This feature first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Have you ever wondered what it takes to become an IT certification Subject Matter Expert (SME)? Do you love sharing your knowledge and expertise with others? Do you wish you could revamp an IT certification program, or advise certification providers and on how to improve their programs? Let's explore what it takes to become an IT certification SME.
A few years ago, I was asked to review a résumé for a young professional seeking to move his career forward. He considered himself to be a subject matter expert in multiple fields but was having difficulty in securing employment. The opening paragraph of his résumé was illuminating:
"I am an IT professional with four years of experience. My various careers have helped me become a top subject matter expert in managing people and teams, creating curriculums, public speaking, programming, education, supply chain, medical assisting, educating, retail sales, food delivery, lecturing, grant writing, community coordinating, government advocacy, business, and traffic control. I'm also an expert in travel, fine wine selection, coffee blending, beer making, and ballroom dancing."
This is, of course, not an excerpt from the actual résumé, but it is a pretty good fictional representation. The young man in question listed 14 distinct and separate career paths pursued over a four-year time span which represented his total work experience post-college graduation.
After taking a deep dive into his prior work history, it became clear that his real-world experience in each of the listed careers typically ranged from two to four months and he possessed no training or certifications. Despite that, he genuinely considered himself to be a subject matter expert in each field listed on the résumé and could not understand why there wasn't an active salary bidding war between employers vying with each other to have him join their team.
The issue with his résumé was obvious. You simply don't become an SME in 14 different fields in a mere four years. To put it bluntly, he had no depth or breadth in terms of training or experience in any of the listed careers. While he certainly didn't lack confidence, he was greatly misguided as to what it means to be a subject matter expert.
What is a Subject Matter Expert?
Subject matter experts are among the most valuable team members of any project and are absolutely essential to project success. Becoming an SME requires time and experience, commitment to your profession or craft, education, continuous training, and certifications, along with years of practical work experience directly related to the subject matter. An SME is a recognized authority in their field.
Even within the realm of acknowledged SMEs, you'll find differing skill levels. For example, you may be considered an SME on your individual team, but cross-functional teams may not know your name. Or you may be known within your enterprise or cross-functional teams as the go-to person and acknowledged SME, but your realm of expertise is limited to your business organization only.
There are also elite SMEs whose skills, expertise, and authority are not only recognized within their business enterprise, but are well-known and respected as an SME within their chosen IT sector among external professional organizations, training providers, and external organizations.
These elite SMEs are the crème de la crème in the IT industry. Certification providers look for the bestof-the-best when seeking advice and guidance for certification programs, or when updating existing credentialing programs to address emerging and evolving technologies.
Preparing to enter the national (or global) stage
To be considered a subject matter authority, IT professionals should build depth and breadth of knowledge and experience in their chosen IT domain. SMEs must be knowledgeable about all aspects of their area of IT expertise. They must also ensure they not only possess IT chops on existing technology but keep abreast of new and emerging trends in their IT domain.
Online courses and certifications coupled with practical experience remain a great way to build depth and breadth in a field and to hone existing skills and develop new ones. If opportunities to develop the needed breadth and depth in your IT domain aren't available through your business organization, look for volunteer opportunities though professional organizations, forums, colleges, or other settings to gain practical experience.
A trusted advisor
Have you ever called a support desk where the support agent provided an absolutely brilliant solution that unfortunately had absolutely nothing to do with the problem you were trying to solve? Nothing is worse than a SME who provides solutions that don't solve the problem.
By definition, SMEs are problem-solvers and innovators. As you present yourself as a thought leader and begin to mentor and train others, or reorganize IT within your enterprise, pay attention to what problem set you're trying to solve. What went well? What needs to be adjusted going forward? Test your theories and approaches. Learn from the results and adjust in the next iteration.
SMEs are not just a subject matter authority; they are also trusted advisors. The advice that you give needs to work for your target audience. When facts change, results change. Demonstrate your authenticity and share your findings with your followers. Transparency builds trust.
Go where "Everybody knows your name"
In early 1982, NBC launched the television series Cheers. Set in a fictional bar in Boston, Cheers became one of the most successful television series in history. The theme song contained an iconic line: "Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name."
You may have all the training, credentials, and experience in the world but if no one knows your name, chances are you won't be the first person to come to mind when a certification provider is looking for input from a SME. You literally need to go where everyone knows your name. Unfortunately for many of us, the only people who know our name are peers within our organization.
This means that you're going to have to market yourself. You need to put yourself out there in the public eye so people know who you are, what you have to offer, and what you can do. In other words, think of your knowledge, skills, and expertise as a product. Productize yourself as a SME and then "sell" that product to others.
Selling yourself as a SME
If you want to be known as a SME, then you must present yourself to others as an authority and thought leader in your chosen IT domain. Decide what you want to be known for and then build your personal brand. Fortunately, in today's digital world, building a personal brand and online presence is more accessible than ever. Many IT professionals use these tools:
Blogging — Blogging is a great way to get your message across and establish yourself as a SME. Be certain to blog regularly so your followers know when to expect your latest comments. Don't forget to promote your blog on forums targeting your IT area of expertise.
YouTube — Leverage the power of YouTube to create a channel focused on your IT area and showcase your knowledge.
Podcasting — Podcasting is also a great way to shine the spotlight on your knowledge and establish yourself as a SME.
Don't overlook the power of professional organizations in promoting yourself as an authority and thought leader. Look for volunteer opportunities within professional organizations. Offer to mentor others or serve on advisory boards. Seek ways to get involved. Offer to lead or participate in panel discussions. Lead certification study courses and offer FAQs, tips, or memory maps to successfully navigate certification exams.
Keep in mind that while you may possess the skills to be a SME, those skills remain locked and benefit only you unless you are able to share your knowledge with others. If you want to be a thought leader and develop certifications, then you must promote yourself. Good marketing is the key to success. Remember, you want everyone to know your name.
Getting a certification provider's attention
Let's say you've established yourself as a bonafide SME. You have the experience, education, training, and background demonstrating your skills and expertise. You've mentored, blogged, volunteered, and trained others. You've tested and refined your ideas. You are ready to take the next step and begin writing certification programs. So, how do you get the attention of certification providers?
As with any "job" search, do your research. Who are the certification providers for your IT domain? Are you willing to work with vendor-specific credential programs only or are you also open to developing vendor-neutral credentials? Do you want to work with certification providers or are you also open to working with educational institutions who develop their own certification or certificate programs?
Once you've identified the credentialing entities you'd like to work with, check out their websites and explore their requirements to become part of their SME certification team. I conducted a random Google search on three well-known certification providers — AWS, Microsoft, and CompTIA — and found information on all three vendor websites about how to become a part of their SME certification team.
In addition to certification providers, you'll find that many universities and training providers create in-house certificate or certification programs that require the expertise of SMEs. These may be developed in-house or by content providers such as Transperfect or McGraw-Hill. Use your networking skills to develop relationships with certification providers.
IT needs savvy, knowledgeable SMEs capable of developing the certifications to train the next generation. With time and commitment, you can be the one to help shape the next generation of certifications.