So You Say You’re An Expert?

Whether through my recruiting endeavors or the private resume services I provide to job seekers, not a week goes by where I don’t see the word “expert” somewhere on a resume or cover letter. “Expert in $LANGUAGE” isn’t all that uncommon, and today the expression of expertise may also be depicted through a horizontal bar graph where several languages or concepts are rated as “beginner“, “intermediate“, or (here it comes…) “expert“.  PROTIP: Don’t use bar graphs to demonstrate knowledge.

When the source is a professional that appears to have deep experience in a subject matter, I’m not likely to even pause. However, it’s exceedingly rare these days that the claim of expertise comes from someone likely to fit that description. I’d venture to say I see it from recent graduates and students much more often than experienced technologists, which in itself may demonstrate my point.

There are two significant issues with claiming expertise on a resume or job application.

  1. The claim demonstrates that you probably don’t even understand what expertise would look like. I’m sure many readers are at least somewhat familiar with the “10,000 Hour Rule” claiming that is the required practice time to master a subject. Whether one agrees with that theory or not is irrelevant, as most of those in the programming world would understand that it’s highly unlikely (if not impossible) to become an expert based on an undergraduate curriculum and a couple internships. A claim of expertise related to a robust programming language may even indicate that the source knows so little about the subject as to even be able to recognize what might qualify as expertise.
  2. You are now a target for people who know more than you do. I’ve seen countless incidents of hiring managers responding with, “So this one is an expert, eh? Schedule him/her for a phone interview with $BESTDEVELOPER and let’s find out!” when a resume claims expert skills. The claim of expertise has now raised the bar for the interview and evaluation process, and your candidacy will face a much higher level of scrutiny than those who are either more modest or more knowledgeable about their own limitations.

There are better ways to demonstrate expertise than a biased claim or a trendy bar graph. Developers who succeed in coding challenges or provide samples of past work for critique can leave little room for subjective interpretation by employers. Quantifying your experience along with some accomplishments is another way to indicate ability.

Think twice about claiming to be an expert. You’re usually doing more harm than good.


    • fecak

      You can explain your accomplishments using a specific skill while detailing any complexity. You can also quantify experience (*n years using $SKILL*), which is much more objective than a term like “expert” which is highly subjective.

      • Tim

        I can see how that would be better but not sure if the short description of a previous project or place of employment allows elaborating into that level of detail.
        Using something for n years doesn’t say much either, for example: you can use a tool or library for couple of years or you can have knowledge of it’s internal working..

      • fecak

        I’d suggest qualifying or quantifying skills (if necessary) in a summary or profile section of the resume, or in a cover letter. You are correct that number of years doesn’t always give an accurate portrayal. When trying to convey expertise, we can potentially modify the quantity of years/months to make it more clear that we are indeed expressing our confidence without claiming to be an “expert” outright.

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