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Recruitment and the Mythical Year of Experience December 6, 2007

Posted by Imran Ghory in recruitment, Software development.

When it comes to recruitment the basic unit of measurement for ability is “years of experience” – this is something that many developers very vocally consider inappropriate, often due to the amount of experience being requested seeming excessive. However if you consider it from the viewpoint of the company hiring, it does make a certain amount of sense.

There is a strong correlation between the years of experience an average developer has and their ability as a software developer.

You are not the average software developer.

As has been discussed elsewhere in the blogosphere recently, if you read programming blogs for fun then you are not the average. Most software developers do not read programming blogs or even programming books for fun. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but many software developers seem to have an innate assumption that other software developers are like them (i.e. I read books, so they must read books too), which in part is responsible for the frustration with the “years of experience” measurement.

The average developer’s skills are closely correlated to the amount of experience they have because for the average developer on-the-job experience is where they learn and become better developers. Hence it makes sense to use years of experience as a measure, it’s not exactly what we want to measure but it’s a better proxy measurement then anything else in common use.

But the next obvious question is: Why do firms ask for many more years than they seem to need ?

Lets consider a company that goes out and interviews a lot of people who’ve applied for a job. Say the average applicant applying has five years of experience, and from all their interviewing they find the candidates are too weak for the role. So they bump up the requirement to seven years. Not because they don’t think there’s anyone with five years experience who can do the job, but that the average developer with five years experience can’t and that the number of people with five years experience who can do the job is significantly less than those with seven years experience.

It’s purely a number game. If only one-percent of those with five years experience are good enough for your needs but five-percent of those with seven years are, then requiring seven years of experience will significantly decrease the number of interviews you have to conduct. Say you expect to interview a hundred candidates – would you rather be left with five candidates who are strong enough (and can then be judged on other criteria such as fit, etc.) or just one candidate who may or may not be a match for your company ?

However it’s actually worse than this situation, as the average software developer is actually significantly better than the average software developer who’s on the job market. People who are above average for their level of experience get hired very quickly because firms realize a good thing when they see it. People who are below average stay on the market for longer and therefore apply for more jobs. So not only are the people looking for jobs worse than average, the worst are also applying for a lot more jobs.

This means that if you want someone with the skills of an average developer with five years of experience, you might have to actually hire someone with ten years of experience – who’s significantly below average for their level of experience but is roughly equivalent to the average developer with five years of experience.

So if you’re an above average developer, you need to realize that the “years of experience” requirement isn’t written with you in mind. Rather it’s written for the below average developer on the market for whom it actually makes sense.