Polymaths and Outliers in the Age of Digital Knowledge

When faced with complex business problems, having access to real experts with a deep understanding of both new technologies and methodologies is still critically important.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of the ten-thousand-hour requirement for achieving mastery in a subject or domain. Many have strived to cross this universal constant to be recognized for their domain expertise since. However, the modern knowledge economy delivers innovation and digital transformation at breakneck speeds. Businesses are adapting operational structures to accommodate these changes, using agile methodologies to deliver better products and services faster than ever before.

In this kind of environment, cross-functional expertise is required, creating a need for multi-disciplinary, highly skilled resources. Whether the ten-thousand-hour threshold is indeed a universal constant or not, in today’s world having mastery of a subject or domain is no longer sufficient. In today’s world, you need to be a polymath.

Polymaths are the New Outliers

A polymath is an individual with competencies in multiple distinct domains, integrating them into a diverse skill set. Think of people like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. Both these tech giants used their love for knowledge to master seemingly disparate skills and then integrated that information into products that changed the world.

In fact, polymaths are responsible for most of the modern technological innovations. Books like Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment lists fifteen of the twenty biggest contributors to scientific progress as polymaths.

To become a polymath doesn’t just require years of dedicated study. It means having a natural inquisitiveness and desire to understand and solve complex existential problems. Although a noble cause, there is a developing fallacy in thinking Google or YouTube can do anyone’s job.

The Digital Knowledge Revolution

Access to digital knowledge is one of the primary benefits of the information age. While the impact of the informational revolution is comparable to the industrial one, it is wrong to think that having access to knowledge trumps real expertise.

These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything. - Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise

With the advancement of technologies such as Infrastructure as a Service, Platform as a Service, and Software as a Service, many technology providers market turnkey or “get started with a few clicks” solutions. Add to that the countless “how-to” blogs, YouTube videos, and other online courses, and it’s easy to assume anyone can be an expert now. Finish a two week accelerated programming course, and you’re a programmer now.

But there is familiarity, and then there is expertise. And expertise requires time, ten-thousand-hours if you subscribe to the Malcolm Gladwell Outlier hypothesis. Though many of us might tout our Google health “knowledge” when we visit our physician, I doubt any of us would hire a “two-week course certified” surgeon or lawyer.

When faced with complex business problems, having access to real experts with a deep understanding of both new technologies and methodologies is still critically important. Although there is a wealth of knowledge available online, template solutions rarely address unique business needs. A polymath can save a project hundreds of hours by relying on experience, instead of Google queries.

The Digital Knowledge Revolution

In the pre-cloud era, most businesses and enterprises segmented their technology around certain platforms (e.g. Java), or vendors (e.g. Microsoft). Though much effort was invested in “vendor agnostic” tech, the esoteric objective was rarely achieved, only in part due to clever vendor tactics. The main driver for this segmentation and vendor lock-in was in fact due to developed expertise around those platforms. Businesses invested a great deal in training and education around those platforms, and the more they invested, and the more expertise they gained, it became more cost effective to remain with the platform.

The Cloud has transformed the tech ecosystems of many organizations in many ways, one of which being the breaking of the vendor barriers, and opening opportunities for solutions where expertise and creativity are the only limiting factors. It is now possible to develop Cloud Native solutions that consist of a combination of multiple products and services offered by the Cloud providers and countless third-party providers.

Having removed the barriers of closed enterprise infrastructure boundaries, the most effective solutions require expertise across many domains. In other words, cross-domain expertise is no longer a differentiator, it is essential. Being a Polymath in the “Cloud-First” world is more important than ever before.

Cross-Functional Complexities are Here to Stay

Our name reflects our point of view, being a polymath is an essential quality for taking full advantage of everything tech has to offer, and for remaining competitive. While much information exists out there in the form of blogs and online courses, and today’s tech marketing makes it appear as easy to consume, it requires real expertise and experience to deliver scalable, resilient, secure, and cost-effective solutions. The main business differentiator today is, who knows this, and who doesn’t.