Reflections of a Middle-Aged Intern: The Subject-Matter Expert (SME)

cont_emspec2(Above image from Wikimedia. Solely created by NASA and resides in public domain)

When I was interviewed over the phone for an instructional design internship position at ViaSat, one of the questions I was asked was my knowledge of computer networks and satellite communications. I said something like, “Well … I know a little bit.” In fact, I knew very little of these fields. As someone who has worked in television production, my last experience in a science-related subject was a sophomore zoology class I took back in 1993!

Fortunately, I was hired as an instructional design intern at ViaSat where I had the opportunity to learn about computer networks and satellite communications from several subject-matter experts (SMEs). As it turns out, instructional designers, or IDs for short, don’t necessarily have to be experts on the project subject matter. In a few short weeks, Jasmine, my fellow intern, and I were quickly learning topics such electromagnetic wave characteristics, the radio spectrum, frequency division multiple access (FDMA), geosynchronous orbit (GSO), and rain fade. The SMEs gave classroom lectures, drew sketchbook diagrams and answered any questions we encountered. Jasmine and I incorporated all this information into the onboarding tutorials we were creating in Articulate Storyline.

The internship was a great opportunity to work with people who not only had years of professional experience, but also were willing to take the time to explain scientific details on subject matters they find fascinating. The time at ViaSat gave me a better understanding on how to collaborate with SMEs, but it also made me think about how much an instructional designer needs to learn when adapting to a new project. In some instances, the ID may also have to serve as the SME. Plus, there may be a different style of creating and delivery training material. The SME may prefer linear text-heavy Microsoft Word documents, but the ID needs to create media-rich, interactive content in an eLearning tool.

As I look for instructional design positions, I’m looking closely to see opportunities that will allow me to collaborate with SMEs and give me time to get up to speed with the project content. At this point, I’m still trying to figure out what fields I’d like to pursue (telecommunications, health care, education, etc.), but hopefully, I’ll be teaming with SMEs who have years of experience and a strong desire to share why they love their work.


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