development (in)action

What Is an Expert?

One of the joys of my current profession is constant exposure to individuals and organizations that label themselves “experts” in any given discipline. Having been exposed to this perk yet again this holiday season, I feel compelled to draft my thoughts on the subject. It should be noted I do not claim to be an expert in any given discipline; I do however feel my experience lends itself to a unique perspective on many topics and subjects. My technical career spans several fields seemingly unrelated and diverse. I have been employed professionally as the following in no particular order:

  • Automotive Technician
    • ASE Certified Master Auto, L1, Body and Heavy Truck
    • Automatic Transmissions
    • Electronics Drivability
    • Diesel Fuel Injection
    • Heavy Line
    • Fuel & Ignition pit crew in an ARCA stock car team
  • Director of Information technology for a Fortune 500 company.
  • Shop Foreman for the manufacturing and maintenance of oil-field equipment.
  • Garde Manger and Saucier Chef.
  • Software Developer and Software Architect.

There is more; for the sake of brevity, I have kept this list short. For many years, I have kept this list a secret professionally, as it often sparks questions of ability, sanity and reliability. My lack of formal secondary education is often raised in job interviews and is just as often difficult to address, depending on the job market. With my introductions complete, I would like to share my thoughts on what does and does not make an expert. The list of things I believe that do make an expert will most assuredly be a list much smaller than what is generally accepted.

The expert

It is my belief that to become an expert in any field one must know enough to not be entirely sure of all aspects of a given problem. An expert will have the experience and wisdom to know there are no simple solutions; that all problems can and usually do have multiple facets. This expert will know that answers cannot come from one book, author, magazine or periodical; but rather from the mistakes and pains of failure. This individual will recognize that while there is the most common solution, there will one day be that problem that is rarely seen; knowing this and knowing how to address it is the making of an expert.

Not the expert

An individual reading one or two books that present canned problems and solutions as examples does not make a person an expert regardless of how well this person absorbs the lessons. This individual possesses only enough knowledge to begin the path to understanding one or two facets of the possibilities that can and will arise. It is important to understand that these publications have carefully filtered these problems for the most common denominator and to be publicly consumable. These solutions are merely best case recipes one can hope for and, often times, serve no real world problem solving knowledge on the topic.  Until the individual can readily find oneself presented with problems that does not return results in a Google search and solve these problems without the help of IRC or any others, he should not claim the title of expert in such matters.

Commercially there are also companies that ply their wares, posing as experts in a given problem field hoping to take your money and make you happy. Far too often, I find these companies have a narrow range of problems they solve and it is far too easy to get started on a solution only to discover your particular use case is not supported or solved by the experts’ offerings. This is similar to the individual case of not having seen enough of the problems or simply not having possessed the user base to be adaquate to solve the problem.

In Summary

Ultimately, it is important to recognize that consultant companies are often motivated for more selfish reasons than the individual to obfuscate their status, or lack thereof, as experts, so that they may lure us into a contractual obligation.  For individuals, it is often ignorance, narcissism and/or pride that often motivates the proclamations of subject matter experts from all parts of life. The holidays are especially bountiful for examining these persons to watch them in the wild and view their natural behaviors. Whether it is a parent instructing you in the disciplines of child rearing or a CEO expounding the joys of the latest whiz-bang idea they read on Joe Schmoes Blog; it is up to us non-experts to filter the wheat from the chaff, filter the good from the trash.