a companion discussion area for blog.codinghorror.com

Are You An Expert?


Of course, this is not to replace the idea of the expert with anyone is an expert. Just pointing to the many times in history where placing all our trust in experts has gone wrong. Perhaps there isn’t a better alternative to expert worship, but it sure ain’t perfect.


Wikipedia’s anti-expert attitude was shown to be rather worthless when the subject of a biographical page attempted to correct errors about his own life. It reminded me of the movie Back to School and the grade given for the autobiography by Kurt Vonnegut.

What the heck is the reference to NAMBLA?


Avoid certifications that trivialize the craft.
Umm… no… that certifications certify that you have met specific criterea. Nothing more, nothing less. A medical certification does not certify how much a doctor knows, or how good they are, it merely certifies that they know enough and are good enough to be able to practice. Does anyone argue that medical certification trivializes medicin???

Why is IT so against any type of mandating of a minimum set of required skills/knowledge? I don’t get it.

Your levels are missing a level:
Level 4: I overcome my ego and realise that self-critical thinking is a myth and engage in 360 degree peer feedback. I realise that the gaps I thought I had were not the gaps others saw that I had.

I prefer the Known/Unknowns approach:

Unknown Unknowns - things you don’t know you don’t know. Like a fourth grader’s understanding of calculus - doesn’t know that he doesn’t know calculus because he doesn’t know it exists.

Known Unknowns - things you know you don’t know. Like a 7th grader who has heard that calculus exists, but doesn’t know anything about it.

Known Knowns - things that you know you know. Like the 12th grader who has studied calculus. They both know what it is and they know how to do it.

Unknown Knowns - things that you don’t know you know. Like the trivia player who answers a question and is then surprised the knew the answer.


This is really interesting to me because I find it to be one of the problems I often see floating around in my head that there are no simple answers to. I mean, I know, there are very few simple answers to anything, but this specifically has two simple paths and both of them have plenty of cases justifying their positions, and neither are inherently wrong just at first glance.

Supporters of expertise will notice the extremely obvious fact that the world is populated by a very large excess of people who are stupid, it is thus important that we are capable of gauging the capacity of a given speaker to speak about the subject matter in question that they’re currently addressing. Case in point, when the new guy decries the inefficiencies of subversion by saying something along the lines of This is really dumb, most listeners lent less credence to his arguments than the video lecture by Linus Torvalds about why subversion was, in fact, quite stupid.

The fact that at this point the innate reaction is to say something along the lines of Yeah but despite what he said, you know, subversion does actually get the job done a large amount of the time, and if you’re in an environment working with a bunch of windows based coders who are intimidated by the command line, setting up a version control system based on git is actually just as stupid as Linus’ points about git being better than subversion make subversion appear to be, tortoise svn is the clincher, and telling something like that to a person like Linus would just make him laugh at you. And you’d be pretty much right on the money with that summation of the situation, and although a genuine expert would indeed laugh at you, git would still be a bad fit for the exact reasons you raise.

Within our domain, it is important to be able to research and critically analyse complex situations independently and come to something of a balanced and well thought out conclusion with regards to issues of such complexity that if you were to try and explain them to someone from before the dawn of civilisation, you may as well be talking to an alien. We all exist and operate within this space as subject matter experts to lesser or greater degrees based on our abilities to bootstrap our grasp of a problem from the entire expanse of human knowledge.

I was reading a blog post by Steve Yegge not long ago, which I thought was a really interesting summation of the entire situation, he was talking about the acceptable level at which you could safely rely upon an innately leaky abstraction as just magic. Amusingly enough he placed this level of abstraction at just below the point where he understood and admitted that he didn’t really get how stuff worked at a transistor level, but if anyone wanted to argue with him about the importance of knowing raw java rather than just using J2EE they’d be in for a fight to the death, or recollecting more models from Design Patterns than the singleton, etc. Despite Steve’s dismissal of comprehension of this level of abstraction, it is, indeed, actually critical stuff to know under certain circumstances.

I often hear nowadays of the fact that the entire length and breadth of human knowledge is simply too vast to store within memory, and you cannot become a subject matter expert on every single thing that there is that humans have discovered and abstracted in the history of civilisation. This is self evidently true, and yet having that depth of knowledge is in one sphere or another entirely critical to the sphere in question. The solution, in my opinion is to abandon our vaunted reliance on field expertise as rote memorisation, rapid calculation, or precise simulation, even at the generalised theory level. All three of these things computers do far better than any of us, and they should be used when these things need to be done.

I had a job interview with google, and have read of many job interviews conducted by google, where they’ve almost disqualified candidates on the spot for writing a prototype c program in the interview and not spotting a memory leak immediately, or because they could not instantly recall the precise amount of blocks in an inode created by mke2fs in distribution X. Stuff like this is the symptom of the disease that this entire situation is so emblematic of. They have a word for people that dedicate a disproportionate amount of mental resources to the rote memorisation or ignoring the forest for the trees based reasoning that is a hallmark of the aforementioned situations, idiot savant, autistic, etc.

It’s particularly amusing behaviour coming from the very company that makes such skills largely irrelevant. Mark Cuban summed it up pretty well when he said an excellent memory used to be worth something, but now we just google it. If you’re relying on your encyclopaedic knowledge of domain x without reference checking your critical decisions each and every time and making sure that your underlying assumptions are entirely valid, sooner or later you’re going to make a mistake that someone who does that would not have made. And no, it doesn’t make you immensely faster or more effective to do so, because the cognitive abilities that you sacrifice to this rote memorisation exercise tends to contribute to an impairment of your ability to quickly and effectively conduct a complete analysis of the entire problem on the spot building all the information from nothing and making sure it is entirely valid and applicable at the exact time you’re doing it. Idiot savants, absent minded professors and general autistic tendencies are illustrative of exactly what I’m talking about.

We, especially as coders, but arguably as an entire species, are ideally, no longer purely biological entities when it comes to addressing problems. We have a wealth of experience to draw from, both personal and external with regards to what has worked in similar domains in the past. We do not need to remember every keyword and function call within an entire language by rote to be effective coders, we do not need to remember every object oriented design paradigm to be effective coders, and we absolutely, positively, do not need 100% reliable working c compilers embedded in our wetware in order to be effective coders, nor need to memorise the precise amount of blocks in an inode created by mke2fs on distribution x version y. But it can very much help toward the goal of being effective coders if we can quickly and accurately gain access to all of the prior information and an indefinite amount more as quickly and easily as possible.

And this, I believe, is the true role of expertise, understanding what the important variables are, and being able to quickly and reliably fill them in with all due respect to the specific domain of the problem in question. I will take someone that can do that over a person who has memorised less than a percent of what could reasonably be stored in a terabyte of space, on any modern software project. Compete in the sphere in which we excel, none of us will ever outmatch a hard disk in a memory contest, nor execute more instructions per second than a modern CPU.

Disclaimer; This is only my opinion, and I do fully admit that I could be wrong, maybe these things are in fact critical and I am in fact simply stupid and the world will keep turning without my ludicrous opinions, thank you very much. And with regards to the specific examples I gave, I have a ton of respect for both Steve Yegge and Google, despite my disagreeing with them on this particular issue, it is not my intent to point and laugh at all, merely to illustrate that some overall very clever people and organisations are behaving in some small way which under closer examination, are maybe not all that clever. The fact that Steve has started pushing the virtues of dynamic languages and google doesn’t insist everything be done in assembler gives me hope for the future.


Level 3 is driving while changing the radio and texting. I mean you shouldn’t do this :slight_smile: but the point is you know how to drive so well you don’t actively use your mind to do it.

I suspect you should watch Seven Pounds if you haven’t been exposed to a similar experience in your life…





Experts are, if anything, more suspect than the amateurs, because they’re less honest. You should question everything I write here, in the same way you question everything you’ve ever read online – or anywhere else for that matter.



@charles You remind me of the people in the 2004 campaign who were hysterical any time someone demonstrated an ability to change their mind.

How is that so? You’ve just make naked assertion. Trying to characterize me as some humdrum Christian Rightwinger doesn’t invalidate any of my statements. I said your original cynical view may be right but if it is then its silly to see that as a good thing.

Don’t play coy. You were jabbering about how great all these contradictions. That is not the same as having the capacity to change one’s mind. Being mentally aware and flexible and even capricious enough as to change one’s mind every day willy nilly at the drop of the hat is not the same thing as constantly contradicting one’s self for the sake of contradiction or to hold contradiction up as a standard we should allow aspire to. Don’t be ridiculous.


Some of us do watch The Daily Show, or NAMBLA, so get it. :wink:

This blog reminds me of a Cornell study a few years back that said in essense that incompetent people think they are highly competent while competent people think they are LESS competent than they actually are because they realize how much they don’t know.

I always think of this study when I see some expert on TV.

Article Brief:

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

Justin Kruger and David Dunning
Cornell University

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.


I enjoyed the satirical posting from Stephen above. Some of you may have taken it literally as the clues are very subtle, but I’m sure you will have spotted:

To date, my estimates have been within 10%, and not once has there been an underestimate

…this will delay the project, and my estimate is that it’s a 6 month delay. Two years later, it’s still not done, and my new estimate is 6 more months.

What a genius. I would like to quote from another great comedian at this point:

I don’t try to be good at this. It just comes out. I don’t expect anyone to listen. I don’t even listen.


It troubles me greatly to hear that people see me as an expert or an authority, and not a fellow amateur.

I don’t see amateur as being the opposite of expert. The opposite of amateur is professional, the opposite of expert is more like novice or layman. You can be an expert in a field you treat as a hobby.

Your own research and data should trump any claims you read from anyone, no matter how much of an authority or expert you, I, Google, or the general community at large may believe them to be.

The problem here is that your own research will almost certainly be worse than the genuine experts. This way leads to global warming deniers, anti-vaxers, and all sorts of psudo-scientific beliefs. After all what do experts know?

I think the problem in this post is that you are confusing the idea of expert from that of someone calling themselves an expert. There are many people claiming themselves expert, and many of them do so incorrectly, but that doesn’t mean you should assume that all experts are wrong.


How is that so? You’ve just make naked assertion yes I suppose I did. I’ll back it up now with primary evidence. Breton, does Charles remind you of hysterical political pundits?

oh wait, that’s me.
Yeah, I suppose he reminds me a bit of them. He’s certainly got the hysteria part down.

Trying to characterize me as some humdrum Christian Rightwinger doesn’t invalidate any of my statements.

You’re right, it doesn’t. How sharp of you to notice. But it doesn’t really have any relevance because it was logically meaningless atmosphere and value judgement on my part. Not a central premise to my argument. You can remind me of something, without it implying that you are exactly like that thing.

'I said your original cynical view may be right but if it is then its silly to see that as a good thing. ’

And I can’t help but wonder why it’s important that we hold our bloggers up to the standard of always presenting a self consistent view that really reflects exactly what the author thinks on a really shallow surface level. Myself, I enjoy the meta-theater. It’s more interesting than reading someone drone on about some new feature they found in sharepoint.

Don’t play coy. You were jabbering about how great all these contradictions. I’m sorry, are you missing an adjective, or a verb in there? I can’t make sense of this sentence. If you meant Don’t play coy. You were jabbering about how great all these contradictions are. Then I still can’t make sense of it, because I don’t remember either elaborately praising contradictions, or being coy about their usefulness, or interest. There’s a kind of intellectual dishonesty going on here, but I can’t quite put my finger on what, but it smells of straw.

That is not the same as having the capacity to change one’s mind.

No, but it might make someone else change theirs.

Being mentally aware and flexible and even capricious enough as to change one’s mind every day willy nilly at the drop of the hat is not the same thing as constantly contradicting one’s self for the sake of contradiction or to hold contradiction up as a standard we should allow aspire to. Don’t be ridiculous.

I can’t tell what you’re arguing for or against here, and none of it seems to resemble anything that I’ve written (aside from superficially containing a few of the same words). As a result, I can’t knowledgably agree or disagree with any of it. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and try again, sir.


Thank you, Jeff, for an inspiring post.

To summarize your point, if only to make sure I understood correctly:
Any ‘Expert’ that claims to be an expert and that therefore I need to accept his opinion, without justification, isn’t really a reliable expert source.

However, if I, on my own, recognize someone as an expert in a particular field, by their ability to ask the right questions and make correct suggestions, by past decisions that led to valid and expected results, then they can truly be considered an Expert.



I think a key observation is that the problem with experts is also a problem with subjects. I think it is only possible to be an expert in a subject with a very narrow scope. Experts are often not at all experts in teaching or communicating their expertize. Wikipedia, going after the subject everything seems to be keenly aware of the limitations of expertize.


A phrase with the word circle in it comes to mind

A lot of people need to get out more


This is a bit like the bible - it manages to contradict itself on a single page and in turn creates a beacon for enlightenment. Thanks Jeff.


Any post with Steve McQueen is automatically awesome.


Don’t trust anyone, even me, when I say not to trust anyone.

Ooooohhh paradox.


You say you’re an expert at not being an expert.

Wait… what?


@Breton, don’t be ridiculous. I’m not being hysterical. I’m sorry if logical arguments offend you. You’re whole tactic is condescending ad hominem. You’ve accused me of state that it is bad to change one’s mind; even likening me to some humdrum Christian Rightwingers. I’ve only criticized the view that contradiction for the sake of it has any positive value while you retort by saying you love the meta-theatre, which is little more than a vacuous, cliche, meta neologism Yet, you act as if I have not addressed anything you have said and ask me to count to ten. Can you not read what you’ve already written?