

As consultant Tom Nolle describes from one encounter, a software lead’s breathless excitement about a new tool means nothing to an executive unless that development professional can articulate the business implications for what that tool does. “What I do is translate technology trends into business reality. I’m an impartial intermediary between the engineers and software gurus and the real world,” Nolle said.

“I used to say, ‘I work on computers’ when I did, actually, work on computers,” said Adam Bertram, IT automation consultant, but virtualization complicated all that. “Explaining to my family that I deploy virtual instances known as containers in the hundreds at a time would probably blow their mind.” His advice? Don’t get too technical. “I take the more abstract route and simply say, ‘I help companies create software faster and more reliably.'”

When the title IT operations manager generates puzzled expressions — which it normally does, according to Adam Fowler — explain that you “look after IT from end to end in a company,” he said. Non-IT friends and family generally expect that IT means you get to play with gadgets and the latest stuff — which it does! But they also think it’s a skill set mostly based around turning things off and on again. “I usually mention that there’s a trick to knowing which button to press and the timing of it,” Fowler said.

Better yet, why explain what an IT infrastructure person does when you can first avoid the question. “Nobody outside our industry knows or cares about the details of what we do, so glib answers like, ‘I make the Internet work’ or, ‘I do computer plumbing’ are pretty common,” said Alastair Cooke, a virtualization expert and consultant. IT professionals know well that the more people who know you work in IT, the more likely they’ll ask you to solve their IT problems. But of course, an ability to fix data center IT infrastructure doesn’t translate to home printer errors or a missing photo off a smartphone!

If you must answer “What does an IT person do?” for the third or fourth time that day, go ahead and have fun with the response. “What I and many others do is what you see in the movies, pressing a few keys and all of sudden lights come on, screens display critical information and the IT person saves the day,” joked Brian Kirsch, IT architect and instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. The reality of endless meetings, hours on hold or an inbox so full it could cause a person to cry is nowhere near as fun — it’s all in how you perceive the job.

“We are the heroes that keep the modern world running; not those on call at 3 am troubleshooting issues,” Kirsch said.

Then again, if you want to know what an IT person does, why would you ask them? As Brian Kirsch quips, IT people have a standard answer to every question: We’ll just tell you to reboot it.

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