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I'm interviewing for a new job and in my last phone call they kept mentioning how they'd expect the new member to become a "subject matter expert".

Part of what I really don't like about my current role is that all my projects are independent - no one else ever works with me on the same thing, and there's no one I can go to for help.

Is this "subject matter expert" speak likely to just be more of the same thing?

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    Its worth mentioning but probably not worth a full post - SMEs tend to be the person other people come to for help. If its a larger company they might be expecting you to step up to a role of knowledge keeping for the company. – Sh4d0wsPlyr Sep 12 at 19:20
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    Working 100% alone in the era of accursed Agile project management ? A blissful dream of yesteryear :-) . Frankly I expect every developer to want to become a subject matter expert. This is a minimum requirement for growing into senior technical roles. They want to know you're willing to step up to the plate. – StephenG Sep 12 at 20:00
  • Without telling us what role/position you are interviewing for, or at least what industry, you won't get a valuable answer to this question. Most users here are developers, but unless you tell us, it's all assumption. SME means one thing for developers, but for project managers, or law firms, or auditing firms, it likely means something entirely different. – wberry Sep 14 at 16:54
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The thing you really seem concerned about is making sure you don't repeat the aspects of your current position that you don't like:

Part of what I really don't like about my current role is that all my projects are independent - no one else ever works with me on the same thing, and there's no one I can go to for help.

I don't think the employer's use of the term "subject matter expert" has any ties to those job characteristics, and I think other answers correctly address that point. But it should be clear that the best way to solve your root problem is to not focus on the SME label, and instead do your best now to understand the working environment.

Hiring processes are meant to be two-way - the employer wants to evaluate your fitness for the role, and you should be evaluating them to determine if it's a place where you would be happy to work. The fact that you've identified things about your current role that you do not like is a good first step. The next step is to turn those factors into questions that can help you evaluate this potential employer, so you can have confidence in determining if those issues would repeat or not.

You might consider asking things like,

What methods or resources are available within the company to help me come up to speed on X? Will I have opportunities for training or other learning?

This can help you evaluate your current concern of having no one to go to for help.

What is the typical make-up of teams working on projects related to X?

Or,

In the day to day work for this position, are most projects done solo, or as part of a larger team? What is the typical make up of project teams?

Those questions can help you evaluate your concern about working solo on most projects.

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Is this "subject matter expert" speak likely to just be more of the same thing?

Hard to tell but I'd say not necessarily.

Subject-matter expert is the one that knows in great depth the broad and fine details of certain topic or project. That person is the default go-to colleague that everybody else recurs when they need info regarding the project.

It does not necessarily mean that you will be working all alone every time; most likely it means that it is expected that the person hired will have to eventually become that go-to person everybody else can recur when in need of info on the matter (moment when you will surely be interacting with others).

Now, if you would not like to end up working alone and fear that this job will be the same, I suggest you ask them about what this position will involve and if you will get the chance to interact with other coworkers before and after you become the subject-matter expert.

When you get your answer you will be able to tell if this job is good fit for you or not.

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"Subject Matter Expert" or SME(smee) is a phrase that I often hear thrown around in the government/defense contractor world.

All this really means is that you are recognized as an expert in some particular area or specialty, and others see you as an authority on a particular topic. It does not in any way imply that you will be working predominately alone.

In fact, SMEs are often contacted and resourced for their expertise due to the aforementioned authority that they have on specific topics.

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    An SME can also float between projects as they are required. They are also expected to quickly provide input to a project with little to no guidance since they literally are the expert on the subject. It does not mean they work alone, they might be helping an entire team solve a problem, an SME is literally the authority on the subject. – Donald Sep 12 at 6:05
  • That's my main experience of "subject-matter expert". It means that you mainly spend you time /not/ doing whatever you're an expert in, but training, answering queries, etc, to the extent that maintaining currency in the field becomes difficult. – Dannie Sep 13 at 10:39
  • Also, SMEs in general may be experts in their subject matter, but not necessarily anything about actual product development. I've worked a number of defense simulation projects, and the SMEs tend to be people with actual military or technical experience, but generally without software developer experience. They're the ones who we ask "How is this thing supposed to work in reality?" and then we use their input to simulate it working in the program. – Darrel Hoffman Sep 13 at 20:48
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I'll take a slightly contrarian point of view: it probably depends on whether they're talking about a technology or a specific system/process.

If they want you to become a SME on JQuery, or on .NET Generics, or on Git, or on SQL table performance? Then what they're really saying is, "We like having someone around that knows this particular technology inside and out, and we can have people use them as a resource when they're working with that technology." For instance, we'd love to get a Git subject matter expert... because right now, our group sucks with it (we barely manage to scrape by.)

But if they want you to become the SME on 'How the logger system works' or 'The code behind the Flooby system' or 'How to clear errors from the batch process'? Then... yeah, there's a decent chance they're silo'izing to at least some extent. Because if they want someone to the level of a "subject matter expert" on a specific process like that, it probably means they intend for that person to do most of the troubleshooting/maintenance on it.

And... as sad as it is, I'd actually imagine the second being the more likely scenario (but this is just a personal guess on my part, and could be wildly off base.) I mean, there are good companies that recognize the benefit of SME on technologies... but there are bad companies that silo'ize their projects. And it's more likely the latter would make a point of asking about SME in the interview than the former.

Anyway, like other answers said: ask 'em. Interviews are also meant for you to interview them, to figure out if you want to work there. If you have a concern, figure out a way of asking questions that will either confirm or alleviate that fear.

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That's not (necessarily) what it means.

My HR director is a subject matter expert on my company's HR policies, and is indeed the most expert SME on those topics. She doesn't work alone, nor is she the only employee that knows that information. She is, by virtue of her position, expected to be highly knowledgeable about things that fall into that topic.

Conversely, I am a subject matter expert on a few topics at my company as well, and I am the only person that really deals with those topics. I'm simply expected to be capable of fulfilling my job responsibilities, which requires knowledge and expertise.

The phrase subject matter expert itself mainly means thorough understanding of a topic. Your specific question isn't really related to that, so that they used the expression is not a cause for concern.

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You should ask them questions about how they manage key person/single point of failure risk.

In any team there will be different people who know more about different areas, and for any given topic, probably one person who would be the first person anyone would ask. Being that person for at least some important areas is generally a good thing for you and your development. But it's also important that there be at least one or two others who will know a reasonable amount about the topic if you're not around, or if you need to bounce something off others yourself.

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