On Hiring and Years of Experience

Over a year ago now, I had an interview for a software development position. The interview went pretty well and I was expecting to hear positive news. Instead I got what I thought was the strangest phone call. I was told, “You’ve got great knowledge of the language, and your skills would be a huge asset to the team, but you just don’t have enough years of experience.”

The funny thing was, I didn’t feel let down at all. Instead I felt like the company had done me a huge favour — they saved me from taking a job working for a company with views diametrically opposed to my own. It’s a company that I can’t ever see myself thinking I might work for in the future.

Jeff Atwood wrote the following:

It’s been shown time and time again that there is no correlation between years of experience and skill in programming. After about six to twelve months working in any particular technology stack, you either get it or you don’t. No matter how many years of “experience” another programmer has under their belt, there’s about even odds that they have no idea what they’re doing.

With that in mind, do you really want to work for a company that still doggedly pursues the years of experience myth in their hiring practices? Unlikely.

That resonated strongly with me, because he hits the exact thought I had — that I would not really want to work for this company.

DHH also wrote about this in a post titled “Years of Irrelevance“:

As long as applicants have 6 months to a year of experience, consider it a moot point for comparison.

This is pretty much the same point made in the book Peopleware. Tom DeMarco and Tomothy Lister state that their research showed years of experience as a productivity non-factor. Only people with less than 6 months with the language did not do as well as the rest.

It’s my thought that ability, passion, and capacity for learning far outweigh other qualifications. If someone is driven to learn, able to learn, and has only one year of experience then there will be a higher likelihood that they will succeed because they will learn constantly and always be improving. On the other hand, if someone has 10 years of experience, but those years are all the same year, then that person will be less likely to succeed, and more likely to stagnate.

At the same time, I don’t want to entirely denigrate years of experience. If someone has 10 or 20 years of experience that build on each other, and still has a drive to learn and improve, I don’t think you’re likely to find someone better to have on your team.

When do decide that a candidate is not right for your team, don’t tell them that the reason is they have fewer required years of experience than you were looking for, worst case scenario is that they turn into someone you want and would never consider you again.

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