a companion discussion area for blog.codinghorror.com

Are You An Expert?


I think I have a problem with authority. Starting with my own.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2009/02/are-you-an-expert.html


Embrace nothing:
If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.
If you meet your father, kill your father.
Only live your life as it is,
Not bound to anything.

In other words, the path to enlightenment is not the one the expert points out to you. That may have been his path, but it’s not yours.


great post, one thing I’ve noticed, the more I know, the more I know I don’t know, there’s always more


Thank you, thank you, thank you! I hope to shake your hand for this one day. By all accounts, I should be an expert Delphi developer. I’ve had a Delphi app on the market for 10 years working daily to change and improve it. Yet every day I learn some new language construct or way of working that makes me feel like an amateur.

The day I stop learning will be the day I die. Thanks Jeff!


I am reminded of something an old hand said to me two decades ago, in the early days of my apprenticeship:

Expert - n. ex from the Latin, meaning out of, and spurt, meaning drip under pressure.

Which is why, to this day, I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, including some software and systems I have authored.


While I wholly agree that Because I said so is extremely poor justification in an objective discussion, particularly on technical subjects, I am equally loathe to abandon the entire idea that some people have acquired better insight, experience, or knowledge about a subject than others and may therefore have more to contribute in many circumstances.

Reviewing all contributions on some subject matter without the context of source is often difficult, if not impossible, and almost surely a bad idea. Didn’t you post something more or less the exact opposite of this idea just a few days ago, talking about how you would view a question or a point raised by someone of stature in computing as more significant than the same point raised anonymously or by someone unknown?

The desire to actively discourage experts on Wikipedia, if in fact that it is their goal, does not fill me with confidence. Enlisting millions of amateurs to the cause may fill out many pages but I don’t think the most important measure here is volume. I don’t particularly value the work of people who know little about what they’re writing about trying to stumble through ground that others have already covered. I am prima facie going to prefer the opinion/statement of an expert to an amateur - which does not mean that I wouldn’t think critically about what both had to say, but that all other things being equal trusting the expert is a far better rule.

What spooks me most about the anti-expert ethos is that it seems what the web needs least is more dribble from people who have no idea what they’re talking about. I suspect a healthy dose of actual expert opinion on various subjects would be extremely valuable. It’s hard enough to find this now - if we go around telling everyone they shouldn’t listen to experts and actively discourage anyone from acquiring expertise, we may succeed in all but eliminating anything that might pass for learned commentary.


Great post, Jeff! I couldn’t agree more!

…and yes, Steve McQueen is a badass.


Here’s another post along these lines:

Three reason expert predictions are often wrong

In a nutshell, experts have an incentive to form opinions quickly, they have an incentive to promote unconventional opinions, and they’re good at confirming their biases.


I just hate it when someone asks me which way to do something, and I say this way is better than that way and they just accept my expert opinion without even thinking of asking me why. When people do that, I usually chastise (is that the right word?) them - no matter who they are.


Didn’t you post something more or less the exact opposite of this idea just a few days ago, talking about how you would view a question or a point raised by someone of stature in computing as more significant than the same point raised anonymously or by someone unknown?

Jeff Atwood contradicts himself regularly. I think its his way of driving home the point that you can’t really take him at face value. That would be lazy. It forces you to actually think for yourself.


This is by several orders of magnitude the best Coding Horror in months. Thanks for re-becoming relevant!

Your fairweather fan,


And remember: Jump from the bridge, it will make you a better developer.


Dumb question but is the Buccaneer Scholar James Bach, the same as the testing blogger James Bach from www.satisfice.com/blog/ ?



Level 0 to 3 is another way of explaining the 4 stages of learning.

Level 0: unconscious incompetence
Level 1: conscious incompetence
Level 2: conscious competence
Level 3: unconscious competence

It applies really well to something like driving.

Level 0 is before you ever saw a car.

Level 1 is you see other folks driving and you know you cant’ do it.

Level 2 is learners permit :slight_smile: You sweat pulling out of the driveway, making left turns, etc.

Level 3 is driving while changing the radio and texting. I mean you shouldn’t do this :slight_smile: but the point is you know how to drive so well you don’t actively use your mind to do it.


I’ve had a Delphi app on the market for 10 years working daily to change and improve it. Yet every day I learn some new language construct

OMG, Deplhi has 3650 language constructs :slight_smile:


I LOVE this stuff, even (or especially) the points that contradict. This is what I understand to be dialectic. To me it’s a workout in language and meaning, the building up and tearing down of values. Thanks Coding Horror.


In the late 80’s, i wrote a program that displayed RTF - rich text like a web browser, on a Mac. RTF is a format that MS Word Excel could produce if asked. Sometimes called Interchange format. The Windows help system used it. We had a cross platform app, and wanted our tech writers to produce one set of text. The system allowed conditional text, so that Mac specific stuff could go to the Mac port, and Windows specific stuff could go in the Windows port.

One of the developers was talking to me about it, and i must have mentioned how i was unclear on some detail. He said something to the effect that by this point, i should know exactly how something like that worked. I agreed. I didn’t realize that we were talking about two different things. He was saying that i was the expert. I was saying that the documentation and MS’s implementations were ambiguous at best. The whole thing smelled of death. Or maybe he really did get what i was saying. My code clearly worked, after all.

If the expert can’t admit total ignorance, then (s)he’s useless.


I’ve been a senior developer since, what, 1981? I think it was my very first title. I’m not much on titles.

Every now and then, i get to do an estimate for how long some job will take. To date, my estimates have been within 10%, and not once has there been an underestimate. That is, if we use my estimate as a deadline, we are never late, and we don’t over commit resources.

And for 27 years, this has been my track record. And if i’ve been at a company for a year or so, managers get this behavior from me consistently.

So, why is it that when a million dollar (+) contract comes up, and they say they want 30 guys to do this thing in a year, and i say it can’t be done in under 2 years, that they ignore me? Two years later, i don’t rub it in, but i let it slip that it’s not done, and it now looks like two more years. I’m still ignored. They decide to change vendors, and i mention that Brooks’ law says that this will delay the project, and my estimate is that it’s a 6 month delay. Two years later, it’s still not done, and my new estimate is 6 more months.

I don’t try to be good at this. It just comes out. I don’t expect anyone to listen. I don’t even listen.

I understand that the project would never have gotten started with an honest estimate. And, the project would have been canceled with an honest estimate. And, the original vendor was punished because of politics, not reality. When i mentioned Brooks by name, i was told that there are other books. And that’s politics too. There’s really only the one computer management book.


Are You An Expert?

Yes, absolutely, I am! I’m sure of it!

I’m just not sure what in, yet.

Stamp.Collection.Organizing.Procrastination is a leading candidate.

Avoid certifications

What??? I’ll have you know my doctor (wife, too) says I’m certifiable, and I’m proud of it! So there!


You left out Level 5: just plain unconscious
Yeah, that’s where I’m at after a long day of beating bugs to death, and a few beers.


I said Level 5. Oops! Should have said Level 4.

Off-by-one error.