“So what do you do?”

The Worst Question for a “Raleigh

“So what do you do?”

That’s the million dollar question (or the $25/hr question) that everyone gets at the meat market / job fair, as though your entire life is defined by only ONE thing that you do.

“I’m a customer service rep.”
“I’m an IT project manager.”
“I’m an HR generalist.”
“I’m a subsurface materials geotechnical engineer.”
“I’m a white-box QA lead for Python and Ruby-on-Rails based web apps with an open-source MySQL back end.”
“What do you want me to be?”


But how else do you characterize someone that’s been, at various times, in charge of planning and/or executing physical security for classified materials storage; logistics operations for a team of over 40 cargo trucks, 30 mechanics, and a dozen different end customers; HR ops, including pay, promotions, school scheduling, and personnel manning for 5 locations across 3 towns; and communications planning for 7 mobile relay stations, over 100 individual user units, and coordination with at least 5 peer organizations, plus at least 2 senior ones to which you’re a subordinate?

Folks who are familiar with the military will immediately recognize each of those positions as the S2, S4, S1, and SIGO, and they can tell you full well that any staff officer tossed into any of those roles got them with virtually no training in any of those specific operational areas. Tankers, grunts, aviators, engineers, and gunbunnies don’t go to school to learn how to be personnel officers and logistics officers. They get tossed into the role, rely on existing doctrine, organizational documents, and their subordinates’ experience, and figure it out as they go.

I’ll figure it out

You want me to be a customer service manager? Fine, I’ll figure it out.

You want me to be a training rep to handle HR-generated requirements, and schedule our folks off-site for the things we don’t support in-house? Fine, I’ll figure it out.

You need someone to shift over to the QA team while we have one on vacation and another on maternity leave? Fine, I’ll figure it out.

You need one person to handle all of that? You’re not finding that guy at the hiring fair.

Not even close.

When someone asks you “what do you do?” they hate to hear “what do you need?” but they damn sure ought to be listening to that response a whole lot more, because every organization is better served by someone willing to roll up their sleeves and plug whatever hole in the line exists this week, rather than those self-important elistists that stubbornly cling to the idea that “that’s not MY job” and refuse to pitch in when extra hands are needed.

Lest this column come across as extolling the virtues of military flexibility above all, these traits are hardly limited to veterans.

I used to teach a course designed to help community college students plan out their academic careers, to prep them not only to complete the course of study they needed to graduate with an Associates’ degree, but to set themselves up with the best chance of success when transferring to a 4-year school to finish their Bachelors’ degrees.

One of the last days of class each semester, I’d bring in a handful of friends who were several jobs into their careers, and have them help give the kids a reality check on their long-term career expectations. The idea was basically “dont get married to one career path, because you’re going to be all over the place.”

I had the wife of a friend talk about her BS in mechanical engineering that somehow got her a start the software world, before teaching high school science for a decade, and now leading a sales support team for an online training company. A former co-worker of mine took his history degree into the banking industry as a branch manager, before working sales support for an IT company that did pharmaceutical testing; after a brief detour into insurance software, he got a real estate license and opened his own office. I’ve got another half-dozen just like them.

Imagine the conversation they’re having with the first-line screeners of new job applicants, that starts out with “So, what do you do?”

I’ve covered the challenges of the polymath a whole lot: here, here, here, here, and here. If you enjoyed this, please hit that magic clap button down there on the left, so other folks get a chance to see it, too. And please feel free to share your feedback — it’s great to read your reactions. Thanks!

Dad, husband, game commando, veteran, Army brat, writer, teacher

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store