Are You An Expert?

Jeff Atwood is interesting as always, on being an expert:

So what does it mean to be an expert, then, when expertise is perceived as impractical at best, and a liability at worst?

In a recent Google talk, James Bach presented the quintessential postmodern image of an expert performing – Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno:
[turns to fire commissioner] What do we got here, Kappy?
Fire started, 81st floor, storage room. It’s bad. Smoke’s so thick, we can’t tell how far it’s spread.
Exhaust system?
Should’ve reversed automatically. It must be a motor burnout.
They’re not working on 81.
Why not?
I don’t know.
[turns to architect] Jim? Give us a quick refresher on your standpipe system.
Floors have 3 and 1.5 inch outlets.
Fifteen hundred from ground to 68, and 1,000 from 68 to 100, and 500 from there to the roof.
Are these elevators programmed for emergencies?
What floor are your plans on?
79. My office.
That’s two floors below the fire. It’ll be our Forward Command. Men, take up the equipment. I want to see all floor plans, 81 through 85.
[turns to security chief] Give me a list of your tenants.
Don’t worry, we’re moving them out now.
Not live-ins. Businesses.
We lucked out. Most of them haven’t moved in yet. Those that have are off at night.
I want to know who they are, not where.
What’s that got to do with anything? Who they are?
Any wool or silk manufacturers? In a fire, wool and silk give off cyanide gas. Any sporting good manufacturers, like table-tennis balls? They give off toxic gases. Now do you want me to keep going?
One tenant list, coming up.
[turns to crew leader] What do we got?
Elevator bank, central core. Service elevators here. Air conditioning ducts, 6 inches.
Pipe alleys here?
One, two, three, four, five.
Have you got any construction on 81? Anything that can blow up, like gasoline, fabric cleaner?
I don’t think so.

What does this tell us? I mean, other than … Steve McQueen is a badass? Being an expert isn’t telling other people what you know. It’s understanding what questions to ask, and flexibly applying your knowledge to the specific situation at hand. Being an expert means providing sensible, highly contextual direction.

Read on: Are You An Expert?