Be the Expert you Want to See in the World

September Great Story by Peter Brown, 2018-19 Sacramento and Sierra Opportunity Access Fellow

Having spent most of my time doing research, I’ve often found it difficult to track my progress. After all, how can you measure how much you know? Well, so far, I’ve found that the best way to measure that kind of progress is to be put in the hot seat and asked to explain the issues.

Before interviewing my beneficiaries, I made sure to know the basics: what different kinds of broadband delivery are there, and how fast are they? How much does it cost to put a foot of fiber optic cable in the ground? I gave myself a good two-week crash course in the business of connectivity and, when the beneficiary interviews came along, I felt that I “held my own,” but still that each of the people I spoke to knew more about the subject than I did: the interviews seemed to create more questions than answers.

So I returned to the office, with a fresh stack of reading material on my desk (and, as it happens, a book about the abuses of the telecom industry). And I read. Luckily the Sierra Business Council maintains a room with a big red arm-chair exclusively for this purpose, though I sometimes worried that the other office staff were growing suspicious of my prolonged use of this, admittedly, extremely comfortable chair. Every afternoon for a week was spent poring over rules, regulations, and tales of woe in the internet business, and I sometimes began to feel that I was wasting my time.

On the 4th of October, however, an employee of SBC came in whom I hadn’t met before, and asked me what my job was. I told him I was working to connect unserved communities to broadband internet, but he responded with another question. And then another, and still another. He grilled me for the better part of an hour on the ins and outs of the telecom industry, its history and politics, and my plans to fix all of it, and much to my surprise, I knew the answer to each and every question. This was a triumph. I, at 5:15 in the evening on October 4th in the northern end of the SBC office, seemed to be the going expert on all things broadband, and it felt good. Needless to say I came into the office the next day and was confronted anew with all of the things that I still did not know, but this incident had served to bolster my confidence. I’ve sometimes wondered at the idea that some people, professors, journalists, analysts, are paid to read for a living. Now I know why.