Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hiring based off years of experience, an analogy with art and the NBA

[This was originally posted at]

I'm always intrigued how HR recruiting is often obsessed with how many years of experience a candidate has. This is absolutely not the same thing as "does the candidate have the required skills". The thinking seems to be that developers start at the same place (maybe as college kids in computer science class), and learn at the same pace, therefore the real determiner of skill is the years of experience. Therefore, a dev with 10 years should most likely be better than a dev with only 3 years. I think this is dangerous and misleading thinking. Sure, all else equal, years of experience would be a good indicator of skill, but all else is not equal.

  1. People start learning to program at different ages - not everyone starts at college, some start when they're 10 years old

  2. People learn at different rates - some people just naturally learn things faster than others

Think of it like art - some people just can't draw (like me). Maybe if you give them years of classes, and they practice and practice, they may be able to squeak out a simple painting - but they're always going to struggle with it. Other people just have a natural talent for it, and even as a 10 year old, can draw a good looking picture. The best question to determine who is the better artist is to ask for their portfolio (samples of what they've drawn), not ask how many years of experience they've had. Like asking for an artists' portfolio, interviews can ask a developer to show them an open-source project, or actually write code on a whiteboard. That's a much quicker way to verify their skill set.


Or, look at the NBA. While of course veterans and experience are good, there are plenty of young rookies who add far more value than a 10-year veteran. Simply hiring based on who has the most years of experience would naively miss out on good talent.


I see it much like the graph below of skill vs. time. Someone could start learning as young as 12 years, or wait until college, or even do a career switch after college. You can't really count playing around with programming as a child as "years" or experience on your resume, but it sure does increase your skill level. So, a recruiter could categorize all three cases as "just four years of experience". But the skill difference is too wide for that naive approach to be practical. There are 18 year old interns that just "get it", whereas some 40 year old contractors that do not.


That's why it's always best to look at the skill, as opposed to blindly check for years of experience.


Next: But what if I'm a non-technical person doing technical recruiting?

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