Shahzad Bhatti

February 5, 2008

Does experience matter?

Filed under: Computing — admin @ 1:27 pm

I came across a blog entry of DHH, Years of irrelevance
and and an old blog post of Jeff Atwood on Skill Disparities in Programming. Both of them cover somewhat similar topic, i.e. are programmers with more experience better than programmers with less experience. For example, DHH asserts that after six month of experience with a technology you can be pretty experienced. Similarly, Jeff shows various research findings where person with just two year experience is just as good as person with seven or more years of experience. This topic often comes up with job postings when companies require applicant to have certain number of years of experience. Martin Fowler also spoke recently in his blog entry PreferDesignSkills, where he prefers person with broad experience in design and programming than a specialized person. I have seen my share of discrimination in job market when recruiter is looking for X years of experience or is only looking for person with Websphere and would not consider Weblogic experience. It is even worse when new technology is involved and I faced similar discrimination when transitioning from J2EE to Rails. I totally agree that requiring experience with some technology does not matter because a smart person can easily learn it. This also has been discussed many times by Scott Ambler in Generalists vs Specialists, which I have quoted in my website for many years. Since, there is a considerable amount of difference between productivity and quality between programmers, this is an important question. Based on my twenty years of programming experience with sixteen years doing professionally I agree with these findings. I have seen people with twenty years of experience doing same job in big companies with no desire to learn anything else. I have learned it’s incredibly important to diversify your skills and be a generalist than specialist. It is the only way a programmer with more years of experience can be more valuable than programmer with fewer years of experience. When hiring I would look for a person with broad skills who has track record of getting things done and has passion to learn new things. As Joel Spolsky often says when hiring look for smart people who get the things done. There are always new things coming and a good programmer will find a way to learn that in short amount of time as DHH mentioned. I have worked as software developer and systems engineer/administrator and that helped my understanding of overall systems. I have used various languages over the years including Basic, FORTRAN, COBOL, C, C++, Java, PERL, Python, Ruby, Erlang, Haskell. As Dave Thomas talks about learning new language to think differently, and it can show you finding new solutions.

Besides being generalist, another way experience matters is with design. Though with small system, productivity and quality of experienced and junior programmer may seem similar, but I have found with larger systems quality does show up. (Note, I am only considering smart programmers with varying number of years here and not considering really bad programmers.) I have observed that design of experienced programmer (more than five years of experience) will be more flexible because he/she would have likely worked on similar problem before (which may also give productivity advantage). I have also found junior programmers struggle with roles and responsibilities (Rebecca J Wirfs) and good object oriented design (or domain driven design). I have observed that senior programmers have better understanding of things like separation of concerns, modularization, encapsulation, loose coupling and scalability.

In nutshell, any good programmer can learn a new technology very quickly and can solve any problem, but I believe experienced programmer with more general experience will be more valuable than junior programmer and quality of design of a senior programmer with broad experience will be much better in terms of good design principles and -ilities. I think, design is something you learn over the years because for each design decision you may be using thousands of small lessons you have learned over the years. As far as development teams are concerned, I like to have one really experienced programmer and others with junior to mid level experience. This gives a good apprenticeship environment for junior people to learn as software development is still an art. Finally, as everything in software, there aren’t hard rules and everything depends on the environment and people.

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