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So, What Makes You Such An Expert?

July 16, 2013

I’ve been a world expert twice in my life that I can remember. The first was while at WordPerfect (How I Saved the EPA, Don’t Tell Pete!) The second time was after migrating MeritCare’s 7000 users from Exchange 5.5 to GroupWise. (Fire, Flood and Famine!)

In both cases, my area of expertise was both extremely narrow and fleeting. How I got to that point was similar in both cases. Both Daniel Priestley (Book Review: Become A Key Person of Influence) and Timothy Ferriss (Book Review: The 4-Hour Workweek) talk about the process of becoming a world expert. Essentially it’s all about establishing credibility, getting endorsements and having some actual talent or skill. Interestingly, the last one is the least important in my opinion. I’m a Brad Paisley fan. In his song Celebrity he writes

Some day I’m gonna be famous.
Do I have talent? Well, no.
These days your don’t really need it,
Thanks to reality shows.

The world is full of people whose opinion is valued for no reason other than they have convinced the world that their opinions should be valued. The Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump on anything except money. Perhaps he listened to Toval “When you’re rich, they think you really know.”

But, in my case, fortunately, I actually had a skill, or I acquired it.

Establishing Credibility

Both Priestley and Ferriss agree that you need to write a book. The contents are less important than the fact that you managed to write a book. I’ve written several. . .they are hard work. Today’s blog entry is the ninety-second for In all those months of writing, I’ve put down about 50,000-70,000 words. (And I’ve had a blast doing it.) But, a decent sized book is 50,000-150,000 words.

So, if you can string tens of thousands of words together people think that counts for something. And it does. In my case, the Microsoft Exchange Connectivity Guide was lucky enough to be one of the first books on Microsoft Exchange, and Becky Wynn, my co-author and I did a pretty good job of explaining how to make Exchange talk to other systems.

When it came time to explain to MeritCare why they should pay $250 / hour to have me oversee their migration, I came with some credibility.

Early in my career, when I was working on WordPerfect Office we didn’t really think about publishing. I simply was the guy who saved the EPA. I also had the backing of Alan Ashton, WordPerfect’s president.

Getting Endorsements

I love LinkedIn. I think it’s a fantastic tool. (Feel free to connect.) However, a few months ago they added an “Endorse” feature. Basically, you can endorse your connections for certain skills and knowledge. The concept is okay, I guess. But I’ve been endorsed by people who had no idea what my skillset was. I’ve been prompted by the system to endorse people for skills I have no clue about.

But, endorsements, real endorsements are vital. I mentioned that while running Purple Crayon Consulting, 100% of my business came from referrals. I never advertised. The people who were referring customers to me were some of the very best in their fields or areas of expertise. My customers trusted me because my customers trusted them.

When it came to WordPerfect Office, I had the backing of the company president, but eventually, I built up a reputation with our System Engineer and Field Sales teams. If the Sales guys could get the customer to pay for me to come onsite, they did their best to really sell my skill set.

Actual Talent or Skill

In some fields, it’s possible to fake it. In consulting, at least with the companies I worked with, it wasn’t.

One of my WordPerfect Office customers had two gateways. They connected the email to two slightly different mini-mainframe systems. MEMO was one of them, I’ve lost the name of the other. Messages from these two system could come in through either of two gateways. However, when someone responded, the response had to route to a particular gateway based on the recipient’s name. Anyone who’s worked with Office or GroupWise knows that messages build a “return route” on their way in and replies follow that route back out.

I had to figure out how to strip off the return route so that the system would look at the name and route it based on the recipient. It couldn’t be done. It was impossible. It took me two solid weeks of lab work to accomplish it. I really wish I’d written a book back then.

At MeritCare, with the migration work, I had a different problem. I was an expert on Microsoft Exchange. In addition to the book I wrote, I’d written hundreds of pages of training materials, and I’d also helped write the certification exam. I was also a WordPerfect Office expert based on my SWAT Team days.

The piece I wasn’t an expert on was the actual tool we were planning to use, GWMigrate. I knew it as well as anyone except the Development team, which was British, not that it mattered. But, this is where being known as an expert helped bridge the gap.

I certainly knew more about the migration process than the client. And I was confident that we could accomplish what the customer wanted. The fact that it had never been done before, while slightly concerning, didn’t bother me hugely.

To Sum Up

And that’s the point. I was an expert, I wasn’t necessarily the expert. But, my areas of expertise were incredibly narrow: WordPerfect Office and Exchange to GroupWise migration. When you go to stake out your own piece of sky, remember to go deep not broad. This is a topic that Ferriss hits very hard and often in The 4-Hour Workweek; Look for a niche and then find a microniche and attempt to dominate in that space. Chances are there won’t be a lot of competition, and if you establish credibility, secure trusted endorsements and have a bit of skill in the area, it can lead to success.

I’ll stay with the consulting theme this week and mix in some Microsoft stories at the end of the week. Here’s the schedule.

Monday: Un-Book Review. . .Purple Crayon Club
Tuesday: On Being a World Expert
Wednesday: Overplaying a Recommendation (This one still makes me cringe to think about it.)
Thursday: No Camping . . .But the place I saw the sign will surprise you
Friday: Don’t Pollute The Waste Streams. . .Not all garbage is created equal

About the author
Rodney M. Bliss is an author, blogger and IT consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, Utah with his lovely wife and 13 kids.

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