by Esther Schindler

Absolutely the Expert

Jan 10, 20072 mins
IT Leadership

Judging expertise is never easy, particularly when the “expert” is a hired gun you brought in to solve a technical problem because you lack the knowledge yourself. But I think I’ve found a way to weed the wheat from the chaff—in a single word.

A hallmark of true expertise is humility. Think of any major innovator in your field, the people whom you truly admire. Most of them will say they were “lucky.” Certainly, if you asked the Wizard a technical question to which they didn’t know the answer, she’d say, “I don’t know”—and then she would hurry to find out. (A tenacious curiosity seems to be another common attribute of the most successful people, particularly in techie circles.)

Yet, I’ve found, the people who still have much to learn have an undeserved confidence in their own abilities. Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” The easiest way to flush a pseudo-expert from the bushes, I’ve discovered, is their use of the word absolutely.

Recently, I saw a protoExpert insist that “… there is absolutely no misconfiguration on the server …” when he didn’t know the correct IP for the mail server. Not long back, I read correspondence from a software developer who claimed (with utter seriousness) that his code “absolutely” had no bugs, and thus the problem the company had with his app was clearly someone else’s error. Not only do they have an arrogant certainty (which may appear as self-confidence), but novices are always sure that it’s someone else’s fault.

Yet, your most senior people rarely use the word “absolutely” when they encounter a problem. They might say they think it’s unlikely or unexpected, but that viewpoint doesn’t become a barrier to problem determination. After all, if you’re certain your code has no bugs, then you sure aren’t going to do a good job at looking for them.

The next time that one of your techies says something is “absolutely” the case, I suggest that you reply, “Yeah? Prove it.” I dare say it will be an instructive exercise.