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Anatomy of a Software Development Role: Subject Matter Expert

  • April 12, 2005
  • By Robert Bogue
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What Makes a Subject Matter Expert Stand Out?

Being a subject matter expert isn't a career in the same kind of way that being a developer is a career. In most of the roles in the development process the core learning is around the skills and technologies of developing software. The SME is instead developing a deep understanding of a process, an industry, and in some cases an organization. The SME's value is their unique understanding of the problem that the development process is designed to solve or at least help resolve. In this way a SME is focused on being the thought leader and expert for a small set of information.

SMEs stand out from the crowd when they deliver industry presentations that call attention to their complete understanding of how the industry - or one part of the industry works. This process requires a willingness to get in front of large groups to speak and the drive to develop presentation skills that are very good.

In addition SMEs can cause themselves to stand out by writing articles for trade or industry journals. Writing an article is great in itself because it requires a certain level of clarity around the topic being written about. However, the real power is in being published in an industry magazine because there is an implied branding for the kind of quality of person who writes articles magazines. This can be immensely powerful in making you stand out from the crowd.

In a less public way the SME can stand out from the crowd by learning how to interact with different personalities to develop a network of relationships in the organization or industry that they are working in. It is rare for an SME to clearly understand the challenges faced by the producer for the organization, the sales department, the executive staff, and all of the other various departments. The more that an SME understands about the operation and hurdles facing the organization the more valuable they are in their organization and as an SME.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The Subject Matter Expert role in the software development lifecycle has its ups and downs just like every other role within the process. Here are a few examples of what's good about the role and a few items to watch out for:

  • Good: The role in the project is generally short lived. Projects tend to come and go
  • Good: Subject matter experts are a generally well-respected and necessary part of the project.
  • Good: Subject matter experts have a chance to interact with numerous people at all levels within an organization. This is often great exposure for being noticed within an organization.
  • Bad: Since software development isn't the primary process of an SME most feel a bit like a fish out of water.
  • Bad: Although generally bright intelligent people the rest of the software development team may have trouble understanding the business that a SME is describing since they've not been a part of it. An SME may have to explain things from a couple of points of view for it to be fully understood.
  • Ugly: Participating in a software development process may require more time than you're used to.
  • Ugly: SMEs may have to interact with geeks and bear through discussions on topics that won't ever help them in their daily jobs.


The subject matter expert is the genesis of the software development process and can be an invaluable member of the team. Because their involvement in the software development process is short lived there is a role to guide them through the process. That role, the functional analyst, is also the next step up for a SME who's looking to become more involved in the often chaotic process that is software development.

About the Author

Robert Bogue, MCSE (NT4/W2K), MCSA:Security, A+, Network+, Server+, I-Net+, IT Project+, E-Biz+, CDIA+ has contributed to more than 100 book projects and numerous other publishing projects. He writes on topics from networking and certification to Microsoft applications and business needs. Robert is a strategic consultant for Crowe Chizek in Indianapolis. Some of Robert's more recent books are Mobilize Yourself!: The Microsoft Guide to Mobile Technology, Server+ Training Kit, and MCSA Training Guide (70-218): Managing a Windows 2000 Network. He was honored to become a Microsoft MVP for Microsoft Windows Server - Networking . You can reach Robert at Robert.Bogue@CroweChizek.com

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