Thursday, August 10, 2017

Expertise is an illusion; A motivational essay about how you don’t know crap.

Many years ago, when I started at Microsoft in the ramp up to support Windows Millennium, they asked us “on a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you know windows?” My answer was 7-8. I reasoned that “5” must be the average and i knew way more than that; and since Microsoft hired me to support this amazing revolutionary new Windows, i must know *way more than that*. Everyone else rated themselves as 2-3 and the instructor chastised me for giving myself such a high score. “You see,” he explained, “the developer who worked on the exit button can explain everything about that button: the down click, the up click, every API it uses and all the implications of using it. But they probably can't tell you a single thing about the button next to it.”

Expertise *is* an illusion just like any technology sufficiently advanced enough is magic. No-one can know everything out of hand, but they can be pretty good at many things. More importantly they can learn and socialize. I’ve frequently told people whom I’ve helped so quickly that “i’m just a couple pages further in the manual than they are.”

How you attack issues and problems matter. Consistent strategies and knowing when it is the right time to stop the self research and call in the big dogs is important. (the big dogs being escalation in your org, mentors, coworkers, your vendors, manufacturers support or sacrificing goats). I know I’ve spent hours and hours exploring and trying to teach myself new things simply because there was a small issue. All that time wasn’t completely wasted, but small issues usually have simple solutions so those hours could have been avoided by asking around or calling support.     Of course i can tell you that learning the things I did paid off in other ways and sometimes I have called in support only for the answer to be worthless or so slow coming that I should have just worked it on my own.

So what is the best if expertise isn’t?

Fundamentals; solid understanding of core concepts and technology behind them. 
In collaboration I see these:
  • Fundamentals of networks - what the OSI is and Isn’t, how to packet capture and recognize parts of it
  • Fundamentals of communications protocols: SIP messaging (and to some extent h323), the common codecs involved (like 264, 265, g711 etc)
  • Explain what modular architecture is - that everywhere different components have to work together but those components are often changeable. Be able to understand and map these components
  • How audio video and all those physical layer components work - audio feedback, hdcp on hdmi, what is avc vs svc
  • Security practises - (this should be core to every IT job) - good security practises (service accounts and unique passwords, social engineering, certificates and etc

If you have these fundamentals then you have a core that can be worked with… but what about the intangibles:
  • Research - how well do you google and how well can you find documentation?
  • Retention - can you recall things you researched later even if it didn't help or did you just forget it because it wasn't important (why get deep in research if you don't retain it)
  • Communication - nobody ever tells you what the problem is; they just tell you the symptoms they experienced. Of that “It's broken” you also have to be able to talk to “non-technical” people, talk to other teams and talk to higher pay grades. Can you identify who is important (an admin is usually the most important contact you have)
  • Documentation - look, this is the ugly part of the job and i’ve blogged about it already read here
  • Knowing when to quit - will you call for help because you can't know everything? When?

We can build things in labs and classes a dozen times. 
We can deploy and migrate a hundred systems. 
None of that makes you an expert, does it? 
                  It just shows you've been doing your job.

But it’s ok to be an expert.

Ok, so I’ve used eight hundred words debunking the idea of an expert and I should probably rebuild it. 
If sufficiently advanced technology is magic, then someone who knows more is reasonably an expert. Or a wizard. At least from your perspective, for the question at hand and in the time needed. And the same is true for everyone coming to you. 


So be the expert they deserve! Help them solve the problem, learn a little so you both can move on better for the experience. They might be a new hire in a grunt position, the CEO, or someone outside; they came to you and you represent something so you might as well be an “expert” for them. 
Then later on you get to be just pretty good at something again ;)

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