Experience: Is it really all it’s cracked up to be?

Managers seem to have mixed feelings about experience, but you wouldn’t know it from reading a typical job advertisement.

Most of them read like a laundry list of required educational experience, managerial experience, specific technical experience, project role experience, industry experience, business application experience, and on and on and on. This experience thing must be amazingly powerful. Time served must be a measure of something really important.

But if experience is at such a premium, why are there so many articles about how hard it is for older IT workers to find a job? Wouldn’t you think that someone with 35 years in IT would be fighting off suitors, and fresh graduates would be offering their services free of charge in order to obtain a dose of this golden elixir?

Why don’t recruiters advertise in AARP magazine rather than throwing parties on Ivy League campuses?

The love-hate relationship managers have with experience seems to be based on their acceptance of four questionable and incompatible premises:

1. Experience implies knowledge.

The obvious reason to look for people with experience is that managers are often risk-averse and believe that hiring someone with experience is safer than hiring someone without it. If you’ve done this exact job three times before, then you must know how to do it by now.

2. Experience implies rigidity.

While managers apparently think that some experience is a good thing, they also seem to assume that too much of a good thing is not so good. If you have too much experience with the same role, technology or type of project, something must be wrong with you. You must be stuck in your ways; you must have become inflexible.

3. Youth implies creativity.

In many cases, we love to hire young people precisely because of their lack of experience. They are not set in the old ways and are free to come up with new ideas and approaches that people with experience might never consider. They are a breath of fresh air to clean out the stale, old smell of experience.

4. Youth implies drive.

And finally, we love to hire the young because they have so much energy and ambition. They are dying to go out and make something of themselves, to climb mountains and explore new horizons. Experience hasn’t yet taught them about the futilities of work and the frustrations of life. They are not yet beaten down and resigned.

All of these assumptions presume that experience is either a great teacher or a cruel one. But the truth is that experience doesn’t assure knowledge or rigidity any more than youth assures creativity or drive. Passing through school can’t guarantee that a student has learned, only that she has had a chance to do so. Learning is ultimately up to the student. Similarly, experience implies only that someone has had the opportunity to learn, not that she has actually learned anything.

My own experience has taught me that most people don’t really absorb the lessons that their experience offers. In one sense, they haven’t so much gained experience as they have had things happen to them. They become neither knowledgeable nor jaded. They haven’t processed the ideas or compared real-world happenings with their theories of how the world works. Without this processing, experience isn’t really a great teacher or a cruel one; it’s only a way to mark the passage of time.

If you really want to make use of someone’s experience, or of your own, find a way to gauge not how much time has passed, but how much of that experience has been turned into wisdom.

Paul Glen is the founder of the GeekLeaders.com Web community and author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2003). Contact him at [email protected]

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