We Are What You Call Experts

OK, so France now has an experts board of digital something or other. Most companies I work with have hired, or will hire an expert to recommend stuff or audit stuff. And of course, even I get hired for expertizing stuff every now and again (go figure)…

As I stated before here and there, there’s something troubling about experts in what is perceived as my field. Experts in demolition or piloting, or botany, I get. These are highly specialized fields where it’s easy to spot an expert: they clearly know what they are talking about. You test them by asking them to do what they are experts of.

But in computer science, the field is so vast that it’s quite easy to pretend to be (or be mistaken as) an expert on one of the gazillions of subfields this domain has. Even family sometimes doesn’t get the fact that a coding or design expert isn’t the person best suited to repairing the printer…

Sometimes I feel like we are the doctors from the 1600s. We use jargon, we give off a vibe of tightly knitted hermetic community, and we wield an inordinate amount of power in regard to what we actually do, or know. Would you go to a vet to reattach your cut finger? Or go “hey come on, you have a medical degree, you can give me meds for my heart condition I think I have!” to a cousin who’s studying to be a chiropractor? (no offense to either of these fine specializations, it’s just to illustrate a point, I wouldn’t ask a heart surgeon to set a splinter either)

We live in a world of experts. Because of the high specialization of everything, you have to be certified, it’s harder and harder to switch fields, and the amateur sports are loosing spectators. But as soon as we are talking about computers, the expert status is somewhat murky. How many times do we freelancers have to “compete” with the second cousin of the daughter’s hairdresser, who’s “making websites”? Dude, I’m an app developer, I have a score of people I trust who can build an awesome website for you, why would I know anything about web technologies? I rely on… experts… for that… Can I dabble in it and commit an atrocity that would pass in poor light for something acceptable? Sure! Should I get paid for that? Hell no, there are people way better suited for that job. Could I? Probably.

Enough ranting, how can anyone rate somebody as an expert? In computer science, diplomas are not a sure way. Look at Mike, who’s clearly an expert, yet came from journalism. Portfolios are a good indicator, but only an expert can gauge the difficulty of the thing. Publications are yet another indicator (thank for reading this, by the way!), but with the Internet, the number of plagiarism cases is going through the roof.

“You are pretty bleak” I hear you think… But in all seriousness, I wouldn’t even know how to prove to you that I’m an expert. And by proving, I mean convincing you I know what I’m doing, without having to work for you for free to build something in an Internet-shielded room for a week. When all’s said and done, it’s just a matter of marketing myself. It helps that most people see computer science as some kind of magic, and are therefore highly susceptible to buzzwords and “hey I make loads of money in my work, that must mean I’m good, right?”. Wrong. Buzzwords are easy to acquire (read Plato’s Gorgias if you don’t believe me), and the money argument is a tautology and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So to all of you awesome developers and designers and computer geeks out there who are really and immensely competent, yet don’t have the respect and credibility they deserve, kudos! And I’m sorry. I fear it will be a long time before there’s an objective way, accepted by most people, to finally get how good you all are. It took medicine a couple of millennia to go from “having a diploma” to “having a somewhat clearer way of discerning experts from fakers”. Hopefully it won’t be that long this time around, but I can make no promises. I’m not an expert in such matters…


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