Experience – Does it really matter?

I had the thought of writing a blog post regarding this matter several times in the past, and this time, I thought of finally putting it down here.  In our industry (Software Development), one of the key concerns (if not ‘the concern’) in recruitment and career progression is the experience that an individual has in working in the industry. In most of the companies, this is the first thing that comes in the screening process, and also, most of the vacancy advertisements start with this.

It is a well known fact that if a person has done something before, it is usually easier to do it again, and from the past experience, it is also (usually) possible to do a better job on the second time. It is this well known fact that has been established as the roots in the software industry, which has been mandated as a key criterion for recruitment and selection for promotions. While there is no argument about the above well known fact, the way this so called experienced is measured is questionable.

As I have seen, this ‘experience’ is generally measured in terms of the ‘number of years’ that an individual has worked in the industry. A person who has been working for 4-5 years is usually considered as a better candidate to become a technical lead, compared to a person who has been working for 3 years (and yes, there are exceptions).

If we look at this from a general perspective, this seems logical. A person who has been working for 5 years should have ‘better experience’ than the 3 years guy. But this is not the case always. What a person really ‘does’ within that particular time period matters a lot. The 3 years person could have achieved quite a lot compared to a 5 years person, who could have been just ‘doing the job’ in a team without really getting into the nuts and bolts of it.

Let’s take an analogy. In military, there could be soldiers who have been in service for many years. They will possess a good deal of experience on the matters related to military work. But there could be soldiers, who may not have that much of experience in terms of ”years in service’, but who could have been in faced the evil depths of war, and learned a lot than the ‘more experienced’ soldier, in his short time span.  If we consider the both, the one with ‘lesser experience in years’ might actually have collected more experience in the short time span, and will have the ‘scars to prove it’.

Likewise, in the software industry, the same scenario exists. If we really look at it, the person with less number of years in the CV might actually posses ‘more experience’ than a person who has a bigger number of years in the CV. But this fact is often overlooked by recruiters and companies. While a person can sit and wait till 5 years to go by and claim that they have ‘5 years of experience in Software Development’, another person could be working hard for just 2 years, and posses way deeper experience from that relatively short time period. This in turn, leads to bad hiring decisions, and turning down candidates with good potential, only to favor a person who might as well be just ‘doing the job’.

The scenario is often worse when fresh graduates are considered.  A significant portion of today’s graduates contribute to open source work while they are working on their studies, and this experience can be considered as a valid ‘industrial experience’. But when considering the ‘number of years’ experience metric,  such work tends to be treated as second class by some organizations. While it is all agreed that ‘fresh grads’ need to get their hands dirty to get started with (especially due to the today’s mismatch with academia and industry, looking at course structures of certain programs), but this ‘getting hands dirty’ does not necessarily mean that the person should sit and wait for years.

In conclusion, my point of view is that while ‘experience does matter’ for software development, the way it is being measured currently is inaccurate. While it may be applicable for the 60% of cases, mandating it turns down the opportunities for the rest of the 40% of cases. It is my belief that this aspect of tagging ‘experience’ by number of years should be revisited and revised to meet up with the vitality of today’s IT industry.

Thus, experience matters, but number of years? It doesn’t matter. Then again, that’s my perspective of the issue.

16 comments

    1. Thanks for the reply !

      What I’m suggesting is not to mandate it as part of the requirements for recruitment / selection for promotions. For example, I suggest dropping down things like ‘Architect = 8 years or more experience’ kind of stuff.

      There is no hard and fast solution for this. But, blindly following the number of years will turn down good candidates without consideration. And that is what’s happening.

      And about interviews, that’s another matter, I have seen people who perform well on interviews failing on real work, and people who do not perform that well doing outstanding work. But, that depends on the depth of the interview, skills of the interviewer and also the qualities of the candidate.

      Once again, this is open ended. My argument is that mandating the number of years is not a good approach.

  1. Here are my thoughts:

    I believe it would not be good to fully drop the concept of year based criteria, it should be somewhere living for the higher skilled positions as that requires an ample amount of experience while taking decisions that have multiple choices, but for starting/normal positions we can always think of considering the persons having good understanding of the topics they have gone through and analytical skills; they can really prove good for the industry while talking in terms of skilled candidates count. But then it also depends on the nature of the job that they are targeted for, if it needs to be completed very fast then they might not have the time to teach people to get suitable for the job. Also I think it greatly depends on the part of the world you are doing selections, the educational style they follow and does that way of education is closer to the industry requirements…

    Anyway I am mostly @ your side.

    –Deepak

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Deepak. Yes, this is somewhat tied to the part of the world as well. I wrote this looking at the context in South Asia.

  2. Experience is not only amount of Years is also Where.
    A new graduate will always be a Junior (put the name of the posicion here), because they need to learn how things are made in the real world.


    1. Chocolim:

      Experience is not only amount of Years is also Where.
      A new graduate will always be a Junior (put the name of the posicion here), because they need to learn how things are made in the real world.

      Hi Chocolim,
      Thanks for the reply.

      I tend to disagree with placing new graduates at Junior positions always. If the graduate does have involved in good OSS projects gaining experience, or if the individual has a good set of skills (I’m talking about a skill set which allows the person to perform well in real world; a good interviewer will be certainly able to recognize such talent), I believe that it is possible to place them slightly above as well.

      But I am not saying that you have to do that for all. I’m just saying that ‘making the number of years required‘ is not a good decision. As long as the talent is there, it should be nourished. That’s my perspective of the matter.

  3. Honestly, the difference between a programmer with three years of experience and one with five is often very small. They are both just starting their careers, a couple of years probably isn’t relevant.

    The difference between someone with twenty years of active development, and someone just starting with five however is huge. There is a lot more to building software than just being able to whack out an algorithm or two. The difficulties are often rooted in personalities, politics, self-discipline, stress-handling and organization, stuff completely un-related to code. Great coders don’t often make great leads.

    Paul.

    1. Hi Paul,

      I do not question the importance of experience by any means. It’s just the way that we measure it, and the way that we mandate it that I disagree with.

      Yes, a person who would have been working in the industry for as long as 20 years is highly likely to have more experience than a fresher, but then again, what we mean by ‘working’ has to be defined as well. Once again, I do not dispute the importance of ‘experience’, but I question the way we measure it.

      I completely agree with your statement ‘Great coders don’t often make great leads’. I have seen it happen, and yes, there are many techies who do not posses the necessary soft skills to be a lead.

      Thanks a lot for the thoughts !

  4. I dont accept that experience doesnt matter. It does matter in the case that the work experience or the task that is assigned to you is also based on your experience level.

    NO ONE WILL GIVE A FRESHER TO DO ARCHITECTURE WORK, as simple as that. Only experience people get that kind of work.

    As considering my case , i have worked on multiple projects with different technologies, but still i lack lot of things apart from technologies , its the COMBINATION AND PERMUTATION in your application which may be rising as a bugs, solving this comes only out of experience…..

    1. Hi Arun,


      Arun:

      I dont accept that experience doesnt matter. It does matter in the case that the work experience or the task that is assigned to you is also based on your experience level.

      NO ONE WILL GIVE A FRESHER TO DO ARCHITECTURE WORK, as simple as that. Only experience people get that kind of work.

      Neither do I.

      My point is that while experience matters a lot, the way we have been measuring it is invalid. If you call ‘number of years’ that a person has been in the industry as experience, I disagree with that. What I have mentioned in the article is that a person can gain experience in a shorter timespan by really working out with the internals, where as some one else can just sit and wait till things happen. While the latter may have many number of years under the belt, that person does not really have ‘more experience’.


  5. Martijn Verburg:

    I tend to agree! In interviews we try to ignore years and focus on _what_ the person has done in their most recent jobs.

    Exactly. That’s what I would like to see in our industry. Unfortunately, I have seen many cases where people just look at sheer number of years and determine the level of experience, which turns out to be a disaster.

  6. Hey yohan.. Nice article =) I agree with you in this context since the hiring process in the software industry is a bit biased towards experience in my personal opinion.

    In my book, experience is vital for any profession but not plainly on the ‘number of years of industrial work’. It depends on how the individual has tries to grasp the context of a problem to be solved, how dedicated & determined to push the limitations of one’s knowledge & skills (HR, communication, etc), etc over the time. Then again, how long an individual would take to develop these skills depends heavily on each person where it might take 2 years for a person to sharpen these skills where as another might harvest them in a single year.

    Another aspect to this problem is that interviewers are also biased most of the time where some look for experienced people from a well-recognized company and some look for the potential in an individual. Although, the reasons behind it might be entirely based on the interviewer’s experience or the type of requirement, a skillful applicant might be screened out in the process.

    That being said, it is somewhat unfortunate that the lines are a bit blurry between the 2 scales (‘years of experience’ and the ‘potential of a personnel’) when interviewing a personnel. There has been no successful attempts to define a clear scale of interviewing processes. I’d say the responsibility lies within the interviewer to make that extra effort to try and discover that outstanding applicant from others.

    1. Hi Pasan,

      Thanks for the reply. Yes, like you have said, the responsibility lies with in the interviewer to make the decision. But the sad truth is that in many cases, organizations establish policies stating that for a particular designation, n number of years are mandatory, which leads to issues. In this type of scenarios, the interviewer is not able to make the call. Also, apart from the interviewing process, the promotions and other activities of many organizations that I am aware of are also biased with respect to the experience, measured in ‘number of years’.

  7. Interesting to read people thoughts!

    I earned Btech and then instead of joining job, decided to go for Masters degree.
    Although those were real learning 2 years, I was told by one of the HR ( … at the experiece of 4 years in market ) that I actualy wasted my time for Mtech and they do not consider study as experience.

    Funny but hard for real life.

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