How do you explain what software development is to friends and family?

radiomorillo profile image Stephanie Morillo ・1 min read

When you tell your loved ones that you’re a developer/engineer, what do they think you do?

How do you explain your work?

What metaphors do you use to make your work more relatable, understandable, and approachable?


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I learnt a long time ago, that if someone isn't technologically minded, they're not interested in anything beyond the basic details.

Most people that I talk to get told "I write computer software" or "I'm a software developer" - they don't get told the industry, or anything other than effectively "I get to sit in an A/C controlled office all day."

If I happen to meet another developer at a party etc, I'll talk about the industry & the languages, but that's it.


I hear you. Before I moved into tech it was really hard to grasp the details about whats devs did because it's one of those things that you have to try to fully comprehend (there's just so much involved), but I found metaphors helps! I got used to my dad never understanding what I did. Nowadays I tell him I'm on an engineering team and he seems satisfied with that! :D


My dad is ex-military (with a background in electronics), spent a while as a truck driver after his service and later a public bus driver.

I tried explaining one day... "You know when you push a button in the bus and the suspension lowers to let the elderly/disabled on... someone has to tell the suspension when to stop, when it's safe to move, when it's time to release the parking brake, etc etc etc. All of the things you never have to worry about & you simply push a button & it does what you expect."

His response was: "Ah, so it's your fault all this new electrical work fails all the time."

I thought about going down the arguments of the requirements, the testing, the real world scenarios that are never caught etc... but I knew that would have been "excuses" - so "Yeah, always my fault, but it's also me that stops you having to stand in front of the bus & crank the engine by hand to start it. You win some, you lose some."


I like to say that I'm a digital carpenter and instead of using hammers and nails I use my keyboard and mouse. And like constructing a new home you need people with different skill sets like plumbers, electricians, designers, architects, managers etc... And I, as a Front End Software Developer, am more like the carpenter who puts up the drywall and paints it based on what the designer put together. I also am the one who puts up the cabinets and doors and makes sure the user experience is how you would expect or delights you in a new way.

I followed by dad's footsteps as a day laborer in construction and carpentry. Except I use my keyboard, mouse, and StackOverflow.


That's a good one. I've heard the construction/carpentry analogy before, but coming up for metaphors for the different subdisciplines in the field is a great idea.

Just like with any field, there are so many career paths, and each one fulfills a slightly different purpose.


I'm a BIG FAN of metaphors and this is an excellent one! I need to figure out how to use a similar one to explain program/product management to my dad. Thanks for sharing!


Saying that I'm a software developer has resulted in too many blank looks, so I say that I work with websites and mobile applications and nod when people say so you're a computer engineer?

I once explained version control and the concept of master and branches to my non-technical friend by saying the master branch is the tree stump and all branches must originate from it (not a very original analogy haha). I also explained to her the difference between backend and frontend and how they work by saying the frontend is how the cake looks and the backend is how it actually tastes 😂


Indeed; sometimes it's best to keep it simple!

Re: analogies: that's impressive! How did your friend take to the explanation of version control? It took me a LONG time to find an explanation that made things click.


She understood it pretty well! She even replied back with another analogy concerning the human body that I can't remember now 😂


I learnt to keep it simple stupid to just say "I solve human, business & society problems by writing software :)" beyond that will make anyone head hurt.


"Keep it simple, stupid": I'm going to remember that whenever I start veering too much into the details. I love this! :D


Yeah it comes with the territory I guess. Especially if your a technical person. When i was in sales, I realised I would be speaking too much techno babbling.

That it becomes hurtful to digest for those who were non-technical. After realising it, I started to reduce the technical term into a way that layman could understand without hurting their brain.


"What are you doing?"

"I'm arguing with the computer"


"Yeah, that's most of my day..."


I fix their printers & computers.


Why on earth would a person need to define that in 2020? My kids (11 and 15) understand what I do without any explanation ... and I almost never talk about work at home.


That's the most difficult explanation I most especially they ain't tech freaks