I don’t know if it’s an engineer thing or just me personally but I find I work best when I’m thrown into the deep end of something. I usually end up in this situation when someone asks me if something can be done and I can’t think of any reason why it can’t, and thus end up being the one developing the solution. More often than not this puts me far out of my current realm of knowledge so I end up doing extensive amounts of research in order to be able to achieve what I set about doing. I’ve come to call this process one of becoming a temporary expert as at either end of it I’m probably no more knowledgeable than anyone else on the subject, but for that brief period in the middle I’d definitely consider myself an expert.
Take for instance my on-again off-again hobby of photography. About 4 years ago I was planning a trip to New Zealand with my then girlfriend (and after the trip fiancée) and I thought I should get myself a decent camera for the trip. Before this though I hadn’t really done any kind of real photography but I knew the best kind of camera to get would be a digital SLR. The next month was filled with hundreds of online articles, reviews and guides from others who all had varying levels of opinions on what I should be buying. In the end, after digesting the massive amount of information I had shoved into my brain, I chose myself a Canon 400D and less than a week later I had it in my possession.
However as time went by I found myself no longer keeping up to speed on the various developments in the photography world. Sure the odd article or blog would cross my path but apart from buying another lens a couple months down the line my knowledge in this area began to fade, as would a foreign language once learnt but seldom used. Most of the fundamentals stuck with me however, but those extra bits of knowledge that made me feel like I knew something inside and out slipped away in the vast depths of my mind. It was probably for the best since photography is a rather expensive hobby anyway.
Most often I find myself going through this temporary expert process during the course of my everyday work, usually when I’m working in smaller IT departments. You see whilst bigger IT departments have the luxury of hiring many people with specific, specialist knowledge smaller areas have to make do with generalists who know a bit about everything. The most effective generalists are also quite adept at this temporary expert process, able to dive back into a technology they were once familiar with head first in order to become a specialist when they’re required. This process isn’t cheap however since the amount of time and effort required to attain the required level of expertise can be quite large, especially if they’ve never had any experience with the technology before.
I remember doing this quite extensively back when I was working for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. I had been hired on to revamp their virtualisation environment and a large part of that was working with their SAN. Whilst I had had experience in the past with their particular brand of SAN my last job hadn’t let me anywhere near any of their kit since they had a specialist who took care of it all. I spent the better part of a month diving through technical documents and resources to make sure what I was planning to do was feasible and would deliver as expected. The process worked and I was able to accomplish what they hired me for, unfortunately working myself out of a job. If you came to me today and asked me to accomplish the same thing I would probably have to do the same process all over again as my expertise in that field was only temporary.
I guess this rule applies to any skill you develop but fail to use over a long period of time. As someone who gets deeply interested in anything with even a slight technological bent I’ve found myself lost in countless topics over my lifetime, fully immersing myself in them for as long as my interest lasts. Then as my interest wanes so does my knowledge until the passion is rekindled again and the process starts anew.