What is the Role of Credentials in Defining an Expert?

by Blake Reichenbach on April 24, 2019
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According to my title at my day job, I'm an expert. Somehow, armed with an English degree and unyielding desire to learn new things, I've become a bonafide expert at a tech company. In an oversimplified explanation, it means that when things break I either fix it or send it to someone who can. The slightly more in-depth answer is that I spend far too much time looking at things like HTML and CSS or reading and interpreting JSON data and Console logs.

To be honest, it wasn't that long ago that I would have had just as much success reading ancient Sumerian cuneiform as I would have had reading JSON.

During undergrad, I worked on the university's newspaper as the Features Editor, and every week we put together the paper using Adobe InDesign. I hated InDesign. Getting that program to do what I wanted was one of the most stressful parts of my week. I often found myself caressing the computer and pleading with it to just let me put together the features pages so that I could go home and get some rest and a hot meal. If you would have tapped me on the shoulder during one of those sleep-deprived InDesign endeavors and told me that I was going to be working in tech for the foreseeable future, I probably would have burst into tears; at that point in time, I don't think I would have seen having to work in tech as anything other than God punishing me. Computers were my personal hell when they had to be used for something other than writing papers, downloading articles for my various research projects, or checking Facebook and making cringe-worthy posts.

As a byproduct of this, if you look at the degrees that I have hanging over one of my desks in my home office, you'd probably assume that I was a full-time freelance writer or work-from-home ESL tutor. You'd see my BA in English from Bellarmine University, my certificate in Critical Reading and Shakespearean Adaptations from the University of Oxford, and my Faculty Award for English recognition plaque (all handing next to a very full bookshelf, I should add) and your mind would certainly not drift toward the possibility of me being a Content Product Group Product Expert for CMS Insights, Setup, and Publishing.

If someone gave you a hint and said that I work for a tech company, you'd probably struggle to figure out what role I was in– most likely someone's executive assistant or a blogger or something else that didn't require much of a technical pedigree.

The thing is, I don't have a technical pedigree. Not in the slightest. So if my title is not from my education, then it must be from my experience, right?

Well, I'd have to say no. I've worked for my current employer for just about one and a half years in what I would consider a low-tech role. Up until this point, I've been working in frontline customer support. The majority of the time, the questions that I answered and the problems I addressed in that role didn't require any in-depth technical analysis. I could look at how the product worked or read our documentation and explain, "If you want to do ABC, you need to XYZ." Or, when I wasn't sure what XYZ looked like, I could always ask someone more technically inclined than I was to fill in those gaps and get the right information to my customers.

I certainly have learned a ton in the last year and a half in that role, but I would also say that my technical skills are novice– perhaps intermediate– at best due to experience. There's a lot that I've taught myself how to do, but I haven't been in the trenches long enough to feel like a native in the technical landscape. I still see tons of comments from developers or hear conversations from people in my same position that totally make my eyes glaze over– a trickle of drool may even build at the corner of my mouth.

Yet, in spite of my lack of formal education or tenure in my field, I'm still an expert. And while I'm wildly biased in favor of myself, I'd argue that I'm a pretty good expert at that.

A Third Type of Expertise?

In general, we regard someone as being an Expert in their field when they are (a) highly educated in it, (b) deeply experienced in it, or, as is often the case, (c) both highly educated and deeply experienced.

When someone has more degrees than a thermometer or knows their field inside-out from hands-on experience, it's hard to deny their expertise. They are experts because they've earned the title of expert. They've put in the time to get where they are.

So, how can someone like me who is lacking in both of the typical manifestations of expertise deservedly wear the mantle of expert?

There are two components that I've unearthed so far:

  1. The ability to disregard imposter syndrome
  2. An unyielding eagerness to learn, improve, and help

Giving Imposter Syndrome the Middle Finger

We've all encountered imposter syndrome at some point. It's that gnawing feeling in your stomach that tells you that you don't belong– you're not something enough to be where you are or do what you're doing, that you're undeserving of your position, successes, or experiences.

Imposter syndrome lurks everywhere. For me, a common experience of it is at the gym. I'm a relatively fit guy, but there are times when I want to do an exercise that I see others doing because I know it will help me get stronger and improve in the ways I want to improve, but I don't do it because I convince myself that I'm not ready or not fit enough yet to even give it a try. Ultimately, I undermine my progress by convincing myself that I'm not ready to do the activities that I need to do to continue making progress.

In the workplace, imposter syndrome is just as– if not more– vicious. We settle for lower salaries than we deserve or don't leap at promotion opportunities because we feel like we're not ready or we're undeserving of them. Rather than focusing on all the ways that we drive meaningful impact, we focus on the few skills we lack or just haven't fully developed yet and use those as reasons to not elevate ourselves.

As a naturally anxious person and someone who has always been a people pleaser, imposter syndrome has been the nemesis of my professional life. I have such a strong tendency to try to be as humble as possible and to always put my own priorities second to everyone else's. In fact, I almost didn't apply to become an expert because I felt that there just had to be someone more deserving and better prepared than me, and I was more comfortable letting this semi-fictitious person in my mind have the job than I was to raise my hand and say, "hey, what about me? I've been working hard and could do a good job here."

Luckily, the person in the position before me pushed me and pushed me (and pushed me some more) to just apply for it that I got over that speed bump. Obviously, my "just apply and see what happens" approach worked out in the end, and it has been an eye-opener to see what can happen when you give imposter syndrome the middle finger.

The method for bucking off imposter syndrome that I've found to be most effective (aside from raw peer pressure), is to reframe how we think about our shortcomings. Rather than seeing skills that we lack as reasons that we are frauds or undeserving, we can reframe them as learning opportunities.

I don't know Python, so I can't be a Product Expert is a very different thought from I don't know Python yet, but I can learn it as a Product Expert.

I'm not strong enough to do that exercise so I should call it a day is a very different thought from I will eventually be able to do that exercise if I focus on strengthening those muscles today.

I'm not as smart as her, so I shouldn't pursue the promotion is a very different thought from We both have our own individual strengths and talents, and I'll never know if this job is a good fit for me if I don't pursue it.

When you learn to detect imposter syndrome and flip it on its head, you open yourself up to growth rather than shy away from it. That then leads into the second aspect of this third type of expertise.

Being Hungry for Growth

Denis Waitley is quoted as saying, "Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View life as a continuous learning experience," and it has become one of my favorite quotes, especially as I think more and more about what it means to be an expert.

In my own journey, and in this alternative method of being an expert, I see this as the crux of it all: it's better to pursue expertise than it is to get comfortable as an expert.

After you've found it in you to proclaim that you are worthy and deserving of the opportunities that are available to you, learning to lean into those opportunities as vehicles for learning and growing is the key to solidifying yourself as an expert.

I may not have the technical knowledge or experience to solve every issue that comes my way, but I have the tenacity to research the hell out of it and the communication skills to explain to a developer what's going wrong and what I suspect the cause may be. Each time I do this, I'm learning, and it's not likely that I'll ask the same question twice.

Just like an expert with pedigrees or experience, people can come to me with questions and trust that I can give them the answer they need, and that's what makes me an expert too. The path may be different, but the end result is the same.

None of this should discredit the value of experts in the traditional sense. If someone has the practical or learned knowledge that grants them mastery in their field, they're going to be able to provide insights and solutions that someone without their experience won't be able to, so I definitely don't want to discredit the hard work that got them to where they are or the value that they can bring to their organizations and networks. Rather, I think that on an individual level, we can learn to position ourselves as experts and leverage the pursuit of expertise in more ways than we often recognize at first.