For years I was a computer programmer. When most people asked, there was no point going into more detail - eyes would glaze instantaneously. On an adventurous day, I might say, "When I'm not navigating the bureaucracy, I write programs to solve problems." I never got a date that way, though.
When I changed roles, to Business Analysis, Mom asked, "What's that?"
"Well," I said, "I work with customers to figure out their requirements, and then..."
It took the better part of a year to come up with a story she could sink her teeth into. This is (a version of) that story.
Every day my customer (let's call him Flxxl) - tells me, "I need a toaster. I need *that* toaster. It's shiney, and I played golf with the guy who sells it."
I am a BA. I respond by asking questions. "Tell me about this toaster," I say. Flxxl looks at me with a sad/funny 'Oh-I-didn't-know-he-was-challenged' look. "How will you use it in your kitchen?" I continue. "Will you use it at breakfast?"
"Yes." Now Flxxl is irritated *and* pitying.
My face is completely innocent. "And lunch?"
"What?" That one catches Flxxl off guard. After a few seconds his ire breeches the surface of his confusion, and he says "No" with a tone that intimates that the simians in my ancestry are rather more recent than usual for a human.
"No cluhouse, then," I say, "and you never have chilli with toast...?"
There is a long pause. Now Flxxl looks suspicious. "...I might."
"Ok," I nod, "great. Now tell me, do you make anything other than toast? Tuna melt? Cheese toast? Home-sliced thick bread? Bagels?"
Now Flxxl rebels. "That doesn't matter," he says. "I need that toaster!"
"Are you sure?" I ask. "It sounds like that toaster won't do you much good. It doesn't meet your needs."
A long pause. "But I need..."
"...a device that will make several kinds of toast and toast-related items. You have a selection of bread products, a selection of toppings, and a variety of circumstances for cooking them."
"...Why, yes," Flxxl says. "I do!"
"So let's work out those details. Then we can talk to someone who can help us find the solution that best fits your needs, your budget, and your schedule."
Flxxl, working through his cognative dissonance (now that he has discovered that he had confused a solution with his needs (and that the golfing salesman got'im *again*)), agrees.
So now my mom gets it: she understands that I help people define their needs so they can get solutions that suit their business.
Of course, she tells her friends that, "Julian? Oh, he, ah, he does, um...
"He sells toasters."
Many thanks to my Mom, who is a great sport (and DOES understand what I do - really!).