My Expertise

When I was one I had just begun
When I was two I was nearly new

When I was three I was hardly me
When I was four I was not much more

When I was five I was just alive
But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever;

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

 — A. A. Milne[1]

I’m fast approaching six years as a professional software engineer.  A quick back of the envelope calculation suggests that this means I’ve worked 11,820 hours, and have been becoming a software engineer for four years prior — back at the start of 2004 was when I first started university.  According to Malcolm Gladwell’s definition I should be an expert by now.

But am I?  I like to think of myself as better-than-average, but I’ve yet to even attain a ‘Senior’ decorator in my job title.  Somehow that doesn’t gel – better than average and not a Senior with more than five years’ experience?  Would having such a title make me somehow magically better at my job? Categorically not.  But expert?  That seems like such a lofty title.

Those of you who know me well will know that I’ve actually had an incredibly varied career in such a short space of time.  It’s not that I have a short attention span or no ability to stick with a project (and it certainly isn’t because I’ve been shuffled around like the unwanted vegetables on a child’s plate), but I have a policy of grabbing every opportunity I can, even if it only half-interests me, because you never know where it will lead.  And wow, has that policy led me places.  Of course, I’m getting a little side-tracked, but I’ll come back and show you where I was going with that.

Firstly, we really should agree on what is meant by expert.  I refuse to trot out a dictionary definition as though I were a High School Student using such a device for, well, for lack of a better word, effect.  To me, an expert is someone who is as close to infallible as any human can be in a particular field.  Someone you can go to and if they don’t know the answer out of hand, then they’re certainly able to go and find it.  But that flies directly into the face of most of what we readily accept about Software Engineering.  Software is a constant battle to reduce the horrendous amount of complexity thrown at us, and the need to deliver value to our customers in a timely manner.

So given the amount of energy we expend just trying to keep a lid on the amount of complexity we face, how can any non-superhuman claim to even approach being an expert of such a field in the comparatively short period of just ten years?

Well, when I read a little further down than just the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on expertise, one of the things that really struck out at me was the notion of an expert having good intuition.  I found it striking, because I wrote a post a while back, trying to tackle that subject[2].  I likened it to something we all have, because I was certain that the intuition I feel and attempt to foster is something all Software Professionals share.  I am starting to worry that it’s not.

The stirring in my waters when a design is going off course has certainly gotten stronger of late and I’ve seen first hand when those messages don’t connect.  They still misfire, I am still human, after all.

The thing is, I’ve never felt less like an expert in my entire journey.  I frequently discover that some of the things I pick up are over my head to go it alone.  I know that left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be able to complete the current application our Team is working on.  I would certainly produce something and given enough time I might be able to make it work, but I’m fairly sure that many compromises would result.  Well, many more compromises.

Which leaves me where?  I’m still of the opinion that we’re all under-evolved monkeys when it comes to Software Engineering as we haven’t begun to effectively manage the sheer complexity (and the increase of such) of the problems we create for ourselves.  One of the best things we can hope for, is that we can recognise our own shortcomings, to have surrounded ourselves with those who can help and the wisdom to know when it’s appropriate to forge ahead and learn or the good grace to ask for help.  And the serenity to accept those whom we can’t change…

[1] For those of you who are troubled by the copyright legalities of reproducing A. A. Milne’s work in full, in New Zealand, from which I am posting this, it is totally lawful. The law here for literary works is life + 50 years. A. A. Milne died in 1956.

[2] I fumbled it and I’m not totally happy with it, which is why I’m not linking to it directly

About Michael Malone
30-something web dev, self-confessed Linux lover, Ruby enthusiast, and obsessed with programming. Former embedded C and desktop .NET developer.

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