When People Describe Themselves as Experts, It’s a Good Sign They Aren’t

Not all opinions about Microsoft's Nokia deal are created equal.

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Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Enterprise technology executive Stephen Elop, a veteran of Microsoft, Adobe, Macromedia, Jupiter Networks and Lotus, among other companies.

Microsoft, as you may have heard, announced yesterday that it intends to buy Nokia’s devices and services business, turning itself from a maker of smartphone operating systems into a maker of smartphones. It’s a big, big story. And when big, big stories happen, tech journalists such as me can be sure of one thing: Our inboxes will be filled with e-mail from PR people representing experts who’d love to be quoted in articles about the news in question. (I know they’re experts, because the e-mails nearly always say so.)

Usually, these e-mails supply canned quotes, just to make the whole process super-easy. Hey, instant expertise!

There are only two problems with these prepared statements:

  1. No self-respecting reporter would pad out a story with a ready-made quote from a random person that arrived over the digital transom
  2. Almost without exception, everything in these quotes is either excruciatingly obvious or remarkably boneheaded

I was reminded of this eternal verity today when I received an e-mail from a major university offering up one of its professors as an expert. (I’m feeling kind-hearted at the moment, so I won’t mention the expert or the school by name, but full disclosure: I am a graduate of said institution.)

The canned quote starts by expressing concern that Microsoft’s decision to market its own phones may tick off third-party manufacturers of Windows Phones. It’s a reasonable point — although I think a real expert might note that Nokia has nearly 90 percent market share in Windows Phones already. Even if all the other players pull out of the platform in one massive snit, the impact on Windows Phone wouldn’t be devastating.

But it’s the expert’s second point which is particularly pointless. It shows he isn’t an expert at all, at least when it comes to this topic.

The sound bite refers to Stephen Elop, the Nokia CEO who is coming to Microsoft to head up its device efforts. Even before the Nokia deal, he was at or near the top of many lists of candidates to replace Steve Ballmer when he retires as Microsoft’s CEO. But the expert is concerned about the possibility:

Second: Elop as a possible CEO to succeed Ballmer is risky as his experience is rather limited and Microsoft’s future should focus on a much more expansive view of how software drives the future of business and society.  Also, Microsoft’s customer base is enterprises first and consumer next — and the required competence is software architecture and cloud-based services and not consumer hardware.

Excuse me? What Elop is a newbie at is consumer hardware, not enterprise software and related matters. He was named as Nokia’s CEO in September of 2010, and it was the first gig he’d had involving consumer hardware.

For many years before that, Elop was a business IT guy, focusing mostly on software, at companies such as Adobe, Macromedia, Juniper Networks and Lotus. Once upon a time, he was Boston Chicken’s CIO, which means that he’s been a buyer of enterprise software as well as a purveyor of it.

And did I mention that before he went to Nokia, he was the president of Microsoft’s business division, and therefore responsible for the specific products our expert says he doesn’t have the proper background for?

Basically, Elop’s experience isn’t limited, and his career to date includes more evidence that he’s competent at enterprise software than it does he’s a consumer-hardware guru. If you’re unaware of his background, you shouldn’t be expressing opinions about his qualifications to be Microsoft’s next CEO.

Now, I’m not saying that Elop is obviously the dream candidate to run Microsoft. For one thing, if anything about him gives me pause, it’s the evidence that he may not be the kind of guy who’s happy in one place for all that long — since 2005, he’s had six different jobs at five different companies, counting his new position at Microsoft and including two companies he dismantled as CEO (Macromedia and Nokia).

It seems to me that even if Microsoft creates an O.K. future for itself, it has a long, hard slog ahead, and that it would be best for it to hire a patient executive who’s willing to hang in there. Elop could still be a good fit, but if I were part of the search committee, I’d grill him about this issue.

But then again, what do I know? I don’t even claim to be an expert on anything.