Are you really an expert?

salesmanThrough the course of my career, I’ve spent time on both sides of the job interview table, which has given me an empathy for both job interviewees as well as their interviewers.  The former wants to put his best foot forward to demonstrate (or at least talk about) his most appealing attributes, while the latter seeks to find the best fit for the position while pitching her employer to qualified candidates.  On both sides of the table, folks do their best to paint their respective positions in the best light while (hopefully) remaining truthful.

Although the interviewing process can be stressful for interviewers, it’s particularly hard on the interviewees.  After all, they are the ones who will be most directly impacted by any hiring decision.  Have a bad interview and you’re going nowhere; nail the interview and you could reach a major career milestone.  As such, there’s a lot of pressure to make yourself appear to be the best candidate you can be.  Often, candidates will use superlative terms to describe themselves:

  • I am an expert in XYZ software.
  • I have senior level skills in widget making.
  • I have an advanced proficiency in flux capacitor maintenance.
  • I am a thought leader in the field of bacon curation.

There are a lot of very smart folks out there, a number of whom truly are experts.  But increasingly, my experience in this area has taught me that there are many candidates who apply to themselves label including expert, senior, and specialist, simply as a selling point without having real basis for such an assertion.  When candidates use these terms recklessly in their résumés and in interview conversations, they are setting themselves up for a hard landing at some point in the future.

Fake it ‘til you make it?

Describing oneself using superlative language can impress an interviewer, in some cases.  Take for example the typical corporate interview scenario, in which one sits first with interviewers from Human Resources.  The interviewer may or may not have specific knowledge about the field in which the candidate specializes.  A skilled interviewee will pick up on this, and may be compelled to dazzle the interviewer with buzzwords while describing his own skillset as superior.  And if he’s very lucky, he’ll get a second interview with an interviewer who assumes that HR has done the necessary vetting, and may not ask the necessary in-depth questions to weed out the unqualified candidate.

Although unlikely, it’s possible for a candidate to bluff his entire way through the interview process all the way to the job offer.  Even if things get that far, it’s still going to turn out badly for both sides.  When a person describes himself as an expert, such strong language sets an expectation for job performance.   Portraying oneself as an expert implies deep knowledge in the topic, good decision-making skills in the field of expertise, and a history of success.  When the expectations greatly exceed the actual results, it’s going to turn out badly for the “expert”.

The phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” often comes up when pitching oneself for work.  Although this might work at lower skill levels, it’s much harder to fake being an expert when it comes time to actually do the work.

Having conducted technical interviews with scores of candidates, I can tell you that those who described themselves as experts in a particular discipline usually got extra scrutiny in their self-described areas of specialization.  Many of them did quite well upon inquiry, but a disheartening number of folks who claimed to have superior skills in a particular area had a difficult time answering even the most basic questions.

Experts are made, not born

Becoming recognized as a thought leader in a particular area doesn’t come by applying a label to oneself.  It’s been written many times that it takes about 10,000 hours – about five working years – of doing something to truly become an expert in it.  Some things will take far less time to master (Minesweeper) while others require much more (neurosurgery).

With that in mind, don’t try to sell yourself as an expert if you aren’t.  Remember that there are other attributes on which you can rely that have a great deal of appeal to employers.  For example, if I’m looking for someone with senior level skills in a particular discipline, I might consider a candidate with midlevel skills who also demonstrates a great deal of enthusiasm and a strong desire and aptitude to learn.   And don’t forget: attitude, attitude, attitude.  Most hiring managers would choose someone with good skills and a great attitude than a jerk with tons of experience.

Sell yourself

Don’t take the advice in this post to mean that you shouldn’t talk yourself up to a potential employer.  Job interviewing is nothing more than sales: you’re trying to sell yourself to the company doing the hiring, and the employer is trying to decide if they want to “buy” what you’re selling (and hopefully, they’re trying to sell you on the company as well).  However, there is a difference between selling yourself, and selling yourself as something you’re not.  If you’re going to describe yourself as an expert in your field, make certain that the label is accurate.

As an aside, I’ve found that a large number of thought leaders in my field do not even describe themselves as experts.  The smartest folks out there realize that there’s still much left to learn in every vocation, and often refrain from labeling themselves as experts for fear of implying that they know everything there is to know.

Conclusion

The job interview process relies on trust and some measure of faith.  A candidate who unduly purports himself to be an expert is bound to be discovered at some point, and the later the discovery the worse the results tend to be.  Put your best foot forward during the interview process, but don’t sell yourself as an expert if you’ve not yet earned that distinction.

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13 Responses to Are you really an expert?

  1. Bill Anton says:

    big fan of the 10k hours rule…but the hours need to be based on “deliberate practice” as opposed to “time-in-position”.

    Solving the same problem patterns day in and day out will not get you to that “expert-level” even at 20k hours. This is why there’s so much value in the “intermediate-enthusiast”…they are probably spending a higher percentage of their hours pushing the limits of their knowledge base.

    • Tim Mitchell says:

      Bill – totally agreed. If someone has years of experience doing something, it doesn’t always mean they are an expert. There are cases when a person claiming 10 years of experience, when in truth they have had the same 1 year of experience 10 times over.

  2. Tim Radney says:

    Great post Tim. Couldn’t agree more. Very few times have i interviewed someone claiming to have expert or Ninja skills that actually did. Amazingly those with mid level skills claiming expert knowledge want Principle Consultant pay. Again, great post.

    • Tim Mitchell says:

      Thanks Tim. I think it would be interesting to compare the frequency of these superlative self-descriptive terms to interviewers’ ratings of the candidates after the interview. I’d bet money that, on average, the number of superlatives is inversely proportional to the interviewer’s assessment of the candidates.

  3. Mike Walsh says:

    But… I’m kind of a big deal. Do you know who I am?

  4. I’m not an expert. I’m just really good at using Google! :-)

  5. Lee Everest says:

    Nice post, Tim!!!

    I have no idea how people ‘fake til you make it?’ but it still happens often. I just witnessed that on the dev team…some guy came in and was less than a jr. but talked his way into Sr .Net money. He lasted for about a month. I’m guilty if anything of selling myself way short, SSAS for example, and have for the past 15 years of my SQL career.

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