As many of your know, I co-host a weekly geoscience podcast called the Don’t Panic Geocast. A listener and fellow member of the Software Underground Slack group surprised me one day by sending me their answer to a question they had on their college level physics test. I’ve reproduced the image shared with me below.

At first I got a good laugh out of this and I hope they recieved full credit for their answer! Later it got me thinking about experts. What is an expert? When do we need experts? Those questions became the foundation of a long bit of thinking on experts that I’m going to try to summarize in the post and hopefully convice you, as I convinced myself, that experts should trust experts, though they are the least likley people to.

What is an Expert?

The first big question is, what is an expert? Your initial gut reaction may be “someone who knows a lot about something.” That definition doesn’t quite hold up though. I’ve read a lot about climbing Everest and mountaineering, but I’m not a mountaineering guide. I’ve never been, and we would all die quickly. I believe the biggest hint is that the word is a small deviation from experience. We’ve all head the famous rule of it takes 10,000 hours to be good at something. While that rule isn’t true for a lot of reasons, it has the right flavor to it. Experts are experts because they have experienced a lot of things in their field and know what will work and what won’t work in a given situation.

Some may tell you that experts need a certification or degree – while those things help build confidence and trust in a new relationship, they certainly are not essentials. That being said, we do carry a number of certifications and diplomas here at the office, but everyday we walk in the doors expecting to learn.

There’s the fable about the ship mechanic that sums it up well. A large cargo ship couldn’t depart port because the crew could not get its massive engine to start. Desperate, the company called up a retired mechanic who seemed to be able to communicate with anything mechanical. After 50 years of being a mechanic he’d seen a few stubborn engines. He came aboard with a small toolbox and walked all around the engine room. After a few minutes he pulled out a hammer, walked over to the engine, and give a small tap on a component. The crew turned the massive engine over and it immediately sprung to life. Afterwards the company received a bill from the mechanic for $9800. Outraged, the owner called and said he simply wasn’t going to pay that much for a single blow from a hammer. The mechanic simply said that the hammer hit was only $5, but knowing where to hit, how hard to hit, and when to hit was $9795.

When do we need experts?

Well, anytime we’re doing something that we are out of our depth in, especially when we’re pressed for time. That’s the obvious answer at least. The question I started asking myself was – what exactly am I trying to optimize while doing this job? Am I optimizing money? Certainly if I’m working on a hobby project at home, I’m not an expert most likely, but that’s okay. It is a hobby and I have more time than money for it. Am I optimizing time? If I’m short on time and need it done right away, calling in reinforcements is an obvious answer. Am I optimizing experience? Maybe this is a project I’m out of my depth on, but I’m ready to build my own experience level, working my way towards expert. I remember the first mold I designed for our injection molding machine. It took a lot of fiddling to get it right because I’m not an expert. I knew that I would need to design more molds though and I was prepared to put in that time to work towards getting the requisite experience to one day be a competent mold designer. I’m still not there!

Why Experts Need Experts

It may seem obvious that if someone is “smart” or “savvy” or an “expert” in one field, that they must be in other too – but that is simply incorrect. We don’t have enough hours in our lives to become experts in everything, which really is unfortunate. I can feel my experience and skill level fall off in some areas if I haven’t exercised them in awhile. We can’t all stay current and proficient on many things at once. Sadly, many of us can’t or won’t admit that and end up wasting vast amounts of time beating our heads into a wall that isn’t there for an expert. That is time that we could have been using to be productive in our niche that nobody else is expert in. So really, experts are the people that need other experts the most! They must be willing to yield to the experiences and expertise of others, but a team of experts can accomplish far more than a lone genius that is a jack of all trades.

We’re continually building experience and experts here at the shop. For example, I am no longer the subject expert on CNC machining and programming. One of our outstanding team members, John B., has stepped up and owned that area with far more focus than I would ever have the ability to provide. Another team member, Jonah, has setup, learned, and programs/runs our pick and place machine to make circuit boards. I’ve never even turned the thing on before! Sure it bugged me at first that I wasn’t the all knowing expert as I may have envisioned myself to be.


Wizard of Oz

Experts are really kind of like hiring a wizard – they are so good at what they do it can look like magic. Really it is just experience and focus that have made them better than any of us could hope to be without gaining an equal amount of experience. They aren’t better than us, smarter than us, or anything of the sort. They just decided to apply themselves to a different area than we did. 

So when it comes to the project you find yourself facing, ask if it calls for an expert. If so, call us and let our team of experts, our years of mistakes and experiences work for you!


John Leeman
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