Non-descriptive descriptions

Do you have trouble figuring out what to put in the “occupation” blank on your tax return? Most years I write “computers,” which could fit jobs in anything from PC sales to circuit board assembly to database administration. My jobs in the past have encompassed programming, technical support, training, and network administration, so the blanket “computers” seemed to cover it as well as I could in (on a line barely long enough for that single word).

My current job title is IT Production Control, which would mislead most people trying to guess what I actually spend my time doing. It has nothing to do with what is typically called Production Control, which deals with manufacturing, and only concerns IT to the extent that computers are usually used for maintaining the production schedules. To members of my department, however, “production” means the computer systems and software that are utilized by users in the rest of the company – as opposed to the systems used for development and testing within IT.

So I “control” what goes on the “production” systems by checking the documentation that accompanies requests to deploy new or modified programs, to be sure we comply with the requirement of Sarbanes-Oxley. (If you don’t know what that means, just think of it as a bunch of regulations passed in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals to try to prevent other companies from pulling similar shenanigans.)

It would be hard enough to come up with a short, simply job description for me if that were my only responsibility. But I have other duties, related to IT security and IT procurement, besides sitting at the front desk as de facto receptionist. No one has been able to come up with a better title for me, so I continue to be IT Production Control (and to occasionally get email messages intended for manufacturing production control).

Thus I could immediately identify with this headline on an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal: “Dad, What Do You Do at Work? I’m a Leader in Active Safety.” I expected the article to be about job titles, but it is actually about how entire companies describe themselves. Having worked in Purchasing at two companies, I don’t find the description “global leader in motion and control technologies” all that strange. But the “world leader in creating and sustaining safe, comfortable and efficient environments” would have me puzzled.

The manufacturing companies I have worked for in the past could be described fairly easily. Most people might not be familiar with abrasive blast equipment or hot stamp foils and thermal transfer ribbons (I wasn’t, until getting those jobs), but the companies’ customers know exactly what those terms mean. Of course, those companies were both small – their entire workforce was smaller than the IT department I work for now.

Large companies often end up with a very diverse product line. Companies add product lines that may seem unrelated to their core business, but that meet other needs of existing customers, or that use the same raw materials or production machines or methods. Eventually there are enough different products that it can difficult to summarize what the company does.

The reason for what the article calls “grandiloquent self-descriptions” may be – as it seems to imply – about image rather than substance. But there is also a good reason for a company to describe itself other than by listing the products it makes, even if it makes only a few products. We discussed this in one of my classes when I was getting my MBA (though I no longer remember which class). It’s not just about the image the company projects to the public, but how they think of themselves.

Think of the companies that manufactured typewriters a few decades ago. There were a lot of them, and most of them are out of business now. If you thought of yourself as a “typewriter company” you would compete with the new-fangled word processors and PC’s as long as you could, but the typewriter market has largely ceased to exist. If you thought of yourself as a company providing technology for producing printed documents, you could branch out into printers, computers, word processing software, or technical support for any of those. It would require a different business model, but it beats going out of business.

Of course, defining yourself too broadly isn’t helpful either. Then you branch in too many directions and have no real focus, and you probably don’t do anything really well. Somewhere there needs to be a unifying element that helps you – and your customers – know what you do, and do well, and what is outside the scope of your business. Even a “general store” (and since moving to the midwest I have discovered that such stores do still exist in some places) is defined by its location.

I wonder sometimes how I will try to define myself, the next time I’m looking for a job. I tend to gravitate to jobs where I end up doing a number of different things, and I like it that way. But “jack-of-all-trades” isn’t a very good selling point, especially as it usually is further described as “master of none.”

For now it’s just something to think about. But with our older son in college and our younger son finishing elementary school, relocating is a definite possibility in the next year. Especially as we would much rather my husband have the job description “pastor” than “Wal-Mart associate.”


One Response to Non-descriptive descriptions

  1. I have had similar difficulties and confusions in jobs I have had. Eventually, no matter where you go and no matter what you do, eventually it turns out to be different than you expected or how it was once described.

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