Nasa is known the world over for engineering and technical excellence and for achieving the almost impossible. If you hire them to fix your car, you can be damn sure that car is going to be fixed. But at what cost? This trade off between cost and competence is at the heart of the problem of when and who to hire, regardless of the industry you work in.

Complexity and Novelty

At first glance it might seem that complexity should be the primary factor in deciding what skill level to hire for a project. It seems like complex jobs like missions to the moon go to the likes of Nasa, whereas more straightforward jobs like fixing cars go to the likes of Jim the mechanic. 1.

1. Fixing cars isn’t rocket science, afterall.

However, cars, although not as complex as spaceships, are still very complex machines, and they’re becoming more so with each passing generation. What is now considered to be a routine task for a moderately skilled mechanic, would once have been considered a very challenging task indeed, impossible even for the most intelligent and skilled humans on the planet.

So the complexity of a task is not the primary factor in determining the required skill level of your engineering team. Instead, it is a combination of complexity and novelty that marks a task out as needing the skills of true experts. To see why, let’s consider an example from the world of software development: the humble modal dialog.

A modal dialog is a window that pops up in the foreground, forcing the user to interact with it before they can go back to using the application. A typical example of this is a prompt for saving a file.

In the world of desktop applications the problem of creating easy to use modals was solved a couple of decades ago, but in the world of websites and web development it was still considered a non-trivial programming problem until the last decade. Then along came jQuery, followed closely by Twitter Bootstrap, giving us prepackaged easily configurable solutions, and now websites everywhere have modal dialogs 2.

2. Some would say that’s not a good thing.

Once an engineering challenge is solved in the general form and packaged for easy configuration a previously complex problem becomes routine.

It is therefore the novelty of the problem, challenge or type of solution that determines when you need highly skilled professionals. With the right tools, complex but commonplace problems can be solved for peanuts by someone with relatively little technical expertise.

Hiring experts when the technology frontier is rapidly advancing

The pace of innovation and advancement in the world of software is still impressive, and assessing novelty when the technology frontier is rapidly advancing is hard; very hard. This means that clients often don’t know what’s truly novel and what’s now become routine and commonplace. Because of this, clients without a technical background often struggle to gage value for money, and invariably try to fill their knowledge gap by hiring expensive “advisors” for their BS 3 detection skills.

3. You know what BS is.

However, the hiring problem is not as dire for clients as it might first seem.

Think about what would happen if we actually tried to hire Nasa to fix our hatchback automobile. We’re confident they can fix it, but they’re almost certainly not going to be good value for money. Will they even accept the job? The answer is almost certainly no.

The reason is that highly skilled professionals at the forefront of their profession are not driven by the desire for easy money and an easy life. Experts thrive on challenges and seek out new and interesting problems. It’s that committment to seeking out and solving the hard problems that makes experts what they are…experts.


So if you’re wondering whether you’re project needs bespoke development work, don’t be afraid to contact the experts first. An exciting project will visibly excite them, and if your project doesn’t need their level of skill the experts will almost certainly tell you so. Jim the mechanic may not.