Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

By | May 20, 2013

Subject Matter Experts or SME’s, as they are commonly known, are people who have advance knowledge in their area of work. They might have gained expertise while working in a specific industry or a job function requiring the mandatory knowledge of a subject.  A common example could be a person with an extensive experience in Retail industry who can contribute as an SME for supply chain software development company. Another one could be that of a chartered accountant in an MNC who can help a team developing finance & accounting software for similar companies.

The role of SME’s in software development is to provide relevant knowledge and guidance on the subject matter. They can tell about the actual practices and the deviations from theoretical principles. They are the ones who know about the functional challenges and exceptions. They know how a particular industry is evolving and the likely shift in customer needs in future. SME’s are trusted for their insights and the information they share becomes the basis of software design and features.

Today, most software companies employ SME’s for various verticals such as healthcare industry seeks practising physicians and surgeons, ERP or supply chain requires highly experienced professionals from the industry or those with a doctorate in a relevant field and the translation companies keep looking for experts in some widely spoken languages across the world.

SME’s are consulted the most during the requirement understanding and design stages of the software development lifecycle. A number of people talk to them for a variety of reasons. Software architects or designers talk about how to design the software, to establish the process flows in various business processes. Testing professionals consult them for creating test cases, checks and validations. Technical Writers or Product Documentation engineers interview them to understand the domain and working of the processes so that they can explain them better. Technical Writers or Information Developers need to interact with the SMEs in the Information Gathering phase of the Documentation Development Lifecycle (DDLC).

We all know that conducting an interview is a social activity. But, it has its own challenges when the interview is a technical one and has far-reaching consequences. Any misunderstanding or misconception can lead to a potential flaw in the final software product. As an interviewer, one must surely take interest in the person being interviewed.  However, it is very important to ask the right questions, listen, show interest, capture the right information, and validate the understanding before taking it forward.

There may be a situation when there is a panel of SMEs available. We must understand that every participant is capable of making a unique contribution and inputs should be obtained from all the SMEs in such a way that the information gathered isn’t conflicting. In case of any conflicts, follow-up meetings should be organized with carefully designed questions to resolve them. Asking for detailed explanations with suitable examples can help the interviewers gain the clarity and document the information flawlessly.

One of the best practices for the interviewers is to be prepared with a checklist made on the kind of questions to be asked. Another thumb rule to be followed is to record the audio or video of the conversation. Finally, there should be a comfortable exchange between the interviewer and the SME’s. As a respected expert on a particular subject, the SME should be given proper time to talk and ensure that the interviewers or writers absorb their knowledge by listening attentively.

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