What do you do?

“What do you do?”

I was sitting outside on a patio last weekend talking to a girl I’d just met at a friend’s barbecue. It took less than 3 minutes for one of us to ask that question. I don’t even remember who asked it first, but I remember it came up.

It always does come up in every social interaction in San Francisco. And as I write these words after a week in Austin, this phenomenon is particularly visible to me because it didn’t come up all week I’ve been in Texas.

She worked at Facebook. On a contract, which isn’t quite as good as working full time at Facebook.

I work at a super early stage startup, which means word hasn’t gotten out about us, and the tech we are building isn’t a social network; it’s middleware for large scale software applications.

That’s not quite as good as working at a startup that is building something easy to understand, like a new social network.

On the Silicon Valley social hierarchy, which is defined almost entirely by what your LinkedIn profile says about where you work and where you went to school, we’re both sort of in the middle.

We don’t work at massive but boring companies like Oracle, but we are both employed at good companies. There is a lot of unrealized potential for both of us. Her to get a job at another killer startup, and me to have my personal brand boosted if my company becomes one of those hot SF startups.

But unrealized potential in Silicon Valley is pretty worthless. Nobody cares about the company that almost IPO’d. Nobody cares about the deal that you almost closed. Close doesn’t count. What counts is being one of the chosen few that the startup gods smile upon.

The party we were at had a ton of Facebookers, Googlers, and Uber folk. In Silicon Valley’s pecking order, there were some people near the top all roaming around us, drinks in hand.

“Are you one of the Facebookers here?”

“No, I was, but now I’m with Uber.”

“Oh that’s awesome.”

“Yeah. So, what do you do?”

When I get asked what I do right now, I struggle to answer; probably because there is a lot of in transition for me these days. The company I’m with is in a key stage of growth, and like all early stage companies, there is always a massive amount of ambiguity. Every luminary tech company has gone through periods like this, but so has every failed company. To get to the good stuff, you have to start everything from scratch, and this means working through ambiguity.

As someone who takes a lot of identity from the work that I do, this doesn’t give me as much to anchor myself to as I’d like. And since the company is super technical, it’s terrible party conversation.

I also wrote my first book, but that’s not paying the bills nor am I a full time writer.

I’m a blogger, but everyone has started a blog at some point in their lives.

What do I do? Right now I’m figuring a ton of that out. I’m a marketer. I’m a writer. I’m a friend. I’m a son and brother.

I’d honestly rather just talk about something else. I’m not ready to give you a good answer yet, and I don’t like how me being in process with what I do casts such a shadow on who people think that I am.

When we ask what do you do, I  think the questions we are actually trying to ask are: who are youwhy should I care about you, and where do you fit into the tech hierarchy so I know how to think about you.

Nobody has been doing that in Austin the whole week I’ve been here, and frankly I’m feeling more relaxed and less on edge than I have in weeks. Part of that is being around family, but part of that is about the fact that I can go hang out with people socially and nobody wants to do a status check to figure out how close everybody around them is from being Silicon Valley royalty.

What do you do when someone asks you So what do you do?

I’d love to hear clever answers from folks, and I’m 100% going to steal the answers that I like the best.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter


I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.


  • I’m a troublemaker.

    I work like a dog and think like a cat.*

    *already stolen from the genius who put it on his resume, whom I could not hire because someone else at the company already nabbed him

  • I cannot relate more. Especially when you are in transition, looking for a job. I’m like, “I’m a lover, not a fighter…although I have been trying boxing recently” or “I am a renaissance woman, just about everything…so what do you do for fun in this great city of ours?” Trying to be the least amount of awkward as possible.

    Truly, the human brain wants to organize people and things so it can make sense of them. While it is annoying when you are on the receiving end of it, I try to understand that the person may not be able to think of anything else to talk to you about. As a result, I try and introduce some topic of conversation they would not automatically go to, or at least something to take the attention away from me. Ask them about what they love, how much they hate the weather…anything other than “what do you do.”

  • I’m not a fan of this question- I think living in California has made me dislike it. Even if I’m not in a start-up situation, there is still a sense of social ranking based of employment status. I don’t have a clever response. Usually I just ramble on about all the things I do in a day: I work, I write, I sing, I watch movies, I explore, etc.

  • It’s a rude question asked by people with no imagination and no ability to live in the present.

    Try this answer: “Depends on who I am with.”

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *