Am I a Real Expert?

The other day I had a conversation with a scientist friend who said something alone the lines of “yes, I work in that general field, but I’m not an expert in your question in particular”. IT is not science, of course, but I asked myself whether I am a real expert in the things that I do. And while it’s nearly impossible to hit exactly the fine line between impostor syndrome and boasting, this post is neither and has a point, so bear with me.

I’ve been doing a lot of things in the general IT field – from general purpose software engineering, IT architecture, information security, applications of cryptography, blockchain, e-government, algorithmic music composition, data analysis. And I’ve seen myself as having relatively expert knowledge. I even occasionally give TV and radio interviews, where I’m labelled as “Expert in X”. But…

  • Am I a real expert in software engineering and software architecture? I’ve been doing that for 15+ years, and I follow and somethings define or clarify best practices, I’m familiar with different methodologies and have been part of teams that implemented some of them correctly and efficiently. I have taken part in the decision making process of building large systems with their architectural implications. But I’ve never been formally assigned as an “architect” (not that I insist), my UML skills are rather basic and I’ve never had to integrate dozens of legacy systems. I’ve never used formal methods for assessing software, I’ve made mistakes in selecting technologies, I’ve never done proper TDD and I have only a basic understanding of networking. Maybe just the sheer amount of years of experience positions me as an expert, maybe the variety of projects I’ve worked on.
  • Am I a real expert in cryptography? Almost certainly not. Yes, I’m using cryptographic building blocks regularly, I know what an initialization vector is and I’ve code reviewed a merkle tree implementation. I’ve read dozens of papers on cryptography and understood many of them. But some papers are greek to me – I have no clue about the math behind cryptography. Sure, RSA is easy, but I have just a basic understanding of how elliptic curves work. On the other hand, I probably know more than 99% of the software industry, where the average person barely differentiates symmetric and asymmetric cryptography, IV is a roman numeral, and cryptography boils down to disabling TLS 1.0 on a web server.
  • Am I a real expert in information security? I’ve given talks on it, I’m in the infosec business, I know and follow best security practices, I know about sqlmap and I’ve even used Wireshark; I understand DEFCON talks, I follow Peerlyst and I’ve even decompiled several apps to find (and report) security vulnerabilities in them. But I’m no Mr. Robot-level hacker, nor I’m a CISO in a large organization who has to plan and implement security measures on hundreds of systems. I haven’t been part of red-teaming exercise and I haven’t built or operated a security operations center (SOC). Sure, in an industry where even having heard of OWASP puts you in the top 10% and actively thinking about the security aspects of each new piece of code puts you in the top 1%, I’m an expert.
  • Am I a real blockchain expert? I know Bitcoin’s and Ethereum’s implementations, I have implemented something similar to bitcoin’s data structures, I know what a Patricia merkle tree is and I’ve built and pushed raw Ethereum transactions. I know how peer discovery works and I’ve found where there are IP addresses hardcoded in the Bitcoin codebase. But I’m no Vitalik Buterin, I can’t build something like Ethereum, I’m only vaguely familiar with distributed consensus algorithms and their pitfalls, and I haven’t written a smart contract more complicated than a tutorial example. I haven’t run a production deployment of Hyperledger (only a test one), and I largely ignore most of the new networks. You may say that one doesn’t need to be Vitalik or Satoshi to be an expert, and with most people seeing blockchain as “that thing that stores data in an unmodifiable way”, one could be an expert by just writing a Hello world smart contract.
  • Am I a real e-government expert? Sure, I’ve been an e-government advisor to a deputy prime minister, I’ve co-authored legislation and strategic documents and understand how and why e-government works in several EU countries, most notably Estonia, but do I have a holistic view? I have almost no idea of how the e-government is structured in South Korea, Singapore or UAE, for example, I haven’t written a single paper (blogposts don’t count as papers), and I haven’t measured the impact of legislative, organizational and technical measures that we proposed and applied. There are questions that I don’t know the answer to – e.g. how to make the pan-European eID framework actually work, or how to consistently sort the shortage of IT talent in the public sector across institutions.
  • Am I a real expert in algorithmic music composition? Writing an algorithm and publishing a paper might position me as one, and certainly getting an invitation as a panelist to the ACM conference on the topic was a good indicator. But the paper is not peer-reviewed, I know just music theory 101, and I have already forgotten most of the intricate details of my own code. After a period of extensive reading papers and music theory, I haven’t been keeping up to date with the subject and there’s certainly a lot of advancement. Probably not many people know both music theory and programming, but from those who do, where do I stand?

I can continue this list with data analysis (where I’ve done a lot in both opening public sector data and analyzing data for practical purposes, but where I feel a n00b for not even having installed R, let alone try to do something with it), or linguistics, or e-voting, or machine learning (I’m really a n00b here), etc.

So the question is – what does it mean to be an expert anyway? There are always people that know more than you on a given sub-sub-field, and there are always people that are better than you at most of the things that you do. The reputation of “expert” is something important, yet something so vague. Individually it’s good to know where one stands (Dunning-Kruger and everything), and to be aware of the limits of one’s knowledge and understanding. Knowing the things that you don’t know is a good start. And you will be always somewhere on an “expert spectrum”.

But in a broader context, who’s an expert? Imagine that after we recover from the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a cyber crisis. Who will be the IT experts to advise governments on the measures to be taken? University professors? Senior silicon valley technical people? Who will be on TV to discuss the cyber crisis in the role of “expert” – a senior engineer at a big bank, a junior developer, or someone that took CS 101 in university and happens to know the host? Who will drive the agenda and public opinion?

The level of our expertise is primary for our careers, but it also has other aspects outside of our immediate field. When a crisis hits it’s important that we have real experts, that we listen to them and that we trust them. But also to realize no expert knows everything about everything, and that many questions don’t have absolute answers, even for experts. That knowledge decays if not utilized and that one cannot do everything at the same time.

I promised that the article would have a point. And it’s two-fold. First, make sure you know what you don’t know, so that you can explore it if needed. Second, we need to value expertise with its imperfections. There is no absolute expert in anything, there are only relative experts.

Finally, I hope there isn’t a global IT-related crisis. But as some consider it inevitable, we may think about the perception of expertise in our field and who can we trust with certain aspects. There is no “full stack” expert, as the field is too broad.

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