What Make You An Expert?

Tuesday 12th May 2020 Dave Sharp Start Ups!

Right up front I'm going to state that this is really a reflection of what experts or expertise might represent to the tech industry. Accepting that the notion of expertise is quite subjective, medicine or airline pilots might feel differently about my assessment of the whole notion of being an expert, so please don't take offence.

Me! Me! Me!

I get a lot of inbound communication on platforms like LinkedIn from individuals looking for opportunities or work. Everyone puts forward their experience or credentials and attempts to give the impression of superior skills and/or knowledge. How am I supposed to determine expertise when everyone can write anything they like with little or no danger of me being able to query in depth what they are telling me?

Here's a few thoughts:

Software Engineers - I can still test these people via online coding test platforms if I really want. I usually hire engineers on attitude not ability so I will talk with them first and if I'm interested then use a coding test to determine their relevant levels of skills and abilities. Expert engineers for me are the ones that know not to start with the code and get a pad out to do some working out before they start.

Project Managers - This has to be about attention to detail and problem solving. I look at grammar, spelling, levels of detail in communication and their ability to think laterally and not just down obvious routes. Its hard to test these things in some respect but when someone is an "expert" in project management and doesn't know the difference between "there", "their" and "they're" then they're not the expert I'm looking for.

Creatives - This is a really problem area, what is an expert in creativity? I go for process here. No matter how creative someone seems then (and I'm not creative at all!) I need to be able to understand how what they do fits into a process that I can track, cost and moderate when necessary. I often talk to creatives about how long something has taken and what was discarded and when , opposed to the actual work itself - I don't feel appropriately equipped to determine expert creativity from anything else.

Commercial - For me, commercial expertise comes from both diversity and longevity. If someone has survived in a commercial role through a number of different sectors then for me that has created expertise. Commercial/Sales environments are diverse and if someone has the wit and intelligence to sell phones then property then pharmaceuticals its likely that they have developed enough experience to be regarded as an expert.

Knowledge versus Wisdom

"Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato into a fruit salad."

There is a distinction that I make when I watch people apply their knowledge and experience. Knowing when NOT to do something is vital. Experts in my opinion understand that there are moments when you need to stop and re-question what you know before moving forward. When I see someone apply this approach then I generally categorise that person above the norm.


There is a lot written around credibility. When you are credible and you can apply your knowledge, wisdom and restraint - I think you're an expert. This is where I fall foul with academic "experts". Knowing a subject in depth but having never applied that knowledge in the real world does not make you an expert in my world. I will accept that academics became academics for a real reason, a valid reason and are needed. However I don't work in world where no application of knowledge creates credibility, its the opposite.

Its like being an art historian but not being able to paint. I need painters, not people that know what a Caravaggio looks like.

Too Many Chiefs, Not Enough Indians ...

The start-up / entrepreneur boom of the past 20 years has created a scenario where the relative position within a start-up is carried forward into the wider business world. 20 somethings carry the job title of Chief Technology Officer (or something similar) - a role that to me is much more complex and all-encompassing than just having a degree and a couple of years of experience. If the start-up fails then the "CTO" heads out into the world with the notion that what they have experienced has given them expertise - its so rarely the case.

Rightly or wrongly I still subscribe to the idea that someone who has worked through the various levels of progress in their career vertical will have lived, worked and accumulated everything they need for true expertise to appear. I worked my way from programmer to development director level positions, picking up the next set of skills I would need as I went and consolidating all my experiences at key moments to show I was ready for the next step.

So What am I Really Saying?

The problem of determining someones real level of understanding and their capability to apply it will continue. The internet will continue to provide a platform for individuals to continue to shout out their assumed knowledge with bias. Its still a case of buyer beware. If you chose to do no diligence on the people you contract with or bring into your business then there will be varying degrees of success and failure. Personally I will continue to work with the small group of people I know I can rely on for their personal expertise - only bringing in newcomers on the right basis at the right moment.

Next Article

Entreprenurism is a massive mental strain in almost every regard. The challenge around developing the product or service, financing the development, what technology to use finding the right employees, procurement etc. is just massive. "Doing the right thing" in an ethical sense sometimes will seem like a very low priority, so what stance can entrepreneurs take to get some ethics into the company culture early on?

Previous Article

One of the most frequent calls/emails I get is someone getting in touch because something has gone wrong with their web developer or their hosting provider. This article looks at the process of appointing the right software developer.