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.
I’ve always had a healthy amount of respect for anyone who’s dedicated a significant part of their life to becoming well versed in some area of knowledge. From things like the intricacies of woodworking to the complex mathematical modelling of 2 black holes meeting each other¹ there’s something to be said for following something to the point that few ever attempt to do. I’d like to think I’m pretty well versed in the world of IT and general technological matters and few would disagree. What’s been getting my goad up lately however is those who think along the same lines yet are completely clueless about the things they believe they are the experts in.
Now this particular gripe stems from a specific scenario so you’ll have to stick with me here. Currently I’m in charge of moving a whole bunch of systems (current count is 73, it used to be 150) from the old network to the new network. On the outside it looks pretty simple as I’m just changing the address of the system and maybe its physical location, nothing more. The service these systems provide will not be changed in the slightest, save for it appearing on another address. The technically inclined amongst us would be thinking “No worries, DNS (the thing that takes human readable names and turns them into machine readable names and vice versa) should take care of most of your issues” and you’d be right, it should. However there are always hard coded references to certain things and some software vendors think it’s a great idea to tie the licensing to the IP address. So in the course of moving the 77 odd systems I’ve managed to break a couple things along the way, but the trouble began long before things started breaking.
You see I’m not the one who developed, implemented or even (for the most part) supported any of these systems. Naturally I sought out the experts for these systems because I’d rather not break something if I have a chance to avoid it. Unfortunately it seems that many of the so called “experts” were far from it, falling into one of two very distinct categories:
Thinking about this idea this morning I came to conclusion that it was in fact our education system that was to blame for these people. You see much of the core curriculum is based around rote memorization and regurgitation. Very little is dedicated to developing critical thinking and fact checking, meaning that for the most part people are trained to operate in a very set way. That means that when thrust into the workplace people who have a high level of memorization for certain things are usually held up as experts which, to a point, they are. However the problem comes in when the unexpected occurs which, unfortunately, falls to me when its related to IT.
There’s also that nasty social aspect that comes into play. When you’re considered an expert on something you don’t want to admit you don’t know something about it. You can usually pick up on this though as the answers to tough questions (like “is this license tied to IP?”) are met with vague answers peppered with shoulds, coulds and I think so’s. Usually a scapegoat won’t pretend to know something they don’t (since they’ve got nothing to lose usually) and it’s precisely why I labelled the second type the dangerous idiot. Their answers could very well lead to everything falling in a crying heap.
I’d love to say that this problem was confined to the public sector as well but unfortunately its not. Many of my friends who’ve worked in some of the smaller IT consulting shops have told me they’ve been forced into the role of the dangerous idiot because their company has marketed them as such. Granted I’d trust them more than I’d trust any other dangerous idiot but the fact remains that they were trotted out as an expert in things they may have never touched before. The private sector isn’t immune to legacy systems either and with them comes many of those not-so-expert experts.
Maybe I just have a low tolerance for this sort of thing thanks to the not-so-closet skeptic that’s been cultivating in me for the past year, but it doesn’t seem to be an isolated phenomenon. I guess the only thing I can take away from this is that I shouldn’t trust any expert wholly and make sure that I’ve done enough CYA work to ensure that should everything blow up in my face the blame is squarely levelled at the experts. Still it won’t stop me from bitching about it every so often, nor using other people’s idiocies as blog fodder 😉
¹I actually studied under Bartnik for a semester. It was both awe inspiring and completely confusing, I did however learn a heck of a lot.
Is there something that you’ve always believed, whether it was something told to you as a child or a fact you just “know”, that despite evidence to the contrary you can’t for the life of you change? As a man of science I’m always researching many topics that I usually start out with little to no idea about, so my opinions generally follow the scientific community’s general consensus. However for a very long time I’ve had this uneasy feeling about climate change. Now I can’t remember when I formed the opinion but every time I see evidence about the subject (and even if you ask me, I’ll say that we humans are responsible for the majority of the drastic change in climate over the past century) I get this uneasy feeling that the scientific community is wrong somehow. Try as I might to educate myself on the matter, reading article after article and journal after journal, something in my head tells me that they’ve got it wrong. It’s like I have a climate change denier constantly whispering in my ear.
I’ve found this with a lot of other things too. Usually it stems from an insignificant fact that I might have learned many years ago and never got around to questioning or doing some research on. One of the biggest sources of these sorts of ideas is the media, who will usually report something without doing the proper fact checking. It is rare that a media outlet will publish a clarification when they’ve got something wrong and when they do it is often given a fraction of the time that the original was given. I think this is probably one of the biggest sources of frustration for the sceptic movement, since a lot of their time is dedicated towards fighting this unquestioned ideas.
Another more prevalent example is an expert in one field giving advice in another. We see this a lot when celebrities start giving out advice about things like government policy when in fact they’re no more qualified to speak on the subject than your average Joe on the street. I must admit that I fall victim to this to as people will come to me for advice on many different subjects and whilst I try to make sure they know I’m not the best person to talk to I’m sure a few of them took what I said as fact. I see it happening a lot in corporate environments with large projects being hinged on advice from a single person. It is all too easy for this kind of thing to happen, since everyone will go along with the expert they can all also point the finger at them when it doesn’t work out the way it should.
It’s a very introspective thing to question every little thing that might pass through your head but for someone like myself it has become an automatic ritual. If I think of something that I can’t explain how and why I “knew” that I’ll make sure I look into it. I can get into a bit of a loop when this happens though, since there’s a lot of things that I just know without any explanation.
I remember an experiment that a first year psychology student described to me where they found these subconscious biases during a lecture. I can’t for the life of me find it but I’d love to see if anyone has a link to the methodology or even a video of it being done. Either leave a comment or drop me a line at [email protected]