The story below is based on ideas from my book The Art of Explanation, now out in print and ebooks. Perfect airplane reading!
You’ve been there before. You sit down to gorge yourself on turkey when the questioning starts. Sitting across from you is Uncle Henry. He’s spry at 65, but is not so knowledgeable about technology. He asks, “So tell me again what it is you do for a living?” Your Mom hears the question and tunes in. “Yes, do tell!” she says, attracting the attention of everyone at the table.
Your heart beats and you wish could just excuse yourself for the night. You’ve been through this before and it never works. People nod and squint and end up more interested in the cranberry sauce than your bumbling explanation of your job.
The truth is, you love what you do - and it’s important. Leading a software testing team matters. You are a professional and a leader in your company. The family has every reason to be proud of you - but they just don’t get it. You seem to speak a different language.
The problem is explanation. Your explanations aren’t working. Fortunately, this is a solvable problem and the basics are pretty simple. Let’s look at what you can do to help people understand your job and why it matters.
Let’s start with the cause of the problem. You have an affliction called the curse of knowledge. You know so much that it’s hard for you to imagine what it’s like not to know. Something that sounds easy to you sounds complex to others. You’re prone to making bad assumptions about what others understand - and this causes your explanations to fail.
So, we need to adjust for the curse and make sure we start with an easy first step. Our goal is to invite everyone to feel confident that your job is understandable. We’ll do this with a few high-level statements that help build context. Some examples may be:
“You know about computers. When you need to type a letter or visit a website, software makes it happen. Examples are programs like Word, PowerPoint, iTunes.”
“Companies like mine make that software from scratch - it’s really complex and takes a lot of work.”
This sets the stage. You want everyone to see the big picture first. From here, you’ll slowly get more detailed and start to get more personal. Remember - make them feel confident. Don’t assume they see what you see.
“The software on your computer has to work well, or the whole company will fail - and my company is no different. We have to make the best software possible.”
This starts to build the case for your job and answers a very important question - why does this job exist and make sense?
“A big part of making great software is testing it. Before any software makes it to your computer, it’s tested to make sure it performs as it’s supposed to.”
If you’re concerned that some people may be lost, there’s a great opportunity to make a connection to something everyone understands. This often means using an analogy or example to show that your job is like one they know.
“Imagine a car company. Before a car hits the showroom, the car company tests it to make sure it’s safe, reliable and works as-advertised. Software testing is no different.”
They’ve never considered testing before, but it makes sense. Now you can start to bring the explanation home and show that your job fits into this world in a way that also makes sense.
“At my company, we have 20 people that test our software - and I am their boss. The company depends on me and my team to test the software and find any problems before it’s sold.”
For the first time you can see that people at the table get it. They’re engaged and clearly thinking. By providing them context and stepping stones to understanding, they see you and your job from a new perspective. They see why your job matters.
In fact, you know it worked because they know enough to ask good questions and keep learning. Uncle Henry is clearly impressed. When your cousin arrives late, he can’t help but share his new knowledge, “Did you know your cousin runs a team of 20 that makes sure his company’s software works right?”
This Thanksgiving is different than the others. Before, your work was a mystery and family members didn’t know enough to ask questions. But now, thanks to a simple explanation, your loved ones can not only take an interest, but be motivated to keep learning. That’s a big goal of explanation - to motivate people to stay engaged, even after the tryptophan kicks in.