Blog, Human Resources, Management

Experience vs ability

Jeff Attwood over at Coding Horror wrote a great article titled “The Years of Experience Myth” that everyone should add to their ‘must read’ list.

The article discusses the use of phone screens to in the hiring process (and points to a couple of great articles on the topic) but the point of the article pertains to the trap of trying to be overly specific in your hiring.

Jeff writes about the myth of ‘years of experience’ and how many organizations fall into the trap of trying to hire the perfect person. You know the job descriptions that require “7 years experience in J2EE in a manufacaturing environment”. An excerpt from the article is:

This toxic, counterproductive years of experience myth has permeated the software industry for as long as I can remember. Imagine how many brilliant software engineers companies are missing out on because they are completely obsessed with finding people who match– exactly and to the letter– some highly specific laundry list of skills.

Somehow, they’ve forgetten that what software developers do best is learn. Employers should be loooking for passionate, driven, flexible self-educators who have a proven ability to code in whatever language — and serving them up interesting projects they can engage with.

Emphasis mine.

Jeff’s article discusses software engineers specifically but this same issue can be found in any technical area and many other areas. I’ve talked with recruiters and organizations are filter out way too many excellent candidates. For example, the “7 years in J2EE in Manufacturing environment” sample I gave earlier is one that I saw while searching (great site btw) for this post. What does someone with 7 years in experience know that someone with 6 years experience doesn’t? Does it really matter that the J2EE experience come from the manufacturing environment?

I’m of the mindset that you hire the best person you can regardless of the number of years of experience that they have. I’m not convinced that someone with 20 years experience is a better hire than someone with 2 years. I’d rather hire the person that will get the job done. As Jeff writes:

Employers should be looking for passionate, driven, flexible self-educators who have a proven ability


Next time you go to hire someone…look at what they can do and what they have the potential to do; not what they may have done in the past.

[tags] Hiring, Experience vs ability, Coding Horror, Human Resources, Management [/tags]

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About Eric D. Brown, D.Sc.

Eric D. Brown, D.Sc. is a data scientist, technology consultant and entrepreneur with an interest in using data and technology to solve problems. When not building cool things, Eric can be found outside with his camera(s) taking photographs of landscapes, nature and wildlife.
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John Hunter
16 years ago

Exactly right. I find the attempt to quantify the unquantifiable annoying. Yes I can understand you might want an expert for a position. Number of years can sometimes be helpful (but I would say under 1% of the time that it is used in hiring). The same for college degree. all things being equal I can see using measures like college degree and number of years, but almost never are all things equal. Admit that you have to use judgment in hiring and then do so. Try to do sensible things to make your selection more effective over time but… Read more »

Eric Brown
16 years ago

John – Thanks for the comment and the link.


[…] In early March, Mind Hacks had an interesting article titled “Are you experienced? Does it matter?” which adds another wrinkle to my the argument I made in my Experience vs Ability post. […]


[…] regular readers may know, I’ve written about this topic a few times (see here, here and here for a few […]

14 years ago

I really like the word track Kate is suggesting here. It is a reality that employers are going to want to see your “track record” when applying to a company. As much as we want to think we are the greatest, at the end of the day most company's radios are tuned to WII-FM (What's In It For Me?!) The best way to overcome THEIR objection is to face it head on. Not in an accusatory or obnoxious way, but to instead say “I understand that you are probably looking for someone with a more precise work history in personal… Read more »


[…] over education.  This book makes me rethink that approach in some ways. I’ll still hire for ability over experience any day […]