What does it mean to be an expert?

August 8, 2010
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It’s an interesting question.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the notion that one needs to have worked 10,000 hours at something to be considered an expert. For example, Bill Gates was an expert at computing by the early 1980s because he had spent so many hours in front of terminals learning how to use computers and how to program.

It’s an interesting question.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the notion that one needs to have worked 10,000 hours at something to be considered an expert. For example, Bill Gates was an expert at computing by the early 1980s because he had spent so many hours in front of terminals learning how to use computers and how to program.

I’m reluctant to call myself an expert on many things. In fact, I often preface my comments with “I’m not an expert, but.” Evidently, I then have a tendency to say something particularly profound about the very topic on which I am no expert. (With age comes humility, I suppose.) Recent examples include cloud computing, open source software, or another topic. I’ve had a few people tell me over the last few months that I should stop saying that. Perhaps I am making them feel uncomfortable.

What can I say? I must have picked up a great deal of knowledge about emerging technologies from the contributors to my second book. I also read a great deal.

This makes me wonder:

  • Does being an expert really matter?
  • Does the myriad of information on the internet allow us to become experts more quickly, than say, twenty years ago? Or is it easier to fake your way through things by doing five minutes worth of research of Wikipedia?
  • Is it better to understate your expertise in something than overstate it?

Varying Skills

As a consultant, I’ve worked with many people whose information management (IM) skills ran the gamut. A few people were every bit as good as they said they were, worth their weight in gold. (In fact, I recently finished a project with two such folks. Good to know if I wind up hiring additional resources in the future.) At the other end of the spectrum, some people talked a good game but, when push came to shove, they could not deliver the results, forcing others to pick up the slack.

Sadly, many of those who have routinely disappointed me were external–and highly paid–consultants whose firms chose not to send in those with the requisite expertise. While I’m probably pretty biased here, I have found that larger consulting outfits sometimes still staff projects with whoever is available or, in the parlance of the consulting world, “on the beach.” Somehow, availability trumps being qualified.

Determining Expertise

Unfortunately, there’s just no way to know for certain if you’re bringing in someone who can walk the talk–and this is coming from someone with pretty extensive knowledge of different interviewing techniques. Sure, you can ask behavioral-based questions to attempt to ascertain who’s faking it but even those guarantee nothing. Use them as a starting point, then solicit the opinions of other well-respected folks. At least for me, those are tough to ignore. Consider what they say as well as what they don’t say.

While I’m at it, here are a few more tips:

  • Certifications are fine and dandy but give me the experienced resource who lacks a proper certification over the newly-minted and certified neophyte.
  • Clients should structure contracts in such a way that they’re not stuck with a resource whose resume doesn’t match his skill set. Also, don’t be afraid to pull the plug on anyone (contractor, consultant, employee, or partner) who’s not delivering the goods.
  • As for 10,000 hours, it’s a nice proxy but the fact remains: some people simply pick things up quicker than others. I’ve worked with folks who couldn’t get with the program after extensive training and others who could look at something and immediately essentially got it.

Feedback

What say you?

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