The year of experience is a frequent phrase in tech job postings and a very popular measure of knowledge. But does this measure actually work? If companies decided to withdraw it as a measure of knowledge, using technical questions instead, would professionals be able to be 100% prepared with our current ad-hoc means of learning?
The self-learner’s agenda
We do what we need to do to accomplish the goals of our company. Accomplishing these goals doesn’t necessarily imply using all aspects of a technology we want to learn. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who happen to use everything you will ever need to know about a given technology at work, your company’s goals and your learning goals are two different agendas. Where do you execute your agenda? Out of work, certainly. Unfortunately, what happens out of work is often ignored by many companies, which limit themselves to make their job requirements in terms of years of work experience. It doesn’t seem consistent that our learning efforts are underestimated by the very companies that could benefit from it, but I don’t think these companies are to blame, after all, measuring knowledge can be tricky.
Measuring knowledge with years of experience
Work experience follows a business agenda, and for the most part that implies repetition of the same experience after a while. To say one has worked 4 years with C++ does not imply she has explored every possible aspect of the language and its libraries at work (some people suggest job-hopping can be a solution). But it’s not just the overestimation of work experience: the time of work experience that is usually required indicates that it is assumed that it is impossible for one to achieve a level of expertise in less time. This is in sharp detriment of merit. Many professionals will feel unstimulated to pursue more skills in less time as this is an underrecognized effort.
As an approach to learning, work experience is unsystematic, emphasizing specific aspects of a technology in detriment of others. In the “My Job Went to India” book, Chad Fowler addresses the “learn on the job” issue on the “Practice, Practice, Practice” chapter, but even his suggestions rely on one’s judgments of what should be improved, which, in my view, is too biased and not very systematic. Fowler is right when he says that we learn too much on the job, but it’s no wonder considering how other means of learning are underestimated.
A systematic approach to training and assessment is needed
Last year I’ve bought the “Spring in Action” book. I was not using Spring at work, but I wanted to learn it nevertheless. Despite the educational purpose of the book, there were no exercises! It seems like I’m supposed to learn it on the job, or create my own (biased) exercises. At this stage, I’m not able to create effective exercises, only a Spring expert would have such an authority. If I’m lucky, I will use many Spring features at work, or maybe my exercises will be enough, but that would be betting on good fortune, and I don’t want my qualifications to depend on luck! I don’t want to live in the constant anxiety that I’m not prepared. Many professionals feel like they are unable to train properly because systematic training doesn’t exist for every technology they work with. And it’s not just a systematic training: how are we (and our employers) supposed to measure our knowledge in an unbiased way?
Even if employers decided to ask technical questions instead of requiring years of experience, professionals would still not be 100% sure about their skills because there is little systematic training and assessment. A solution for this would require a little initiative, for example: if you are a complete Spring guru, you could write a series of exercises in ascending complexity with suggested solutions that people could use to evaluate their results. The same goes for other frameworks, languages, etc. The whole point of this idea is to assure that one can always know in what point of the knowledge ladder he is. That can evolve to universally accepted credentials that employers can use. We’ve been using this system ever since we started studying, why should we stop now?