Spacefem (spacefem) wrote,


There's a deep and conflicting divide at my company on the topic of "versatility vs. expertise" that I am right in the middle of. Which side should we err towards? How do we strike balance? How do we respect each other?

I'm going to go ahead and say that in my career I've been a mover, but I frequently wish I was an expert. Here are the sides as I see them:

The experts:
- I've been doing this same job for 20 years
- I have memorized our product and every part number on it
- Your training manuals are already out of date, the only way to learn is through gradual experience
- I can give you answers really fast
- Hey new kid. Here's a manual to read, call me in six months and maybe you can start watching without getting in my way
- There's a new product? Have the guy who designed it answer the questions, not me

The movers:
- I've done a different job every six months
- Hey new kid, here's a crazy new thing we need designed, it's all yours sink or swim
- Can we write something down or develop a system so we don't have to memorize numbers?
- I need to ask for help all the freaking time
- I can get you an answer eventually using my network and resources
- Did we have this problem 15 years ago? Who knows, let's re-do the research and re-invent the wheel

True story: I joined a group with lots of experts once a few years ago. They'd hired an intern to draw things up in a new system. The intern knew the software, but the experienced people knew the products, so they'd print out the drawing, mark up what needed changed with red pen, and hand it to the intern. One day I got a call from the factory about an issue. I was new to the team, so I grabbed the intern to come with me to the floor. He'd been there for 18 months and said "This is cool, I've never gotten to visit the technicians!"

I was SHOCKED because I was raised differently. First, nobody ever marked up a drawing for me to correct. They'd keep it vague... "this terrain system needs two GPS sources" and let me figure out the details.

Second, I was told to practically live in the factory because that's where you learn. Never pass up an excuse to visit the floor. Any hint that a tech wants to talk with you, go, because they teach you things.

Third, I was upset that these experts didn't want to learn the new drawing system. My intern had to basically be their secretary, so he didn't have time to grow and learn and become a real engineer.

On the other hand I'm now in a different roll that's very customer facing and I'm getting asked questions about things I did not design and am trying to learn as fast as I can, and there are so many times I'm stumped. I am depending on my team members who've been in the same place for 20 years. Whenever a big crazy million dollar question or issue comes up, THEY'RE the ones who save our asses. And I worry that we can't grow our experts if all we have are movers.

We need versatility... somebody in the company has to have jumped around and worked on lots and lots of products, have lots of connections, and a toolbox that is wide instead of deep. But when crunch time comes up we need to trust the people who've focused and remember the evolution of specific products. We need to respect them. We also need to convince them to write something down every once in a while. We need to know when to urge them to learn a different thing or use their expertise on a new program, but also know when their old group needs them to stay because there's too many new guys in there making mistakes with no expert around to guide them.

There has to be a balance.
Tags: career
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