Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Value of Domain Knowledge

I recently gave a talk to the computer science department at my undergraduate university. I was trying to inform them about the state of the industry and give them a little heads up on what they were getting themselves into. One thing that I think they found interesting was my statement that we are merely problem solvers. We are like astronomers and computers are our telescopes. Obviously, being able to use a telescope is important, but our ability to solve problems is our most valuable asset. Computer Scientists have replaced mathematicians as the problem solvers of choice. While mathematicians have their formulas and proofs, computer scientists have the ability to solve problems with brute force. Being half academic, I pine more than wonder at our barbaric problem solving abilities, but my other half enjoys the "get it done" mentality.

As a problem solver, one of our most valuable assets is domain knowledge. Any newly minted B.S.C.S. can turn specs into code, but to be able to have empathy for the user and understand the domain comes only with years of experience. When you ask the user what he or she wants and then you come up with more items than the user does, you have achieved domain expertise. It is akin to the astronomer who can predict the number and size of planets based on the wobble of a star. To a company, this is the most valuable an employee can get. Not only can they contribute to a company by "tuning the telescope", they can also help analyze the results and even help construct a telescope that better measures what they wish to measure.

Where does this leave consultants? Well, there are two different kinds of consultants, and it effects each differently. Some consultants make thier living off of training others. Technology changes at such a rapid pace that schools cannot provide adequate training for everything that you might ever see. These consultants work hard to stay abreast of best practices and then transfer their knowledge to those who hire them. It is similar to teaching earth-bound astronomers how to operate the hubble. Obviously, they never envisioned the hubble when they were in school, so that new knowledge has to be imparted to them in some manner. This is a valuable service, and we should think of it as an extension of school rather than as a consultant.

The other form of consultant is an expert telescope user. This consultant is paid to be very good at using telescopes. He cannot tell what he is looking at, but the telescope is guaranteed to take the best pictures possible. Obviously, this consultant needs a lot of hand holding. In many cases, it is easier to just tune the telescope yourself; however, there are times when the person reading the pictures no longer knows how to use the telescope. This position has a value, but it is small compared to the other two positions I described.

So, as you evaluate where you fit in on the spectrum, see if you provide domain knowledge, education, or just an extra hand. If it is the latter, don't be surpised to see your hand replaced by a cheaper one. If it is the former, and you are being replaced, then you have to seriously wonder about the health of the company. And if you are in the middle, enjoy the moment, but keep learning for the future.

No comments: