Dec 312013

Work anywhere long enough, and you’re going to become the <something> person. From that point on, all questions, advice, etc. on that topic by default go to you. In my experience, this isn’t usually the result of some deliberate action to make a person the <something> “expert”, it’s the result of the work they get assigned and end up doing. The bigger questions are, what are your areas of expertise, what would you like your areas of expertise to be, and what are you doing to make the 2 previous answers line up?

Any area of expertise at your job is generally a direct result of several things you’ve worked on in the past rather than some training or class you sat through. The big thing about expertise is that what makes it valuable should be the domain knowledge, not any technological knowledge you may have.Most common, well-established programming languages, APIs, frameworks, libraries, etc. are all fairly-well documented, so any half decent developer or administrator can just go through the documentation and figure all of that out. When your expertise revolves around a programming language, some API you use, a library, or framework, you’re not an important and necessary part of building something awesome, you’re a convenient tool.

Domain expertise is the hardest, most time-consuming, and most valuable form of knowledge in any organization. It can cover everything from the business that you’re in to the history of your codebase and the reasons why things are the way they are at that point. It’s the kind of knowledge that’s usually acquired through long nights, outages, bug reports about stuff you’d never once thought of, bug reports about stuff you should have thought of, and pretty much any other possible problem that you can encounter. The hard-fighting nature and scars that come from acquiring this knowledge is why it’s so important to have it documented internally.

If your current area of expertise isn’t what you’d like it to be, then you need to look at what you can do to fix that. Since expertise is generally derived from what you’ve done, the question is really a matter of what do you want to be working on? Moving towards that type of work could be a matter of just simply asking  to. If it’s something that your company isn’t doing, then you’re going to have to try to find some kind of side project to play with until your company catches up to your interests. If it’s something your company is doing, but not the part of the company you’re in, you’re going to need to try to find any and all areas of overlap you can dabble in until the chance to cross over opens up. The real crux of this matter is once you know what you’d like your expertise to be, working your way backwards from that to your current expertise so you know just how to get to where you want to be.

Not sure of your preferred expertise? In that case, I recommend taking stabs at just about anything you can poke around in until you figure out the kinds of things that do interest you. Maybe you’ll find that grab bag work suits you. More likely you’ll stumble across what it is you’d really like to be doing, which gives you something to try to focus your career around. Answering the question of what do you really want to be doing is the bulk of career planning, and should be the primary consideration for most of your career decision-making anyways.

This new year, why not take stock of just what your current expertise is, where you’d like it to be, and what you need to do to bridge that gap. Focusing on learning the stuff that you’re interested in learning. Learn all kinds of cool new stuff. Become a master of your domain and the go-to person for all questions on the topic. And most importantly of all, be awesome in 2014 and beyond.

 Posted by at 4:10 PM