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4 Advantages of a Portable Expert

In my previous post I defined the term “Portable Expert” and I described the two secrets that make portable expertise possible. In this post I’ll give you some examples of portable expertise from my own experience, I’ll list four advantages of hiring a portable expert, and I’ll give you some tips on how to create your own portable experts.

An Example of Portable Expertise
Back in the mid-1980’s I led a group that was responsible for creating new systems for a tax-filing business.  We were starting from scratch with no existing investment in hardware or software, so I first had to figure out what hardware and software to buy.  I did enough research to determine the front-running candidates, and then did even more research to narrow down my choices.  I decided to use an SQL database (somewhat leading edge in the 1980’s) because I knew we needed flexibility in extracting information from huge amounts of data.  I also went with a 4GL (fourth general language — a concept that was pretty advanced for the day) for construction of the user interface for our systems.

Next I had to train our programmers in the use of these techniques.  I was very much a working manager — not an administrator — so I went through all of the training myself along with my team.  I needed to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the software we were using, and I needed to know enough to match up team members with areas in which they would excel.

We needed someone to design the database, and I knew that extensive knowledge of the business was required, so I decided to do the database design myself.  I went through advanced SQL training, getting an understanding of how the actual database engine worked in order to optimize the data structure to get maximum performance.  I learned data normalization and did enough research to get a practical understanding of when normalization was good and when real world considerations suggested that extreme normalization should not be followed. I also spent many hours evaluating the existing data used in the tax filing business, getting an understanding of data relationships, and constructing a database design that gave us what we needed.

Once the database was designed, I worked with my team to construct a model for transactions.  Our 4GL wasn’t literally an object-oriented language, but in effect we designed objects to standardize interface design and to simplify screen construction for the programmers.

This sounds like it might have been a long drawn-out process, but in fact we went from purchase decision to a live system in about ten months.  We started with basic transactions and then gradually worked up to the more complex ones, but the system was considered a success right from the start.

This was just one example.  I later did similar rapid-development projects for a customer-service system, a browser-based payroll system, and an intranet-based content management system.  In each case I developed enough expertise to make purchase decisions, attained enough expertise in the software and tools to be able to direct designers and programmers, and then moved on to the next need.

The Background I Needed
Looking back at the technology-related decisions I had to make in these different examples, it’s clear to me that someone without my base level of experience wouldn’t have been successful. I had many years of software and hardware experience on multiple platforms as a knowledge foundation, and so it wasn’t a huge leap for me to be able to become a temporary expert in the use of a SQL database or in a 4GL or in browser-based systems.

But I’ve also used my portable expertise in non-work-related fields, becoming a temporary expert in several different medical fields when expertise was needed to help make significant life decisions for loved ones. In these cases the most significant obstacle to temporary expertise was the language, but in each case there were probably no more than about fifty new words required to converse intelligently with medical experts in each field.

I found that my experience in applying portable expertise in IT was directly transferrable to the medical challenges I faced. The goal was to become a temporary expert in a narrow field, and to gain enough expertise to make the best-informed decisions. That goal was achieved, and my knowledge was respected by the doctors I worked with during my brief period of expertise.

Hiring a Portable Expert
It’s common practice to hire an expert for certain projects which require experience in a specific area that is unknown to us. Most companies will hire someone who has done exactly what you want to do using the tools you’ve chosen to do it.  The result will almost always be mediocre because you’re hiring people who are in a rut. They have done the job so many times that they’re on autopilot. They will do an adequate job but not an exceptional job, because they tend to force a standard solution on you instead of tailoring a solution for your unique needs.

I prefer a different approach.  I look for people who have the right base level of knowledge together with portable expertise — people who are experienced in becoming experts in the area in which they need expertise at the moment.  They don’t just apply cookie-cutter knowledge, using a one-size-fits-all approach.  Instead they look at the specific needs in each specific situation, do enough research to figure out what should be done, and then develop the expertise in that area to be able to optimally solve the problem.

When looking for a portable expert, I look for people who have skills and experience corresponding to the two secrets I mentioned in the prior post:

  • People who have broad experience in the general area, using a number of different technologies in a number of different business situations
  • People who have demonstrated portable expertise in the past, achieving temporary expertise in a technology and/or business area, putting that expertise to use, and then moving on to the next challenge

Advantages
I’ve found that I get better results hiring portable experts than I do hiring highly specialized experts. With a portable expert you have the advantage that:

  • You won’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole just because you have an expert in square pegs
  • You’ll get a good solution even if requirements take you away from your original definition of need
  • Your solution can evolve in a different direction rather than be constrained by the expertise limits of the original team
  • You’ll usually find that your result has a lower cost because you can exclude some components of the typical one-size-fits-all solution from your implementation and just do the things that are important

The overall key is flexibility: you’re not locked into a specific approach just because you’ve hired a particular type of expert.

Build Your Own Portable Expert
Portable experts don’t always come from outside your organization. You can build your own portable experts by implementing a few simple business philosophies:

  • Rotate your people through different jobs in different areas. Give them a broad exposure to the business and to different technologies.
  • Train your employees to recognize concepts in the work they do — not just to learn procedures by rote. Help them understand why things are done the way they’re done, and what would happen if things were done differently.
  • Teach people how to do technology transfer, and take learnings from other technologies or industries and adapt them for the use of your business. To understand technology transfer, they need to understand the concepts underlying the use of a technology. This means you need to hire thinkers — not just people who follow directions.

Portable expertise is like taking a single tool and replacing it with a Swiss army knife. It gives you a way to maximize your success without having to constantly switch from one hired consultant to another. It lets your business “travel light” and get the important things accomplished quickly. And using internal portable experts gives you continuity in your business processes, and lets you evolve your business in reasonable steps instead of jumping from one solution to the next, making drastic changes at every jump.

Conclusion
The next time you are about to bring in a specialized expert, consider whether you can use a portable expert instead — maybe even someone within your own organization.  You might find that portable expertise gives you a more satisfactory solution at lower cost. And you’ll certainly appreciate the flexibility that portable expertise gives your business.

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