Who is an expert?


April 16, 2014 by Kenneth Fisher

Recently Paul Randal had a brief rant on twitter where he complained about the fact that there are no stupid questions. This lead to a discussion on and how experts should and should not react to said questions. I’ve been thinking about what makes up a stupid question and what makes an expert ever since. I haven’t been able to come up with a reasonable definition of a stupid question but I thought I would give a shot at “Expert”.

When trying to define something like this it helps to start with a literal definition. It’s too easy to get tangled up in the words otherwise. So here is the definition of “Expert” as pulled from dictionary.com.

ex•pert [n., v. ek-spurt; adj. ek-spurt, ik-spurt]
1. a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority: a language expert.

So an expert is someone with a “comprehensive and authoritative” knowledge in say SQL Server. That’s still not very concrete so let’s try examples.

Starting at the top there are those who are unquestioned experts with unquestioned comprehensive and authoritative knowledge. Paul Randal, Brent Ozar and really any other MCM as examples. So that’s the top but is it the bottom? How about me? I’m certainly not on that level but in my office I am considered an expert in SQL Server. Am I the bottom end of expert then?

A recent college graduate asks a DBA of 5-6 years of experience a question. (Sounds like the beginning of a joke right?) Is the experienced DBA an expert? To the recent grad he/she is. Next a recent high school grad asks our college grad a question. So is the college grad an expert? Again yes. To the person asking the question they are. In fact when my 5 yo daughter asks my 10 yo son a question she considers him an expert. (So does he, but then he is 10.) Now my 5 yo is probably not considered an expert by anyone except herself.

So what is the result? What makes an expert? In the end (in my opinion) an expert is someone you ask a question with a reasonable expectation of getting an answer. And in fact I’m personally just as happy with an answer of “I don’t know but I’ll find out” or “I don’t know but you could ask this other person”.

So you are an expert. You may say “But I don’t feel like an expert”. Well I’ll tell you what, neither do I. I look at some of the people out there and feel like I have no clue what I am doing. But when someone comes and asks me a question thinking I’m an expert I always do my best to live up to that expectation. And honestly, I think you should too.

24 thoughts on “Who is an expert?

  1. Lee Everest says:

    Expertise is broadly defined in our industry, or any industry for that matter; I wouldn’t have made 100K+ 10 years in a row had I not had some sort of expertise in the field of databases and ‘SQL Server’. I may not be an ‘expert’ in the SQL engine, for instance, but there are many other disciplines within the boundaries of our product.

    I did not read the twitter thread, and frankly I’m glad I didn’t. Did he (Paul Randal) turn over a new leaf? Usually, one finds that he and his cronies are looking down to, talking down to, calling-out, and chastising others with their holier than thou SQL internals liturgies. And rightly so, I guess…one must give credit where credit is due. He did write part of the SQL engine (SQL 2008 and prior, or so we’re told), and his associates have a knowledgeable and highly-qualified teacher from whom to learn.

    What a great opportunity that gives him to be an ambassador for our wonderful product called Microsoft SQL Server, a leadership role that was vacated in my opinion by the late Ken Henderson, who was a wonderful person and gentleman that never hesitated to help a fellow SQL practitioner with any sort of question, ‘stupid’ or otherwise.

    • Actually his comment was that there are no stupid questions and he gets tired of people saying “This is a stupid question but”. I will say this, every time I’ve emailed him with a question or comment he has made a point of responding even if it’s as simple as “Yes”.

      Also the point was that expertise is relative. Even the most junior person in a field may be called on as the “expert” and should react accordingly. Hopefully that was clear? I’m never sure if what I wrote is clear to others even though it seems obvious to me.

    • Paul Randal says:

      Ah Lee – my perpetual Internet troll who delights (for some reason you’ve never explained) in posting negativity whenever my name is mentioned over the last few years. Thanks for your opinion, as always.

    • brento says:

      Lee – ouch. Reading your passionate words, I can tell that you feel really strongly about this subject.

      I’m going to make a couple of remarks, but I hope that they’re taken with the same positive, upbeat way that I’m writing them. I certainly don’t want to personally attack your words, but I just want to give you a few ideas to think about.

      You wrote that “I wouldn’t have made 100K+ 10 years in a row had I not had some sort of expertise in the field of databases and ‘SQL Server’.” I happen to know a DBA consultant who billed the same client for $300/hour, full time, for several years straight. However, despite the high rate, he didn’t know that you could add more than one nonclustered index per table.

      Sometimes folks have amazing political abilities, lots of business knowledge, or family relations with company owners. You’d be amazed at what those kinds of soft skills are able to produce – money included.

      You wrote that “I did not read the twitter thread”, and then you go on to say “Usually, one finds that he and his cronies are looking down to, talking down…” I’d be careful with those kinds of accusations when you haven’t read the underlying material. You wouldn’t want to be accused of jumping to conclusions, especially negative conclusions. Even if Paul was bad at one time (and I’m not going to debate that one way or another, because we would just disagree there), you want to give him another chance. We all change – I’m sure you’ve made mistakes in the past, and you wouldn’t want to always be judged for those actions you took a long time ago. Heck, that’s the same reason I don’t even bother remembering comments like these. If we meet in person, I wouldn’t want to judge you for these blog comments. Everybody gets a fresh start. (Well, I do still hold a few grudges, heh.)

      Have a great day, and make sure to give everybody a fair shake as you interact with ’em through the week. Take care!

  2. drummonddba says:

    Reblogged this on sqldrummer.com and commented:
    Excellent post by Kenneth Fisher giving his opinion on who is an expert. Plus drama in the comments. A good read.

  3. Ken,

    Great question for a post.

    To me an expert is something that recognizes there are 4 viewpoints to any one question:

    1. What you know
    2. What you don’t know
    3. What you know you don’t know
    4. What you don’t know you don’t know

    I find that most of the experts spend their time focused on number 4. They are the ones that want more information, and are happy to collect information and data even if they see it conflicts with their current beliefs.

    All too often people get caught up in their own views and beliefs that they forget there is a wide, wide world of experiences out there willing to be shared.

    Experts welcome those ideas.



  4. This is a nice non-technical post. It’s hard to know what the classifications of an expert really are. One thing I can say is, I know very well how to spot someone that is not an expert, they are usually arrogant. Arrogance blocks a person’s mind, making them think they are the know all and tend to over qualify themselves. That’s my own personal opinion of course. I personally cannot learn from someone that does not have an ounce of humility. I’ve had great teachers, and I’ve always learned that humility is one of the greatest characteristics of an expert. That does not mean they do not have confidence, that’s another issue.

    My take is an expert is someone that is not satisfied and is always looking to improve on themselves. Also non-experts often have negative jealousy of experts and tend to say something negative about everyone. Instead, use that energy to better yourself and become an expert yourself. That’s my two cents for this nicely written thought provoking piece.

    • Thanks for the comment. Excellent point about humility and an open mind. That’s kind of where I was going at the end. That the best experts are those that are willing to share what they know and learn more.

  5. ScaryDBA says:

    Late to the party, but I’ll just add a small bit.

    An expert is a person that is a page ahead of you in the book.

    I think a lot of the discussion was more focused on what makes a respected expert, less than just what an expert is.

  6. “…an expert is someone you ask a question with a reasonable expectation of getting an answer”

    I would amend that to say “getting a correct answer”. Sadly, in our industry, there are a lot of people out there willing to give you answers without understanding what they are saying themselves.

  7. Interesting and thought provoking. I’m not sure that I would say that someone is an expert just because someone else looks up to them – that would make everyone an expert except the last person that doesn’t know diddly squat 😉

    Sticking to the world of SQL Server, I think we know who the experts are – they are the MCM’s and the MVP’s, for example. The certification and/or status doesn’t *make* them an expert – but it’s a pretty common attribute. I’m sure there are many SQL Server experts that have neither of those, which is what makes those folks harder to identify and/or label as experts. But if they are really that talented, that will eventually be noticed by the SQL Server community and they will earn the respect that often comes with being an expert in our field. While after 15 years I would like to think I have a solid understanding of SQL Server, I do not consider myself an expert – that would do injustice to those that are, namely a few on this thread (Brent, Paul, Robert, Grant, Tom, etc.).

    See most of you next week in Seattle!

    • In absolute terms I would tend to agree with you. There is a group of people who the community recognizes as above and beyond. However, just as an example, in my office I am considered an “expert” on SQL Server and I am no where near the MCM or MVP level. I know enough more than my co-workers that when there is a tough problem they come to me for help. Does the fact that I’m not at that higher level make me less of an “expert” to them?

      • Expertise can often have a time an place. An expert in SQL 2000 would not be considered a SQL Server Expert today since we’re already at 2014. In your case, you are the expert in your time and space (your office) and that’s a good thing. I’m sure even the people we look at at experts themselves see others as the experts when they compare themselves to those that are more knowledgeable. That’s why I said humility should be part of that expertise package, otherwise they are self diluted because humility keeps a person in check and keeps them seeking higher levels of expertise or even just maintaining where they are. Hope this makes sense, I’m commenting while waiting on a Tabular model to process 🙂

    • Brent Ozar says:

      Allen – in the MCM program, we called those “uncertified experts.” Just because you didn’t have an MCM or MVP designation didn’t mean you weren’t an expert. There’s so many folks out there who just don’t have the time, money, or incentive to take exams or work on blogs. Heck, in my MCM rotation, I think only Robert Davis and I had blogs – most of the others didn’t *read* blogs, let alone *write* them. Funny how that works.

      • Most certainly Brent – that’s why I said it didn’t define you guys as experts, but it certainly is an attribute of many. Even had that program stayed afloat and I were to complete it, I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert – I just don’t think the term is a self-appointed one.

        I had another reply all typed up but that “Cancel Reply” button was too pretty to resist – on accident – the Post Comment should be the bright one 😉

        Ayman put it nicely:
        “I’m sure even the people we look at at experts themselves see others as the experts when they compare themselves to those that are more knowledgeable.”

        As for my work, I’m the only DBA and typically have been. If someone were to say I’m an expert, I would downplay it knowing full well they don’t know anything about SQL Server. Being the only one and the “go to guy” on all things SQL Server doesn’t make me an expert. Heck, half the time when I’m faced with a tough problem, the #sqlfamily is the one that solves it. Consider it crowdsolving!

        • You know I had a comment in twitter the other day that I rather liked. “Experts have a better idea what to Google.” Meaning that the more experience you have the better idea you have of what questions to ask. Even on #sqlhelp. Combining what I said in the post (you are an expert to the person who knows less than you) and what Ayman said about “humility” that would make you an expert in your office. And I’ll bet if you ask your co-workers they would agree with me 🙂

  8. […] I also felt that I was avoiding technical topics in favor of soft skills and pie in the sky theory posts.  I think the reason for this avoidance was that I didn’t want to make a technical mistake and get called out on it in public.  One of my Twittermates (@sqlstudent144 (t / b)) helped me get over that by Tweeting me a post on what being an expert means. […]

  9. […] years! The vast majority of which have been technical, some funny, some discussions of soft topics (expertise, how to learn, when to get help that kind of […]

  10. […] I know something pretty well doesn’t mean I know everything, heck, even if I’m an expert I never assume I know it all. So I always anticipate corrections, additions, etc. I don’t […]

  11. […] touched on perspective a while back when I talked about Who’s an expert but I recently had a rather sharp lesson on it. If you read my recent post What goes around comes […]

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