Who are the experts

picture of a library

These are certainly strange times we are living in. None of us will ever forget what’s happening and we will all retell stories for the rest of our days. Many of us asked “tell me about the depression grandma”, similar questions will be asked of us someday.

The whirlwind of confusion and chaos got me thinking about advice and who we listen to. Most of us know a staggering number of people who are apparently experts in immunology. I have no intention of talking about the politics of the current times, goodness knows nobody in their right mind should care what I think. What all this does have me pondering is what are experts and how can we decide who we should listen to?

So I’ve been thinking a lot about “experts” lately. Especially in the context of security. There have been a ton of expert opinions on how to work from home, and how to avoid getting scammed, which video conferencing software is the best (or worst). There are experts everywhere, but which ones should we listen to? I’m not an expert in anything, but there are some topics I know enough about to question some of these “experts”.

It seems like everyone has something to say about almost everything these days. It feels a bit like the market outside the train station. Whatever you need, someone is selling it, but you better buy it fast because everyone else also wants one!

I have a tweet from a few weeks ago when I really started to think about all this, I called it “distance to the work”

The basic idea is if someone is trying to post themselves as an expert on a topic, how close are actually to the topic. One of my favorite examples is when I see talks about DevSecOps. I’ve known people who have given DevSecOps talks that have never been developers or system administrators or worked in the field of security. In my mind you aren’t qualified to impart knowledge you don’t have. There are certain ideas they can grasp and understand, but part of being an expert at something is having done it, often for a long time. Would you let someone operate on you because they thought about the problem really hard and decided they are now a surgeon? Of course not!

So this brings to a place where we have to start deciding who we should be listening to. I like to break people up into a few groups in my mind when deciding if they should be listened to.

  1. Have they ever done actual work in this space?
  2. Do they have a history of doing work in this space, but aren’t currently?
  3. Are they doing work in this space now?

It’s not hard to see where I’m going with this. I think we all know people who fall into every group. It’s very related to my distance to the work idea. If someone has never done the work, I’m not going to consider them an expert. One the poster children for this is whenever someone titles themselves a “thought leader”. That’s usually double speak for “I have no idea what I’m doing but I have very nice clothes and speak very well”. For a number of these people, their primary skill is speaking well, so they can sound smart, but they can’t fool the real experts.

There are also groups of people who did a lot of work in a space long ago, but aren’t very active now. An easy example here would be the Apollo astronauts. Are these people experts on going to the moon? Yes. Are they experts on space? Yes. Would I trust them to help build a modern day rocket? Probably not.

There are plenty of parallels here in any industry. There are plenty of people who did amazing things a decade ago, but if you look at what they’ve done recently, a resume of “talking about the awesome thing I did a decade ago” doesn’t make them an expert on modern day problems. Look at what people are doing now, not what they did.

And lastly we have our group of people who are actual doing the work. These are the people who are making a real difference every day. Many of these people rarely talk about what they do, many don’t have time because they’re busy working. I find there are two challenges when trying to listen to the people doing the real work.

Firstly, they’re usually drown out by other making more noise. If your job is getting attention, your incentive is, well, getting attention. When your job is doing technical tasks, you’re not going to fight for attention. This means it’s up to us as the listener to decide who is full of gas and who can teach us new things. It’s a really hard problem.

The second problem is finding the people doing the work. They aren’t going to a lot of conferences. They’re usually not publishing blog articles 😎. You won’t find them on social media with millions of followers. A lot actively avoid attention for a variety of reasons. Some don’t have time, some got burnt and don’t want to stick their neck out, some just don’t want to talk to anyone else. The reason is unimportant, it is what it is.

I could end this one with some nonsense about getting outside your comfort zone and making more effort to encourage other to talk about what they’re doing, but I don’t want to. If people don’t want to give talks and write blogs, great, I’m tired of seeing an industry that bases success on how many conferences you attend each year. My suggestion this time is to just look around. You are working with people who are making a real difference. Find them. Talk to them (don’t be a pest). Go learn something new.

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