Coding, is? Fun!

Monday, June 02, 2008

To be known as an expert

I have been working in the IT services industry for the last decade. You could say I have come up the ladder a few rungs. Time for some introspection.
My job leads me to interact with clients closely.
In our business there is a need to impress clients. Clients have to believe they are interacting with an expert and competent person. Ideally, for a person like me, that means that I should be an expert in my subject matter (instead of making them believe that I am an expert).

There are several problems with being an expert - or, more precisely, acheiving expertise.

The Major issue is this: My job may not REQUIRE me to be an expert. Typically all that an organization needs is an illusion of expertise. It is possible for a moderately smart person to communicate well and project an aura of expertise. It is strictly possible that this is what a services vendor requires.
In fact, this is what most medium-sized services companies can aim for. Given a new subject matter (such as Social networking) that you are trying to gain access to, it is near impossible to find a person sitting in the wings to take control of the project. So, you end up having a pool of talented talkers who can project expertise. Over time, after you have completed a couple of projects in a domain, you can hope for some real expertise - if the person has not been moved on to something else.
The other option is for a services company to cater to a niche market such as Rich Internet Applications (RIA). If you did, you are close to what is happening "out there" and you can truly build on past expertise.
Of these two options, most outsourced vendors would go for the first option - in which they offer a broad range of services in different domains (and make it up as they go).
So, if you work for the normal vendor doing business in India, your job may require you to be a fast talker with little time (or need) to develop true expertise.

So, sometimes, I stand upon the threshold of a new and exciting technology and wonder - is it worth it to delve deep into it?

The fantastic vision of a true expert is very attractive - but not well defined. If I am a Sharepoint expert, by my own standards, I need to be able to do the range from:
- creating a workflow for approving and publishing infopath forms
- setting up enterprise search edition in a production environment with optimized indexing and storage.

Thus, expertise consists of conceptual ideas of architecture; it consists of a knowledge of practical thumb rules and quirks in implementation; but more than anything, it consists of actual experience.
The problem is an incomplete conceptual idea and a set of practical guidance CAN be obtained from Googling a subject or reading up a manual. Too often, that is mistaken for expertise. In fact, too often, that is passed off as expertise.
I do not think a person can claim to be an expert in a certain technological area unless they have actually gone through three or four different implementations and projects. Experience Matters!

One year back, I was walking along a corridor at work, when a senior manager called me aside and said that some developers needed assistance with a product called Drupal. I had heard of Drupal but that was it. But I was in a comfortable situation because the clients would never be exposed to me. I just had to work in the background.
I installed Drupal that day and over a period of two weeks could create two modules using PHP (a platform then unknown to me). In the process I learnt about MySql and InnoDb and Apache Virtual Hosts and Drupal hooks. I worked 16 hours a day and enjoyed every minute of it.
Soon, I found that other projects were using Drupal and tried to get together for best practices. I could perform Drupal code reviews and in general learn the way of Open Source in a few short months.
Am I an expert in Drupal? I don't think so - I could see myself becoming one if I worked on more projects and deployments. But the key factor that gained me entry was the fact that I was isolated from the clients during the initial period.

Now, let me highlight the problem - if you are a senior technologist in a services vendor, you WILL be put in front of clients as an expert. That is the best approach for the vendor in a scarce talent pool. But that is of course the perfectly wrong way to gain expertise - sitting with clients under pressure to prove yourself. This is the basic problem for concerned technologists.

I have thought about this and understood that the service vendors have little choice in this matter. They face stiff competition and everyone out there is doing the same thing. We can either have the business or lose it.
Also, mostly, the basic definition of expertise differs between the sales person or business manager and the technologist.
What do we do?



  • Unlike you, I am new to service industry. Recently, a person working in the Indian IT service industry introduced himself as a tech enthusiast. In the span of 10 minutes of so of our introduction, I was subjected to a gibberish of tech jargons half of which did not make any sense to me.

    The person went on to say, "I have worked on this, worked on that, latest technology, cutting edge platform" etc. I was truly surprised with the breadth and wowed how one could have exposure to so many platforms in period of 10 or so years. Almost every tech acronym was dished out in succession.

    Contrastingly, I come up product background, where you "own" (get stuck is the preferred word) the platform and the technology for years together.

    While the motive of IT vendors is expected, personally, there ought to be a fine line between the breadth and the depth factor.

    Blessed are those who find that balance!!

    By Blogger Narendran Thillaisthanam, at 8:17 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home