Don’t get me wrong – we NEED experts. When everybody on the team is at wit’s end, and the doohickey is still 90 degrees out of phase with the whatchamacallit, causing the franistan to reboot the microkernel and locking up the fritzerator just when it was about to recombobulate, we want to be able to call up the Mighty Casey, who can waltz into the lab, make some grumbling noises, poke around with his 1958 scope probes for a bit, type a few keystrokes, and then announce, “There ya go! Just a simple recalibration of your anhydrous lookup tables and it’s all hunky-dory.”
Yep, we all need that guy sometimes.
But there is a very real long-term downside to actually becoming that guy. It’s a natural tendency among engineers. We’re probably the most curious profession on the planet. When we dive into a topic, we want to understand everything – causes, effects, side effects, corner cases, the whole kit and caboodle. Developing such expertise takes years, even on what might seem like the narrowest of disciplines.
When our engineering team develops a product, the members of the team each become quite intimate with the down-deep details of the things we’re developing. Our work never stops, in fact. We’ll be lying in bed at 3AM, unable to go back to sleep because we still can’t quite figure out why that one thing is not behaving the way we intended. We disassemble and reassemble each part in our heads. We try to think of alternatives. We back up and look at the big picture, then we zoom in past the forest to the individual tree, and then to the grooves in the bark, and then the individual droplet of sap. We become the project. It occupies our hearts and minds and all of our waking hours.
Then, our product ships and we get to work developing the sequel. Everything we learned in the first agonizing project informs our thinking for version 2.0. We are smarter, more experienced, and more connected to the technology. We have evolved.
For many of us, we lather, rinse, and repeat that process for generation after generation of the same technology. We develop our own methods and skills, our own preferred arsenal of tools, and our own specialized way of thinking about this one particular thing.
Unwittingly, we become experts.
There is a saying about experts, that we gradually learn more and more about less and less until eventually we know everything about nothing. (Probably originally from Konrad Lorenz – referring to “scientists,” but – work with me here). While that is obviously taking the idea to an extreme, we do tend to double-down on diving deep into technology that, because of the crazy pace of Moore’s Law and other exponential progress curves, will ultimately become obsolete.
There is a subtle but very important difference between our general problem-solving skills and our technology-specific knowledge, and it is easy to lose sight of that difference. As we progress in our engineering careers, we tend to build both. We gather volumes of technology-specific knowledge in the arc of our careers, and, at the same time, we develop habits, techniques, experience, and insights that transcend any particular technology area.
In the engineers I’ve known and worked with, I’ve seen two types of career arcs. Some engineers bounce around through a diverse set of projects where things they’ve learned on one help inform the solution they find for the next. One year they’re working on a peripheral for PCs, and the next they’re working on a wearable IoT device. As time goes by, they start to find a rhythm in the diversity, and they develop “fast learner” abilities that allow them to quickly adapt and become useful at any new thing that comes along.
Other engineers, as described above, follow a long series of projects down a single thread. These are the folks at risk of falling into the “expert trap.” As they go deeper and deeper into a particular area of technology, they are pulled in by the satisfaction of becoming the leading expert in a topic. The respect and peer admiration are hard to ignore, and the ability to quickly and easily solve even the most difficult problems in your target area can be like a drug to the engineering psyche. Year after year, the temptation is to learn more and more about that technology. The company typically helps too, as the value, recognition, and compensation of an expert is usually higher than for a non-expert of similar experience.
Technology marches forward, however, and many experts don’t march with it. So much of their self-worth and self-image are tied up in their expertise on a particular subject that they can be blind or in denial when that subject gradually becomes less relevant. At some point, they find they are now experts in obsolete technology, and that is not a good place to be in a career. All too often, the realization comes too late, a job is eliminated, and future employment can be difficult to find. Somewhere out there, the leading authorities on typewriter key alignment, 8-track tape mechanisms, automotive carburetors, FORTRAN 66, card readers, and many other once-proud technologies are probably still alive. They may not still be gainfully employed.
Ego and pride can be big drivers in allowing one’s expertise to become obsolete. It’s easy to stay in denial when the fancy new thing comes along. “Hah! They’ll never get that stuff to work. Nossirree – the good ‘ol (insert your thing here) is still the only way to go!” We are confident and proud of our ability to get our solution to work. The new solution is an insurgent, and it’s easy to shrug off as a passing fad. To a seasoned expert, those sentiments seem rock solid… right up until the point where they are not. Then, when the inevitable happens, it’s easy to blame the company, the market, or the people who came up with the new thing.
The best defense against the expert trap is to nourish your breadth. Always be looking outside your area of expertise at the bigger picture and understand where your niche fits into the larger system. Know the market and technology trends that might eventually displace the thing you’re working on, and embrace them. Better to be the first expert on the new, emerging thing than the last one left behind waiting to turn out the lights on the old.