I am reposting this from my post at http://blog.neulantis.com/?p=36
In talking to a lot of startup focussed developers recently I hear the words “domain expert” and “idea guy” used almost interchangeably. There is enough confusion on the subject that I feel compelled to write a small piece on the difference between the two, particularly given that over the past decade I have been both – a domain expert, and an idea guy, and to me the difference is stark.
When I was the “idea guy”: During b-school, surprise, surprise , I was in a class called “Launching New Ventures”, and I began researching the topic of using algae to create bio-fuels. A few weeks into it I was convinced that I knew the magic formula to take an idea, that at the time of my research was clearly not commercially viable, and create a commercially viable venture out of it. Now keep in mind this is a problem that some very smart people from the US DOE have been grappling with for at least a few decades, but here I was, a 29 year old b-school guy with nothing more than some superficial understanding of the subject matter and a business plan, trying to change the world. From a sophisticated investor perspective, this was a clear non-starter for various reasons, but most critically because it failed the founder-market fit test.
When I was the “domain expert”: While at Accenture I was thrown into the fire of taking over the CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) capabilities of the then nascent NYC 3-1-1 service. We had just launched, and 3-1-1 was still a few years away from becoming the de-facto city service for everything non-emergency related. Now in order to design, develop and manage NYC’s CTI capabilities, I had no choice but to gain a very deep understanding of everything ranging from network latency, to trunking, to automated call distribution systems, to the intricacies of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) application adapters and how all of these things behaved under heavy performance load, various exception scenarios etc. Can a developer working on building an enterprise-grade SaaS based contact center idea leveraging the Twilio API figure all of this out? I am sure they can, anyone intelligent and motivated enough can, but keep in mind there is an opportunity cost involved – someone has to pay for that learning curve, and a venture with very limited resources can rarely afford to do this.
In short, while it is possible for a developer, designer or even a smart b-school type idea guy to become a domain expert, it takes time, its not an overnight process – just as its not an overnight process to become a top notch Ruby or Java developer, or an expert UI designer. I think it is critical for us to stretch our capabilities by learning each others skillets more, as it will only make for a stronger, more well balanced team, and increase our chance of success. I also think it is equally important for us to respect what each of us brings to the table, and not devalue real expertise and the effort required to gain it.