What is an expert?

In my first years as a software developer, while I was working for a consulting company, I was asked to fill my resume in a standard format. The format was composed of the usual stuff as well as a grid of skills I had a hard time to fill.  I was struggling with deciding what was my level of expertise for each skill.  For sure, the number of years of experience would have an impact but that could not be the only thing.  I had experience demonstrating that different people progress at different speed on a skill…

Years later I discovered the Dreyfus model of skills acquisition while reading the book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning from Andy Hunt.  It was a revelation! In this post, I’ll share hints to help you evaluate your stage of expertise for a given skill.

The Dreyfus model is separated into 5 stages:
> Novice > Advanced Beginner > Competent > Proficient > Expert

Evaluating yourself will help you become more pragmatic about your learning process.  The result is for your own use, so be truly honest with yourself and use these hints:

I may be novice if…
  • I want to accomplish immediate goals, I want to deliver something!
  • I get confused about what to do when I receive general information (context).
  • I don’t want to make mistakes.  A mistake is a failure to me.
  • You give me an instruction list and I will complete it in no time!  That makes me efficient and I like it.
I may be an advanced beginner if…
  • I want information now.  But don’t give too much, just the essential.
  • I feel it takes too long to read the documentation. It’s wasting my time!
  • I want people to talk less and answer my simple question.
I may be competent if…
  • I can develop abstract/conceptual models.
  • I am not lost trying to troubleshoot a problem I never faced before.
  • I am not sure on what to focus on.
  • I’ll probably be (and I’d like to be) promoted to team lead!
  • I am mentoring newcomers in the company
I may be proficient if…
  • I need the big picture, I can’t work without it.
  • I am frustrated when I get oversimplified information. Give me the context!
  • I learn from other people’s experience
  • I reflect on what I did and revise my approach for the next time
  • I recognize a previous poor work performance and try to correct it
I may be expert if…
  • I am a primary source of knowledge and information in many fields.
  • I am continuously looking for better methods and better ways of doing things
  • I write books and articles. I read a lot.
  • Although I know how to go about solving a problem, I can’t write the recipe.

Before completing your assessment, consider the following.  To become an expert, you need to invest about ten years of effort, no matter the subject. During those years, you need to practice deliberately. Deliberate practice is the concept of taking a well-defined task and performing it through a repetition, feedback and correction cycle. This cycle is really the most important thing.  Failure to do so will make your years of experience irrelevant. Experience is performing a specific skill that results in a change of thinking.

It’s not surprising that there aren’t many experts… According to the book, only 1 to 5 percent of the population reach the stage of expert for a single skill! That’s not all. It seems that most people, for most skills, never get any higher than the stage of advanced beginner…

A final advice before completing your assessment… Watch out! Before you get to the expert stage, you are likely to fall into the trap of thinking you are already there and you may get stuck at the competent stage. Once you truly become an expert, you become painfully aware of just how little you really know. The beginner is confident despite the odds, the expert will show much more doubts…

Hope this will help you!

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