Just say no to experts

Experts bad. Expertise good.

Example 1: Prior to starting WSO2, while I was in IBM Research, I created and lead a project called the “Colombo Project”. I called it that because I had moved back to Sri Lanka by then and I was telecommuting to my job in New York.

The Colombo Project was a precursor to WSO2. The idea was similar: why can’t we have much better middleware by designing everything around a services approach. In mid 2004, I presented the Colombo Project at the IBM WebSphere Platform Architecture Board and afterwards I remember the Chief Architect of WebSphere 390 (the mainframe version) walking up to me and saying “So you think you will start with a JVM and build everything we’ve got?”.

I was like “um, yeah.”

He responded with something to the effect that I was a clueless idiot who had no idea how hard it is to make stuff that works well at scale.

Of course he was right; I had no idea.

Example 2: A few weeks ago I had seen an article about a small wind turbine that condenses water vapor from the air into a tank buried in the ground. The water is clean to boot. This is not a BS technology, according to Popular Science.


Sri Lanka is (again) going through a terrible drought. So I asked, can we build this in Sri Lanka? Our country is very moist and there’s wind in most places so that means there’s plenty of water vapor around and enough power to turn it. If it works in Abu Dhabi then really it should be quite doable here.

A friend of mine re-posted it and he knew some folks who are “experts” in the area — and their answer was “Nahh it won’t work because X, Y, Z”.

These are just two examples of many of my run-ins with experts. They always know the answer from experience and know what cannot be done. They unfortunately rarely know what can be done.

The problem of course is that they think they know it all. They think that the way they know how to do something is the only way to do something.

Tell that to Mark Zuckerberg. To Marc Andreessen. To Elon Musk. To Bill Gates. To Steve Jobs.

In the case of my IBM friend, he was dead wrong that you couldn’t indeed think differently and make things go much better, faster, cheaper, cooler, hotter, sexier, *-er. I can’t quite say that about those turbines (I haven’t yet tried to make one) but I don’t believe its impossible.

I now believe is that “experts” and innovative thinking don’t go together. Expertise is good, but experts are bad for innovation.

Next year it’ll be 30 years since I got my Bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics / Computer Science from Kent State University. Damn. Beyond the (apparent) fact that I’m getting old(er), I don’t consider myself an expert in anything (and many will agree!). I do have some level of expertise in a few areas, but given the rate of innovation and research and creativity in Computer Science, no expertise is stable any more and if I want to be relevant and current at all I have to keep reading and doing and learning and adapting and adopting all the time.

To me, the moment someone tells me it can’t be done I want to prove that it can be done. If you introduce someone to me as “she is an expert in X” I immediately go into skeptical mode on anything she says about X because I keep wondering how much of it is because of her being blindsided by tunnel vision brought on by the expert label. I guess I have developed disdain for the arrogance of experts.

That is not to say I don’t have immense respect for expertise. People who know stuff are awesome to work with and are absolutely critical to solve tough problems. But, ONLY if they can suspend disbelief when some random person (old or young) says “what if we do X” and can avoid instinctively reacting with “that won’t work”.

I personally run a background thread in my brain whenever I say “that won’t work” (yes I do say it sometimes) to double check whether its really correct to say that or its my false “expertise”, “experience”, “wisdom” etc. that’s saying that.

Entrepreneurs are people who are pissed off enough about some problem to want to do something about it and can muster the tools to make it happen.

Very often potential investors (and other pundits) will tell entrepreneurs to consult experts to check whether what is proposed can be done. Listen to their expertise and learn from it but have your skeptic filter on maximum and don’t take them as an expert who can tell you that it cannot be done.

There are no experts in your problem, in your approach and your passion, not even you. There is just your expertise and what new knowledge and information you choose to keep acquiring.

Don’t use an “expert” as an excuse to stop what you want to do — Just do it.

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