What does it mean to be an Expert?

Blog Post created by zkurka on Sep 9, 2016

During all of my college years I had to have a beer in hand to write a good paper.  I think it was more habit than anything else, but it always seemed to set the stage for the appropriate combination of relaxation and focus to crank out a 25 page gem.  After a short time my classmates thought that I devoted half my life to essays and dissertations, but when I described the setting and the process to them the response became, "he's just got the term paper thing down pat, he's an expert at it.".  I never felt like an expert at writing much of anything.  In fact, ask any of my current work colleagues and they will tell you documentation of any sort is a consistent failing of mine.  I always looked at writing in the context of one of my professors that was on page 1100 of his doctoral thesis written in or about a dead language (I can't recall which).  I would consider him, or Tolkien, or Thoreau, an expert writer though the stigma of my skill with a pen persisted in the microcosm of my academic peers.  Being an expert is obviously subject to context and the perspective/level of expertise of the objective viewer.


Alex Trebek once said, "We are all experts in our own little niches".  Wise words from a man who has been exposed to more overactive grey matter than any other mere mortal.  Running a business is not really a niche, but within that business there are many niches that can influence its success.  Most businesses consider the POS a niche that they don't want to take on so they farm out that expertise.  That means as payments enablers we are looked at as the experts of that niche and responsible for the success or failure of that component of their business.


I lived in the standard college house with 5 disgusting guys collaborating to create an expert pig sty.  One of those students was a computer science major that felt every detail of the networking in the house had to be explained in detail.  Some of the roommates didn't care, two of us listened and absorbed enough of the information to work for Vantiv today.  Years later when Canada shifted their processing model to require Pay at Table, a common question popped up about the line of who administrated the payments and who services the wireless network as they were both now tied to the business' ability to function.  Often times the POS provider would indicate that the merchant had their own systems admin who administered the network.  A little deeper digging indicated that this was the merchant themselves.  The situation where merchants felt enabled to be experts in the niche of the wireless network yet farm out all of their POS activities worried me.  I set out to test this worry in hopes of assuaging some misguided nervousness.


Armed with a 400.00 dollar laptop and some publicly available (albeit not entirely on the up and up) programs I ventured into downtown.  The first test was to check network permeability.  WP2 security while now commonplace, was still uncommon at the time.  I set out to see how many networks I could "sniff" packets on that were supposedly secure.  It turns out all of the WEP protected networks were as open as the bible on a Sunday morning within 5 minutes.  At that point I could have either stolen data or crashed them all, but I was trying to prove a theory, not be a bad guy, so I went to the next thing.  Credentials.


Last year while visiting my uncle he was extremely proud of the fact that he set up his home network which involved voice command theater systems and multiple access points all by himself.  The first thing I noticed was the SSID (Network ID you see when you search) was still default.  I suspected that meant that other things were left as default as well.  Sure enough I, and everyone who could use Google search, was an admin on his router.  His iPad somehow stopped working on that router while I was sitting one chair away.  "How did you hack my network?" was his question.  I replied that the pejorative word "hack" was implicit that I did something that I did not have the proper credentials to do.  Given that context of using all his default settings and me knowing what they were, I was in fact his network admin at that given time.


The same approach to credentials testing was applied to my experiment years earlier.  I realized in several hours of an afternoon I had access to over a dozen business networks in a 4 block span.  I knew the owner of one business really well.  I showed him that I had access to all of his POS equipment,  accounting computers, even his iPhone.  I pointed out to him that my level of expertise is limited to listening to a guy with more expertise on the topic talk once and awhile, combined with being able to Google things.  He admitted that he had thought his expertise which consisted of running a setup disc was good enough.  He hired his POS provider (who found this networking skill to be a logical extension of the POS business) to secure his network.  As I sit here and type on his Guest network everyone is happy and he has the piece of mind that an expert is in charge, his POS provider.


In a way my business owner friend and I are a great example of perspectives on expertise.  Many of my friends think of me as an authoritative mountain biker.  My friend raced with me in college and while I could kick his backside then, he developed his niche expertise to go professional for several years.  This example is important to understand when the average business owner thinks the network (an extension of their POS)  requires only their level of expertise.  The business owner can the best hitter in their summer softball league.  As good as his level of expertise is, there is a whole world of A, AA, AAA, and MLB pitchers out there that can strike him out from their desk chair.


In a world of Major League pitchers it is really important where we understand ourselves to be as far as expertise within our niche, and where it makes sense, improve it.  Although, I started as a novice in the area of networking, I consistently try to improve to stay ahead or in line with the needs of the businesses relying on our niche.  I see everyday that many of the people I work with are doing the same.  The trust of the business owners most days depends on our expert opinion.  In the world of payments we need to write like Tolkien, pitch like Koufax, or at least strive to do so every day.


I like Ben Franklin.  He said, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."  I like to think he was talking about expertise.  I want to think he was talking about our niches in business environments.  I hope he was suggesting we take our niche and become the best experts we can.  I know we was drinking a beer when he wrote it.