The Myth Of The Absolute Expert

No Gravatar

This article is for non-IT people. Every organization’s IT shop seems to have that one person whom everyone within the company says knows everything. This person is the “absolute expert” that can answer any question about any technology and solve any problem. When it comes time to expand the IT staff and hire a new person the idea is that the organization will just hire another absolute expert like the one they already have.

The problem is that this absolute expert is usually just a very talented IT person who has an exaggerated reputation amongst the non-IT people (and the IT person probably never actually wanted that reputation to begin with). My personal experience is that these absolute experts fall into one of three categories:

  1. The Bookworm – Someone who does not actually know the answers when first asked, but knows how to do research in order to find the answer.
  2. The One-trick Pony – Someone who knows how to do a few things very well, and somehow contorts every problem into something that can be solved by that person’s narrow skillset and personal comfort zone.
  3. The Networker – Someone with a large personal network of specialized experts to reach out to for the answers.

Here is a breakdown of what you need to know to identify and work with each of these different IT personality types, and why you cannot allow your admiration for their abilities to blind you from the fact that there is no such thing as an IT person who knows everything. In fact, you need to identify what kind of IT type you currently have on the staff so that you can hire a different personality type in order to grow your organization and keep IT moving forward.

The Bookworm

The bookworm takes pride in being able to find the answers to difficult questions. The bookworm does not rely on what others have told him or her, but instead relies on the documentation to verify exactly what a product can or cannot do. The pros of working with a bookworm is that he or she does not make assumptions and can back up a claim with documented proof. The cons is that a bookworm needs time to do all of that research, and often a bookworm can fall into a rabbit hole of research where the answers just keep leading to more questions.

You can easily burnout a bookworm with multiple projects and requests. The bookworm is all about quality, and that means that the bookworm wants to eliminate any unknowns from a project. If your organization has the time and the need for this sort of in-depth analysis a bookworm is a great asset for your IT team to have. If your shop is all about having things be “just good enough” you are going to drive the bookworm crazy. Bookworms need privacy to lose themselves in their research, so they do not do well in situations where they are not insulated from user requests. Bookworms are not frontline helpdesk people, but they excel as administrators dedicated to project work.

The One-trick Pony

Do you know the saying that if all you have is a hammer that all of you problems start looking like nails? Well, the one-trick pony uses the same hammer to tighten every screw with. The one-trick pony is someone who knows a very narrow set of technologies, but he or she knows their stuff and is certainly an expert for that narrow set of technologies. The problem is that the one-trick pony does not believe, or perhaps is scared to admit, that there are multiple ways to solve the same problem. Even standards used by the IT industry have to be filtered through the one-trick pony’s filter of choice. If your one-trick pony is a UNIX guru, well a DNS server running on anything other than UNIX is unacceptable or cannot be done according to that one-trick pony. Pay no attention to those Microsoft DNS servers behind the curtain!

One-trick ponies are great to have around if your organization has a long term need for a particular technology that the one-trick pony knows. There is nothing wrong with having a one-trick pony in your IT shop to manage your massive Microsoft SQL infrastructure that will not be going away anytime soon, but if you are about to build a new solution from the ground up keep the one-trick pony on the bench until you have decided upon the solution to be used. One-trick ponies tend to be zealots, and will see a project through from start to finish without a lot of supervision. Yet technology zealots also do not play well with others, so unlike the bookworm whom you isolate from others in order to benefit the bookworm you will instead need to isolate others from the one-trick pony who will demand that everyone play by his or her rules even when it does not make sense to do so. Get the one-trick pony’s input, but keep them out of the actual decision making process.

One-trick ponies are actually wonderful assets to have in the role of a specialized consultant. They just need strong leadership to keep them on track, and to make sure that they keep developing new skills. A lot of one-trick ponies get sent out to pasture for failing to adapt. This is a shame though, because with a little management and guidance their careers could have continued to thrive.

The Networker

It is not what you know, but who you know. This is the talent of the networker. He or she seems to have a contact in every field and at every company. Unlike the bookworm who is skeptical of claims without being given evidence to back up those claims with, the networker trusts others to provide quality answers to his or her technical questions. This is both a benefit and a flaw, because networkers can quickly find an answer in a very short amount of time but that does not guarantee that the answer is correct. Networkers tend to be a hit-or-miss type of resource to have on your team. It all depends on the quality of their network.

The networker tends to dabble in many different technologies, and keeps up-to-date with the latest developments in IT. Unlike the one-trick pony a networker is very open to new and different solutions from any credible source. A networker will find a way to integrate different solutions together, and that is a skill that is becoming more and more useful in today’s ever changing world of IT.

The biggest problem with a networker though is that he or she understands the big picture and tends to forget about the smaller but still critical details. Usually what a networker proposes will work, but you might want to run what they are proposing past a bookworm just to be sure all of the necessary components are in place. A one-trick pony is also great to have around to call out the networker on claims the networker makes that might be to good to be true.

Bringing It All Together

Which of these “absolute experts” should you have on your IT team? All of them.

Bookworms, one-trick ponies, and networkers all have talents that compliment each other. The networker can be the ambassador between the IT department and the rest of the organization, the bookworm fills the role of an architect, and the one-trick pony makes an excellent administrator once you have your solution in place. The networker will keep an eye on the horizon of IT, and will feed new and interesting problems to the bookworm to research. The bookworm will in turn interface well with the one-trick pony, because the bookworm has facts and knowledge to support design decisions with. This makes the one-trick pony comfortable with having to learn new skills and technologies. The one-trick pony knows the environment probably better than anyone else, so he or she becomes the quality control that keeps the networker from over promising and not delivering.

The lesson here is that you cannot find that one perfect IT person. That person just does not exist, so do not try to find them. If your company needs only a small IT shop hire a networker. He or she will have the skills needed to reach out to others when needed. As your organization grows the networker will have contacts for you to reach out to and hire when the time comes to increase the staff, and those contacts will probably be bookworms and one-trick ponies.

So hire your IT staff knowing that there is no such thing as an absolute expert and you will not be disappointed, because instead of endlessly searching for a myth you will instead be looking for the right IT person.

Tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply