The Detail Test

To find out if someone is an expert, ask them about a seemingly insignificant and irrelevant detail

Listen to me read this below:


“It is sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed you don’t know what you’re talking about”.

This is what a computer programmer said to Steve Jobs at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in 1997, as captured in this video. For context, this came right as Jobs had returned to Apple after a 7-year hiatus, following his 1990 firing. He was back but he was vulnerable.

Then the questioner asked Jobs:

“I would like you to express in clear terms how, say, Java, in any of its incarnations, addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc?”

Now I personally have no idea what OpenDoc is/was and I definitely don’t care.

But my suspicion is that Steve Jobs knew perfectly well what OpenDoc was, and cared, but also understood its contextual relevance. He knew where it sat in the vast universe of technology, programming languages, business concepts, design ideas, and cultural understanding that went into Apple. Armed with that contextual understanding he was able to disarm the hostile crowd member and also clarify his design philosophy that made Apple what it is.

By the way, every Q&A talk Jobs ever gave was a sales talk convincing you to buy Apple products. We want to hear from the creator.

You’re the creator

The questions you get about the details of the solution you provide –  they’re not questions about details. They are a micro-expression of a lack of certainty as to value.

How can the listener be certain of effectiveness without knowing how the details fit into the overall solution?

How can the listener be certain of your solution without knowing you care that they understand?

You created it, so you should be able to explain. Being asked to explain details, however trivial they seem, is a wonderful opportunity.

I get this all time the time. Someone will say, “yeah but what about X?” What about video marketing? Why is the tagline you wrote so long? Why did you edit out the period from the headline?

To be fair, there are bad-faith actors such as the hostile programmer trying to play gotcha with Steve Jobs. But good-faith actors want to ask about the details too.

And they want to be assured that we understand how any detail fits the big picture. They’re not testing our data retention.

The next time you want to test whether someone is an expert yet, ask them about a seemingly trivial detail. If they dismiss the question as trivial, they dismiss you as trivial.