The Black Swan Myth Actually Devalues Expertise
On rare occasions, it does happen: A plucky rookie solves the “impossible” problem that stumped the experts because the rookie is unencumbered by the assumptions and constraints of formal education and experience.
While people derive inspiration from these “black swan” stories, they are dangerous because they represent extraordinary exceptions—not the rule—and some people can’t tell the difference.
The internet has made incredible amounts of information (and nonsense) available to experts and rookies alike. It has facilitated the development and increased awareness of black swans. With a world population of over 7.7 billion, there are thousands of people who are “one in a million” waiting to perpetuate the myth—or, more accurately, to skew our perception of how truly rare these exceptional individuals are.
The unfortunate consequence is that there are lots of ambitious rookies who would like to be the exception to the rule that it takes hard work and study to master a subject, and ongoing effort to maintain that mastery. These people want the shortcut to fame and glory, and, unchecked, they inflict their inexperience and hubris on others.
I once met with a bank executive to discuss a development project. After talking about requirements, my team developed a proposal to implement a modest system to meet his needs for something like $250,000. He was shocked at the price and told us that his teenaged son was no slouch as a programmer, and he was sure his son could do the work far less expensively over his summer break.
Right: Your bright kid is going to do something that a team of software professionals with over fifty years’ experience think is going to take half a year, in his spare time over a summer. I suppose it could happen, but I wouldn’t gamble the future of my financial institution on it.
The devaluing of expertise is causing real and significant harm in our world. I’m thrilled when I hear of the high school kid who develops a cheap test for a disease or a way to get plastic trash out of the oceans—we need smart and enthusiastic people to help address some of the world’s challenges. But we need to beware unintentionally devaluing expertise as we celebrate the rare black swans.
This rant was inspired by a conversation with a CIO. One of his client departments had grown frustrated by the time and energy required to gather requirements and understand the business problem to be solved. Instead they purchased an off-the-shelf system without regard for whether the architecture was consistent with the strategic direction of the organization, whether it could be supported by the existing infrastructure, whether data could be easily migrated from the existing system into the new environment, or whether the IT organization had the bandwidth and expertise necessary to support the new system.
I suspect there will be problems. Perhaps one of the managers in the client department also has a teenager who’s a decent programmer …