I’ve often been asked by different people, “What is SharePoint?” Usually I’m asked this in response to: “What do you do?” and I’ve learned sometimes it’s best to just say something along the lines of “I work with computers.” However, sometimes I go further and tell people that I am a SharePoint administrator or consultant and then have to figure out how to answer their follow up question. When that happens, my answer usually is dependent on a few other things. Yes, I know, I just said “It depends” but really the product doesn’t change, but how I answer the question.
So the biggest thing that my answer depends on is the experience level of the person asking the question. I’m not talking SharePoint experience, but technical experience. Does the person understand the concept of desktops as clients and servers providing applications? Is the person a developer or current server admin? Is their only technical experience using a personal computer to surf the internet, not a business user? A good understanding of the audience helps to be able to answer their question in a way that they might understand it.
So let’s start with the easiest scenario. If the person asking the question has experience using a computer in an enterprise environment with desktops as clients and programs or data stored on servers asks the question, the answer goes something like this:
“SharePoint is a server product from Microsoft that provides the ability to collaborate at the enterprise level through a web-based interface. It also provides the capability to network socially within an organization as well as perform web and enterprise content management. It can also be used as a development platform for rich applications and business intelligence. Oh, and it provides a great search platform to begin to search not just within the sites that are created, but also across other sites, platforms, databases, and traditional shared folders. “
You can go deeper if you like, but this usually is a good opening explanation.
Let’s say the person is already a .NET developer or server admin. While this seems like it might be the easiest one to deal with, it often isn’t because of the technical experience and sometimes preconceived ideas that these people have. Sometimes it takes a little creativity to get them to understand what SharePoint is. I usually have to delve a bit to see what their ideas are before I can go into explaining SharePoint. However, usually for the hard core dev, you can tell them something along the lines of: “SharePoint is a platform that provides collaboration, content management, and other capabilities to the enterprise, but allows for custom development for specific needs that are not met by the platform.” I’ve found that the use of the word platform here is beneficial when talking to the hardcore, sometimes resistant dev. If the person is a pretty strong server admin, then I’ve explained that SharePoint is a server product providing the ability to efficiently collaborate, manage content, and provide capabilities that can be customized to meet the needs of a business. Sometimes I’ve gone further and explained the backend is SQL for those who may have been SQL DBAs.
The toughest scenario is when the person really only has experience using a computer in their home, for basic things like word processing, email, and moderate web surfing. Unfortunately, this probably is half of my family, who really have little concept of what I actually do on a regular basis. But they are the ones who want to know the most… if you’ve worked with SharePoint long and your family has an inkling that you have technical skills, you’ve probably become their personal help desk and the question about what you actually do inevitably comes up. Answering them in such a way that they can understand, and not feel like you think they are total morons is a challenge, because if you’ve worked with SharePoint for long, it comes pretty natural to you, but probably not so easy to explain or grasp the concept that someone doesn’t understand it. So here’s my go at it:
“SharePoint is a product that runs on a server or set of servers, that provides websites to the people within an organization or to the web, which is called external facing. These websites can be used like websites for companies that you have visited on the web if they are external facing. Internal websites are used for different things, such as places to store, share, and create documents, manage calendars and meetings, manage projects, assign and track tasks, process information or data through a specialized workflow, or even show charts and data from within their business so they can understand the status of the organization. It can do all of these things and more if desired.”
So I hope maybe whatever group you fall into, you may be able to relate to these answers, and maybe even some of them helped you understand it a little bit better. What I’ve really learned most is that explaining SharePoint to people is never easy, or brief, and usually can’t be summed up in just a few words or one or two sentences. To fully grasp and understand it, generally, you have to use it. And even then, you may only understand that small portion of what you are using it for. It is a large and complex product with many capabilities and options, and most people and organizations are barely scratching the surface of what it can do and provide. Don’t let that scare you, though, it is a powerful and sometimes fun technology to work with, and when you do have those “Aha” moments (I have them all the time, and I’ve been working with SharePoint for years!) you can be sure that you’ve found a benefit to you, and that there are plenty more of those moments to come!
If you are interested, here’s a video that I like to use to share sometimes with clients who are trying to figure out what it is and how it will fit in their organization: http://www.lynda.com/home/Player.aspx?lpk4=68886&playChapter=False.