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Hire for Talent over Experience

Seilevel has fairly selective hiring practices (we hire less than 2% of the people who submit resumes and apply with us).   I estimate that I’ve been involved in the hiring decisions of over 50 people, most of whom I interviewed directly.  Without giving too much away, every candidate who interviews with us goes through the same process, regardless of level of experience.  Candidates with 15 years of experience are asked the same questions as candidates fresh out of school (with a few small “tweaks” along the way with folks who have a more extensive background).  It truly is pretty close as one can get to a level playing field, at least with respect to experience.  Our emphasis is on hiring for raw talent over experience—during our hiring process we try to assess the following: can you solve problems quickly, can you be thrown into an unfamiliar situation and reason your way out of it, and can you communicate clearly and convincingly?  While we value previous experience in the type of work we do, we value raw talent even more.  Given the choice between a mediocre problem solver with 10 years of experience and an outstanding problem-solver with 1 year or less experience, we take the inexperienced one every time.  I won’t discuss in too much detail how we evaluate for talent, but want to discuss why we have such an emphasis, and why it’s an important predictor for success in our field (business and technology professional services/consulting):

  1. Experience (probably) has diminishing returns: Are the experiences you had 15 years ago relevant enough to make a difference in how you make decisions today?   I would argue that, even if you could remember them, they probably aren’t.  This is especially true in the technology industry, where change abounds.   A candidate with 3 years of experience may have an advantage over a candidate with zero years, but a candidate with 25 years of experience has very little advantage over a candidate with 5. What does make a difference is the ability to read a situation, draw conclusions and possible courses of action, and react accordingly.  Some people call this intuition.  And years of experience cannot compensate for poor intuition.
  2. Not all experience is created equally: Candidates who come from companies with 10 years or more of experience in the same organization, in the same field, come with GREAT insights into how their industry is run in the very focused part of the world in which they’ve worked.  Unfortunately, such narrow experience is rarely directly translatable outside of an organization.  Emphasizing too much on experience that is non-varied can be very problematic—there are enough nuances and differences across organizations within the same industry that can make reliance on experience more of a liability.   Which brings me to my next point:
  3. Experience can cause you to make dangerous assumptions: Not having experience often gives one license to ask “stupid” questions that experienced folks may not have. These questions, which are often around the definition of commonly used terms on projects and within industries, often uncover hidden assumptions about their meanings, which, if left uncovered, can result in expensive consequences.  Dan Berry wrote on the value of having “intelligent ignoramuses” on projects for this very reason.  Everything I have to say on this topic has already been expressed by Dan (and put much better than I could have!) https://cs.uwaterloo.ca/~dberry/FTP_SITE/reprints.journals.conferences/more.ignorance.pdf


All of this may seem obvious–trite even–but I’ve noticed that some industries (ahem, financial services and banking) still over-emphasize years of experience over pure talent.   I’ve witnessed projects not going anywhere for months because they are waiting to hire a person who has experience doing the exact same type of project in the exact same industry, when they could have started much sooner and probably finished on time had they found a talented person who was just “good enough”.

The reasons I’ve given here apply specifically to the industry in which we work—professional services business/systems analysis and product management consulting on enterprise IT projects. There’s no question that experience can be valuable, and in different industries experience becomes even more valuable.  But experience isn’t worth waiting for when you’ve got talent at your fingertips.

3 Responses to Hire for Talent over Experience

  1. David Wright September 27, 2016 at 7:26 pm #

    I am one of those people who

  2. David Wright September 27, 2016 at 7:46 pm #

    I am one of those people with a lot of experience in requirements (no stopping time) but agree that the value of experience does degrade over time. However (and you knew that was coming) I believe requirements experience has a longer shelf life than many other tech careers. I started out as a programmer and my mind spins about how many different languages and environments I would have to have learned over the last 30 years . But, there have also been a lot of requirements methods introduced as well over those decades, and the essentials of those still have value : structured analysis , information engineering, object orientation , architecture frameworks , and more. I think synthesis of the best of experience is valuable, and it can be taught as well.

  3. Danish April 11, 2019 at 2:01 am #

    Great knowledge sharing James.

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