Re: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

Subject: Re: Interviewing Subject Matter Experts
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- progeny -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 15 May 2001 13:37:19 -0700

Andrew Plato wrote:
> The same. Most tech writers out there treat SME's like priests and
> reverends. The fact is, most SMEs are morons doing the absolute minimum to
> get paid. Trusting the information from these people is synonymous to
> getting investigative news from the National Enquirer.

Well, I wouldn't go quite this far. But I would say that the writer has
to provide the focus rather than the SME. Many writers don't realize
this fact - especially when just starting out.

For example, a few weeks ago, a manager of on-line services whom I know
decided that an FAQ on how to change keyboard mappings in Debian
GNU/Linux would be useful. He sent out a request for information from
the programmers. One programmer, an expert in the X Window System (which
features heavily in the answer the manager was seeking) replied by
commenting about the difficulties of changing the mapping for non-Latin
alphabets. Another, a project leader, replied by speculating on how the
request might fit into localization efforts in general.

Neither of these responses was unintelligent by any means. But neither
was very much to the point, either. People were responding to the parts
of the question that interested them - and a procedural or two for
people with less knowledge that they had was not among the list of
subjects that interested them.

It was left to me to provide most of the answer on my own, then check
out a few details by asking the right questions of the people who
responded. I was by no means as expert as the other people who responded
- far from it. Nor was I any more energetic. But I got results because I
had a better sense of what was asked and because I knew what was needed.

> This is why I laugh when engineers (or writers) blame Microsoft for their
> inability to get their job done. When I hear this, I know that its just
> good old fashion incompetence and ignorance. They think because their
> knowledge of whatever does not perfectly transfer to MS products that this
> is because MS products suck.

I've got to disagree here. While many people criticize Microsoft because
it's a trendy thing to do, a good deal of the criticism of Microsoft is
based on expertise and practical experience on both Microsoft and
non-Microsoft systems.

However, that's a potentially endless argument that I won't get into.
The point is well-taken that SMEs are not necessary omniscient. Unless
you have some expertise yourself, or found the SME trustworthy in the
past, don't assume that everything you're told is right.

> This is why I laugh when tech writers say they don't get any respect.
> Respect is earned through the consistent demonstration of one's
> capabilities. Standing around asking dumb questions and making the subject
> and verbs agree in sentences is not an impressive skill. Anybody can do
> that.

I agree with the sentiment, but with the slight revision that it is
better to admit ignorance than hesitate to ask a dumb question. Your
average SMEs may not respect a lack of knowledge, but they despise
people who pretend to have knowledge that they don't really have.

And remember, too, that, the more you know, the more you can mitigate
the effects of a dumb question by trying to make connections about the

Bruce Byfield 604.421.7177 bbyfield -at- progeny -dot- com

"They say you get used to a war
But that doesn't mean that the war isn't on."
-Geoff Pearson, "If They Come in the Morning"


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