a companion discussion area for blog.codinghorror.com

Are You An Expert?


Folks: I must agree w/ charles of 19-Feb. This blog post isn’t an argument against experts, frankly I’m not sure what it’s really about ! I will say I detect a certain wrong-headedness about the distinction between expertise and authority running in many comments. I was very recently promoted on my job, so I’ve thought about these issues quite a bit and here are a few observations.

Referring to the Towering Inferno/Steve McQueen example, the chief analyzes the situation by asking thoughtful questions, based on his experience in dealing w/ fires over decades. Subsequently, he commences to give orders to address the problem, as he has modelled it in his head. (Never saw the movie, so I don’t know things turn out.)

Jeff mentions the 1st part of the equation: the analysis, but fails to mention the 2nd, even more ctitical element: implementation of a solution. In a team, there may be several experts, but only one of them is a team leader and that leader is supposed to give orders, to solve the task at hand. One can only hope that the team leader is competant (ie. has adequate skills in the problem domain: fire-fighting, programming, whatever) and knows how to achieve objectives through the efforts of others (ie. is a good supervisor/manager.) The team leader needn’t be the best practictioner on the team, as long as he/she has firm control over his/her ego, so that the leader chooses the right person for the right job. Team members must also have a tight grip over their own egos, as an individual must accept that the leader need not be the best practictioner on the team, as long as the team’s goals are achieved in a more-or-less timely and economical fashion. Unfortunately, we’ve all been victims of the ‘Peter Principle’, individuals who’ve been promoted past their level of competance, so we sometimes resist being team leaders/supervisors/managers and resist calling ourselves expert (ie. we resist being authority figures, possibly to avoid becoming the assholes we’ve come to loathe.)

Wikipedia is a nice idea and I use the facility regularly, but it isn’t and never will be an authoritative resource, as long as Jimmy Wales has his way. He wants to create a comprehensive reference work by way of some utopian, democratic process, hence the so-called ‘anti-expert bias’. He will fail, bec one must have referees (ie. editors) who will, in fact, end debates by saying: ‘Because I said so !’. Someone must make important decisions when disputes arise and the democratic model isn’t a viable tool for making management decisions. The publisher (Wales) chooses and validates his executive editor and assistant editors, who in turn, choose and validate their expert researchers. One might use the democratic process, to choose among expert researchers, the individual who will be the overall editor of an interest area. (However that might give an unfair advantage to the more politically adept in the group. C’est la vie.) But, it’s ludicrous to suggest that anyone from anywhere should be permitted to decide the content of a particular article w/o knowing anything about their qualifications or (possibly more important) their motives.

Expert and authority aren’t ‘dirty’ words. Responsible experts help to impart to neophytes the best practices for their chosen profession. Capable leaders achieve complex objectives (in a timely and econmical fashion) from the indivduals under their influence. However, if you want good experts/leaders/managers, you have to step up when the opportunities present themselves and be the role model of what a competant expert or leader is supposed to be.


‘Beware of experts’ was a message Nicholas Nassim Taleb covers in The Black Swan - something that resonated with me as I (along with many other developers I have worked with) am maligned with an inability to take anything at face-value. Suspicion of conventional wisdom and fads is a must to be an effective developer.


According to psychological studies, it takes 10 years to master a skill to a level where you can call yourself and expert and this is only achieved by pure empirical experience, theory is just a non mandatory guide (you can generate theory out from experience, not the other way around).

But in the other hand, the Expert Rank is something that can be artificially created/inflated (Read Tim Ferris’s The 4 Hour Work Week tips to become someone called and expert). For so… It is a term that I religiously avoid using on me or on any one else, Instead we use Old Sea Wolf, Daredevil, Veteran, Twisted fang wolf… they sound cooler and they also denote pure experience not credentials.


You can find more information on my previously psychological claim here: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-expert-mind.

After all Im not an expert in psychology =)


Alas, Steve McQueen setup his forward command on 79, actual recent experience shows that he and his whole team are now dead. So much for the post-modern expert.


I saw Towering Inferno as a kid. I wanted to be firefighter for years after seeing that movie (mostly because of McQueen’s character). I ended up being a programmer reading a blog post about coding that referenced McQueen’s performance.

Where have I gone wrong? :wink:


I think this story is fitting.

Feynmanís Paint Story
from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!


Funny that you claim experts are the one who ask questions and you run a site where they actually answer them (or so we hope) :stuck_out_tongue:


Jeff Atwood - realy expert! :wink:



The best experts give advice not by handing down edicts but by forcing you to ask great questions of yourself and intelligently challenging your decisions and assumptions.

A story, analysis, and specific examples:


What experts do have – even with changing times – is a brainfull of experiences. They’ve seen and thought about and read about a certain subject for thousands of hours.

Does this mean they have all the answers? No. Does this mean they can apply it properly to your specific situation? Not necessarily.

But they can ask really good questions. They can make you second-guess yourself until you’re really sure about what you believe and why you’re doing something.

They can also help you avoid the obvious traps. Yes, success sometimes comes by embracing or ignoring the obvious traps, but often they’re just traps.


Let us not forget that the word amateur comes from the Latin word for love, like amore. Thus an amateur is someone who does what he or she does out of love and passion. I hate how the word has come to mean ‘not professional’.


I have been over competence for a few years now. So many that I automatically doubt myself before I doubt others. Thankfully my team isn’t all that pushy so no one takes advantage of that.



There is little wrong in having an ego about things. It might actually help you have pride in your work! That does not mean you cannot see how poor it still is.