Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What is the true value of experience?

I recently had an encounter with a fellow software developer that quickly escalated into a philosophical discussion where neither of us was right or wrong yet I could sense both of us digging our heels in preparing to obliterate the other with our hulk-like rage.  From his perspective, I was questioning, second-guessing and disagreeing with his philosophy - which coincidentally has been adopted as the company's philosophy since his assention into the "architect" position.  For me, I felt like my perspective was being dismissed out-of-hand.  Hell, I'd never even been asked before the company adopted these (flawed, imo) philosophies despite having spent years honing my beliefs while holding that same position in other companies.

That same night I had a long drive during which to assess if my feelings were simple jealousy over not getting the position or rooted elsewhere.  After a quick debate, I came to the conclusion that I most certainly did resent not having the position and having philosophies so contrary to my own dictated to me.  My thoughts wandered until they finally settled on one question:

How could I not be the better choice for the position?

Let's say you are hiring a new developer for your team.  One candidate is right out of college with a Computer Engineering degree, has had all of the standard courses and kicks butt in Halo.  The other has been a professional developer for 20+ years working for a few large names in your industry but has very little practical experience with the tools and languages you are using.  Do you dismiss the second for lack of experience with the toolset?  Or maybe you eliminate the first because he doesn't have any real-world experience?

What if you add a third candidate?  This one also has 20+ years of experience but has bounced around a bit with some years developing manufacturing applications, some with ISVs, others as a consultant working on anything the customer will pay for and some doing government contract work.  Any preferences now?

I challenge you that any real assessment is not possible without some additional context.  For instance, are we hiring a UI developer or an Architect?  Candidates 2 and 3 would (should) never consider a junior position and would be disgruntled quickly if they did.  This wouldn't be good for the cohesiveness and morale of the team and you'd most likely be looking to fill the same position again relatively soon.  The first candidate, on the other hand, could no more direct the efforts of your development team than my dog.

So, if we were looking for an Architect, Manager or Senior Developer, how do we distinguish the last two candidates?

By understanding the true value of experience.

Simply putting in the years isn't enough.  It's what you do with that time and what you are exposed to that counts.

The second candidate in our little example has put in the time but spent that time working for a handful of companies thereby limiting his exposure to what those companies allowed him to see and do.  Their tools, their techniques, their processes, etc.  He may be very good at those things, but his experiences have been limited and, as a result, so is his vision.

When first glancing at the third candidate's resume, you might wonder why he/she didn't stay in one place for very long and lean towards the second candidate because they demonstrated longevity.  I will offer to you that longevity can be perceived both ways as well.  Instead of representing dedication and loyalty, perhaps it shows that the developer didn't have the confidence or courage to test the market.  Changing jobs is hard, we all know that.  Unless the third candidate was forced to change, maybe we should see this as a positive trait - something that reflects a strong character, someone who welcomes a challenge and doesn't settle for what's convenient or status quo.

Also consider that with such a background comes diversity and exposure to many different approaches, etc. - all of the things that were limited with candidate 2.  Because the last candidate has worked in different industries, he/she has been exposed to different pespectives.  Working as a consultant means that he/she has worked closely with customers which, as well all know, means they've dealt with change.  And, if the customer-base was industry-agnostic, their exposure is even greater.

So, what is the true value of experience?  Great.  But you have to actually accumulate true experience to achieve this value.  As I said earlier, simply putting in the time doesn't get you there.

Btw, can you guess which candidate I am in my little story? ;-)

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