My original idea for this blog was “on becoming an ICT expert,” but a very basic question occurred to me: What does it mean to be an ICT “expert” and is it even possible to become one?  An even more basic question these days, of course, is what is included in the scope of ICT?

What is ICT?

ICT is an acronym for Information and Communications Technology, which is very similar to IT but includes communications (traditionally, voice communications was not part of the data processing department’s responsibilities).

ICT covers a lot of territory.  Even without including management, it can range from:

  • LAN connectors and wiring to the global Internet;
  • Cell and WiFi wireless to multi-gigabit optical fibre networks;
  • Single chips to mainframes and PCs to massive cloud data centres;
  • Smartphone apps to traditional nuclear power control applications;
  • Physical data centre protection to data encryption to  comprehensive security and privacy controls; and
  • Microsoft Office 365 to Facebook to school board payroll systems.

Recent additions to ICT might include the many “things” associated with the Internet of Things (even wearables such as connected watches).  CIOs may soon be responsible for the agility, functionality and performance of millions of connected devices located anywhere in the world.

Obviously, an ICT expert is a person that knows a lot about these topics.  But is there a minimum number of topics needed to claim the expert title?

Some ways to describe an ICT expert

How does anyone qualify to be an ICT expert?

It’s certainly possible to know a lot about ICT, even to be world-renowned and to have a possibly well-deserved reputation for your expertise.  Most people would think Steve Jobs was excellent at conceiving break-through ICT products, but did that also make him an expert in ICT?

Expert status may be largely in the eye of the beholder.  A person who knows little about ICT might think many other people are experts.  A university professor may be an expert from the perspective of a student.  A CIO might identify key individuals in their organization as experts (but also vice versa).  And the experts themselves may not believe they know enough to deserve the label (i.e., the more you know, the more you know you don’t know).

Expert status can be conferred for various reasons, most often because a person is acknowledged to be a “subject matter expert.”  However, I recently saw a job advertisement for a marketing writer who also had to be an IoT subject matter expert (which I think is a very rare type of writer!).  I assume they also wanted the person to be expert at writing.

Multiple dimensions for the classification of expertise are possible (this is clearly not a complete list):

  • Vertical expertise (specialize within a topic) vs. horizontal (know a lot about the topic);
  • Industry-specific (e.g., financial services) vs. multi-industry;
  • Strategist/architect vs. developer vs. operator;
  • Early adopter (the latest technologies) vs. laggard (a long term understanding of the industry);
  • User (the buyer’s viewpoint) vs. manufacturer or provider (the seller’s viewpoint);
  • Technical competence vs. managerial talent.

To truly be an ICT expert would you need to be expert in all these at the same time?  Some job ads would lead you to this conclusion.

The road to becoming an expert

How to you get to be an expert in ICT?  The range of possibilities include:

  • School – formal education is a primary method for learning about ICT, although the major result may well be learning how to think and solve problems instead of gaining topic-specific expertise;
  • On-the-job experience – clearly “hands on” experience and being on the “firing line” is a major step towards becoming an expert, but there’s debate as to whether it’s a mandatory requirement;
  • Self-development – books and journals, whitepapers, webinars, product documentation and online courses can all help increase your level of knowledge and understanding of ICT topics;
  • Personal experience – gaining exposure to ICT as an end user is another path that can be useful (e.g., playing games on a PC provides experience with using the operating system and the hardware, especially if something goes wrong);
  • Peer support – it is important to talk to other technical people, formally or informally, individually or as part of a group, especially if they are experts themselves; this can be invaluable (one example is the local events sponsored by the IEEE);
  • Vendor and industry certifications – a wide variety of certifications are now available covering a wide range of topics such as project management (the PMI), service management (ITIL), networking (vendor courses such as Cisco Systems) and security (ISACA).

These techniques, of course, are not mutually exclusive nor do they provide a guarantee that you will end up becoming an expert.  Certifications are often treated as an indicator of expert status, especially for hiring purposes.

Expert status can be defined by the brand you develop through public speaking, teaching, writing books or publishing articles in the trade press.  If everyone knows your name, you must be an expert, right?  Ultimately, however, the proof is in the results you achieve.

Companies want to hire, not develop, their experts

In today’s fast-paced ICT environments, many companies want to buy their experts, not develop them.  Some job ads are amusing (but also somewhat sad) when they specify 10 years of hands on experience in a technology or product that has only been on the market for five years!

Companies no longer have explicit career planning that would allow an employee to become a subject matter expert.  Promotions are more often designed to move a person into management rather than developing subject matter expertise.

This is an example of a real job request that appears to require an expert (somewhat sanitized from the original):

     Requirements:

  • Experience working within the industry within last two years
  • Incident, change, problem, service level management experience
  • Experience working on PaaS hosting initiatives within last three years
  • Experience implementing & managing ITSM process within the last five years

     Desirable Skills: 

  • Knowledge of, and experience with, the policies and procedures of the organization (e.g. business case development, project approvals, and policy development) or another large, complex, unionized organization;
  • Knowledge of, and experience with, infrastructure services within the organization (e.g. Internal Infrastructure Hosting policies and Provisioning practices);
  • Service Management service life-cycle, event management, monitoring services;
  • Working in a human resource, communications or organizational development role; and
  • In-depth knowledge of the organization’s support organization and ITSM processes including standards, process and procedures.

Experience with PaaS (platform as a service) initiatives would require a person with expert knowledge of cloud computing, while ITSM implementation would require an ITIL certified expert, and the organizational requirements would need prior experience in the industry vertical.  All in all, a person with multi-expert status is needed!

What I think is that this may be a hard person to find.  What do you think?