Professionalism = Knowledge First, Experience Last

I am an entrepid troll. I am also an idiot, stupid and an *ss. At least, that's what I've been told this week. And I'm sure that most of those qualifications are quite accurate. You see, I posted an article last week on AgileSoftwareDevelopment.com, that got me into a position where I was attacked and bitten so badly, that I am surprised I still got all my fingers left.

Here's what happened: I was a little irritated!

When I interview a professional project manager who claims to have "10 years of experience" managing projects, I don't want such a person to give me a blank stare when I ask her to name some agile project management practices. And when I ask a professional software developer, who is supposed to have "8 years of experience", to tell me something about unit testing, or source control strategies, then I don't expect him to start sweating and remain silent about these subjects.

I expect professional people to know what modern techniques and practices are. And if they don't know, then I'm not at all interested in their "X years of experience".

So I wrote a little post about this, gave it a thought-provoking title, posted it on ASD, and got my ass kicked so intensively (here and here), I will have trouble sitting for weeks.

Yes, I am stupid and an idiot, and so on. But not for the reasons that people mentioned. It's because I never saw it coming! I honestly thought that this was just another harmless thought of mine that I was digitizing into an innocent blog post. Well, apparently not…

But, dear readers of mine, please judge for yourself. Here's the dreaded post, unmodified and uncensored. And I will submit to your verdict…


Do you trust a doctor with diagnosing your mental problems if the doctor tells you he's got 20 years of experience? Do you still trust that doctor when he picks up a knife and ice picks, and asks you to prepare for a lobotomy?

Note: A lobotomy, or leukotomy, which involves the cutting of connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, was used on many thousands of patients all over the world in the 20th century. These days it is seen as "one of the most barbaric mistakes ever perpetrated by mainstream medicine".

Would you still be impressed if the doctor had 20 years of experience in carrying out lobotomies?

I am always skeptic when people tell me they have X years of experience in a certain field or discipline, like "5 years of experience as a .NET developer", "8 years of experience as a project manager" or "12 years of experience as a development manager". It is as if people's professional levels need to be measured in years of practice.

This, of course, is nonsense.

Professionalism is measured by what you are going to do now…

Are you going to use some discredited technique from half a century ago?

  • Are you, as a .NET developer, going to use Response.Write, because you've got 5 years of experience doing exactly that?
  • Are you, as a project manager, going to create Gantt charts, because that's what you've been doing for 8 years?
  • Are you, as a development manager, going to micro-manage your team members, as you did in the 12 years before now?

If so, allow me to illustrate the value of your experience…

Zero

Photo by Gaetan Lee

Here's an example of what it means to be a professional:

There's a concept called Kanban making headlines these days in some parts of the agile community. I honestly and proudly admit that I have no experience at all in applying Kanban. But that's just a minor inconvenience. Because I do have attained the knowledge of what it is and what it can be good for. And now there are some planning issues in our organization for which this Kanban-stuff might be the perfect solution. I'm sure we're going to give it a shot, in a controlled setting, with time allocated for a pilot and proper evaluations afterwards. That's the way a professional tries to solve a problem.

Professionals don't match problems with their experiences. They match them with their knowledge.
Sure, experience is useful. But only when you already have the knowledge in place. Experience has no value when there's no knowledge to verify that you are applying the right experience.

Knowledge Comes First, Experience Comes Last
This is my message to anyone who wants to be a professional software developer, a professional project manager, or a professional development manager. You must gain and apply knowledge first, and experience will help you after that. Professionals need to know about the latest developments and techniques. They certainly don't bother measuring years of experience.

Are you still practicing lobotomies?

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  • http://codesoftly.aaronoliver.com Aaron Oliver

    I agree. Any time I see a resume that’s seven years and eight pages long, I tear off and throw away all but the first page.
    I only care what you’ve worked on MOST RECENTLY. *Maybe* the project before that.
    I’ve actually seen a resume for a Java position where the applicant emphasized their COBOL ninja skills.

  • http://jfcouture.com Jean-Francois Couture

    I read some of the comments to your post, and you are right, people are completely misunderstanding. They go on about experience vs knowledge, completely forgetting the first word: professionalism.
    A professional keeps his knowledge up to date.

  • http://digitalbrikes.com/onebrikeatatime Denis

    I agree that the number of years of experience is not the final word on someone’s qualification.
    I would still contend that if you need a lobotomy, the doctor that has 20 years of experience doing just that is probably a better choice than a doctor that has great knowledge of latest brain research but never practiced.
    In short knowledge and experience are orthogonal things. Education enables you to aquire knowledge and experience enables you to use knowledge. And sometimes, you experience can become knowledge.

  • http://blog.softwareprojects.org Bas

    A recent INSEAD study showed that experienced Project Managers are not “better” PMs, for exactly this reason:
    “According to the authors, many experienced managers are trapped by their rigid mental models to repeat intuitive and successful behaviours they learned in earlier and simpler projects. The same behaviours can be ineffective or even counter-productive in more dynamic and complex environments.”
    http://www.betterprojects.net/2008/05/pm-effectiveness-experience-trap.html
    Knowledge without application isn’t worth anything. But not keeping your knowledge current makes you a dinosaur: stuck in a swamp and getting extinct.
    Nice post.
    Cheers
    Bas

  • http://pprodhon.free.fr Patrick

    I beg to differ. I certainly do check the experience of a candidate, as much as I check his skills and his knowledge. I’d rather hire an experienced Java developer that has never heard of the latest framework we’re going to use than a newly graduated who’s done an internship on the same framework.
    What do you call knowledge ? Soft skills, hard skills, or both ?
    To pursue with the doctor metaphor, I’d rather see a doctor with 20+ years in the field, and maybe some outdated knowledge about drugs, than one who’s just got his PhD and might be up-to-date when it comes to drugs. Because the more experience one might prescribe some out-of-fashion drug but he’ll know it by heart and will be careful that it doesn’t interfere with the other drugs I take. Whereas the new guy will certainly not know the conflicting drugs by heart, and he might kill me by prescribing some state-of-the-art drug which has fatal interactions with another drug I’m taking.
    Hard skills (read technical) can be acquired easily, and are the skills which are most likely to be obsolete quickly. The soft ones need to be validated through experience, otherwise you’ll get fooled by a great talker who’s got to master all the current buzzwords.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jurgenappelo/ Jurgen Appelo

    @Bas: thanks for the link!
    @Patrick: I understand your point. But I think it doesn’t reflect well on a candidate not to know what modern techniques and practices are. Sure, such a person can be taught. But how can I trust a person who has not shown any interest in keeping his knowledge up-to-date? I would rather hire someone with genuine interest in his profession and who is very eager to become more experienced.

  • Sviergn Jiernsen

    “Hello, I have never performed a lobotomy, fixed an Austin Mini, or used this new framework. But thankfully, I have read books and articles on all three, and accumulated lots of KNOWLEDGE. Still, I’ve never touched a human brain, or a Mini, or any code using this framework. So, trust me to do what needs to be done: I have KNOWLEDGE, and the hell with experience.”
    This is an ivory tower book learning academic sentiment, not a real world one. Knowledge only makes sense once it is applied concretely, without concrete application it is abstract and has no practical backing. And applying knowledge concretely, using it in real world situations… dammit, what’s that word that describes that? Begins with an “EX”, I think…
    I accumulated knowledge about writing comments in blogs, so even though I had no experience posting any, I’m sure I did this right. 🙂

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jurgenappelo/ Jurgen Appelo

    “I have KNOWLEDGE, and the hell with experience”
    I would never hire someone with such an attitude.
    Gaining experience has to start *somewhere*. It starts with acquiring knowledge.
    As for the value of experience: you can see how overrated experience is, according to the INSEAD study, referred to by Bas in a previous comment…

  • http://pprodhon.free.fr Patrick

    Jurgen,
    I do agree with you on this point. What I disagree with is the too strong emphasis you put on knowledge. I say that attitude comes first, and then knowledge and experience come together.
    It certainly bodes ill when an applicant displays his ignorance of most of the state of the art techniques. But I don’t expect him to know them all. Mostly because they’re changing so fast. Example : what continuous integration tool do you use? In this emerging field, I personnally can’t keep track of all the tools and their various functionalities. But a newly graduated is more likely to be up-to-date on this.
    As Penelope Trunk puts it in one of her posts on Brazen Careerist, a newly graduated is usually more technically up-to-date than an experienced guy. Why then hire the experienced guy?
    I think you would agree that when hiring, it is the attitude that is most important. Of course, I wouldn’t hire a guy who’s never heard of continuous integration, for the simple reason that this demonstrates his lack of will to stay in touch with the latest advancements in IT, and continuous integration is all over IT publications these days. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind hiring a guy who’s only heard of it and not actually used it. After all, he might not have used it because his managers decided they wouldn’t use it. During the interview, I’d ask questions to find out why he know about it but hasn’t used it. And the answers would reveal a lot about his attitude : if the guy answers that “things were like that”, I’d guess he didn’t try and enforce the practice ; conversely, if he said that he’d tried to make a case but couldn’t convince, I’d be more likely to hire him. By the way, should he mention on his resumé that he has only “heard of” continuous integration? I’d rather not, lest having to read impressively lengthy resumés filled with “heard of”s.
    To sum up, I’d say that any hiring should rely 50% on the attitude of the applicant, and the remaining 50% on a combination of both knowledge and experience : in the beginning of a career, experience would count as less than 5%, but in the end it would amount to more than 45%, and conversely for knowledge. Tweak the numbers as you want, you get my point.
    One last point on “Professionals don’t match problems with their experiences. They match them with their knowledge.”. Well no (unless the knowledge you speak of encompasses knowledge acquired through experience?). I match them with both, and most of the time with experience. Let me give you an example. I’ve never been very good at understanding the inner details of a processor. But still, I got my degree, and I went on happily after to start as a developer, and then evolve as a project manager. Two years ago, a user told us that the result of a calculation was wrong. The developer couldn’t believe it, since all the raw data was correct and the code was correct too. Well it turns out the developer shouldn’t have been using floating point variables, since it caused the result to be incorrect. Of course, any student should know that floating point calculations may lead to slightly erroneous results. It is one detail among many. But the developer and I learned it through experience. And it remains more vividly in my memory than most of what I was told in university, or that I have read in books about Java (yes, it was Java). The kind of knowledge we acquire through experience stays longer than that acquired through education : we recall the pain better than the pages.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jurgenappelo/ Jurgen Appelo

    @Patrick:
    “I think you would agree that when hiring, it is the attitude that is most important.”
    Yes, we certainly agree on that.
    “The kind of knowledge we acquire through experience stays longer than that acquired through education.”
    Yes, that’s true. But whether the knowledge you have was acquired through experience or through education makes little difference. When you are confronted with a new problem, you have to match the problem with your knowledge (which should be the result of both experience and education). That’s why I claim that a professional’s first priority is to keep his knowledge up-to-date.
    I think we might agree on everything, we’re just using different terminology.

  • SteveJ

    I went back and forth on this one. I think at the extreme end of the scale the simple dichotomy works. If I’m looking for a ruby dev and I have to choose between a 20 year Fortran vet or an enthusiastic college grad, then I’ve got a 1% chance of the fortran guy working out and a 10% chance of the grad working out.
    Your emphatic point is valid, if a professional isn’t enthusiastic enough about the field to be aware of what’s out there, that’s a bad sign. I think that’s the part most people gloss over, the idea that if you aren’t actively seeking knowledge, your experience is mostly useless. One might slide past that and take it as an attack on their professionalism to say that their experience isn’t very important. The quantity of experience isn’t very important, but the quality is. What’s the difference between 2 years of java experience and 10? As someone with 10 years, I’d say not a whole lot, especially if you really were passionate about it for those two years. After that it’s just a crutch, the easiest tool in the box to pull out and if you’re not branching out you start seeing every problem as a java nail.
    Absolutely professionals need to learn. Absolutely professionals learn best by doing. But if I’ve got 20 years in carpentry experience and I draw a blank on a dovetail joint question, that’s a problem. It’s a breadth vs depth question and the larger issue here might be that our pool of knowledge in this profession is so large and we haven’t agreed on what is absolutely vital to know. You and I agree that unit tests and source control are fundamental, but some folks wouldn’t agree. I don’t think they have this problem so much in the electrician trade.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jurgenappelo/ Jurgen Appelo

    @SteveJ: I agree with you 100%! Thanks for putting the issue into words. Maybe, just maybe, it might help some other people to understand what I mean. 🙂

  • Riccardo

    I am twisted by this post, I tend to say that yes experience doesn’t count, saw too many examples of people still blocked/restrained by a specific mindset/experience to move on and do something different.
    On the other side I saw also way too many people without experience and just knowledge jump to conclusion and rush into a whole new set of problems.
    I think nobody is perfect and provided we are motivated we will always be successful in our activities, if we engage enough on it, with the correct set of experience and knowledge; sometimes people lack the exposure to the new and fancy latest development of their area simply because there is no opportunity or time to go for it in their current work environment….
    Hiring somebody for a job implies understanding if his mix would be a good fit for the role proposed or not and that is the main challenge

  • Greg Reynolds

    I agree with the need to focus on candidate knowledge and how well they can apply that knowledge to solve business problems. However, unless you are knocking out simple PHP/HTML client applications, a team of all entry level, knowledgeable and good intentioned engineers is going to inevitably get themsevles into trouble. The presence of experienced and knowledgeable team members can prevent many mistakes from being made in the first place, and provide valuable coaching and mentoring to less experienced team members.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jamiebriant Jamiebriant

    Straw-man / logical fallacy mate.
    You claim that Knowledge > Experience in your title. But this is not what you then argue:
    You are arguing that if X is a more effective process/tool/whatever than Y, then Knowledge of X > Experience of Y. Thats not really news is it.
    But would you argue that
    Knowledge of X > Experience of X?
    I think not. How is it possible to have relevant experience of X without also the knowledge?
    And @SteveJ is basically saying Passion > Experience, with the implicit agreement from everyone that Fortran implies zero Passion.
    Its difficult to have a discussion when people confuse basic terms like passion and experience.

  • http://geerttheys.com Geert Theys

    Not sure if this is only a Project Manager issue. Think it is rather a human condition to try to repeat a process that has proven successful in the past. Even when not all criteria are the same.

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