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Avoiding the Dreaded Experience Tuples

I went to monster.com today and discovered that it still exists.  I’m actually kind of chuckling as I type this, and for that I apologize.  I realize that I’m in a pretty fortunate position not to have to be looking for work in such a way, so I’m not trying to make light of anyone’s situation.  But, in all seriousness, if you’re a non-entry level developer and you’re perusing monster, you have much better options (and if you honestly think you don’t, drop me an email, and I’ll see what I can do to help you find work).

Anyway, I wasn’t looking at monster in the hopes of landing a Junior Full Stack Ninja role, but because of a reader question.  Here’s the question.

How do you successfully compete against experience while interviewing? Do you leverage education? Open Source involvement? What should I fall back on?

I recently tried to make the argument that experience may not be a good thing and rather an open mind is better since experience tends to bring along bad habits that are not correctable where an open mind is willing to adapt to the corporate policies/procedures that a company has. Needless to say, I wasn’t very successful and honestly it probably came off like I was being a smart ass. I just can’t stand people wanting 3-5 years of experience. Like 2.5 is not good enough, it really needs to be 3? If 2.5 is fine, why not 2? Why is that .5 so much greater than just 2? It seriously feels like I am 6 again telling everyone that I am 6 and 4 months old, not 6. I am so much older than 6…

(By the way, you can submit questions on the sidebar at the right, under “Ask Erik,” if you want to get my take on something — and please do!)

First of all, I love the way this is phrased.  It’s poignant as it makes the frustration palpable, and it aptly exposes the absurdity of this candidate-employer matching approach.  But beyond just liking the way this conundrum is described, I think it raises an important topic.

The reason this question prompted me to head over to monster.com is because I formed a hypothesis.  I hypothesized that if I went to a generic job site and did a search for a programmer gig, the very first one I found would consist of boilerplate (years, tech) tuples.  I’ll call these “experience tuples.”  Monster has top mindshare in my head under “generic job site,” so I cross my fingers that it still existed, typed in the URL, and was pleasantly surprised.  I then typed, “C# Software Engineer” and clicked on the very first link.  Here’s what I saw.

 

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 6.06.38 PM

 

Hypothesis confirmed.  And, this was perfect.  A company in California offering a ‘competitive’ upper-bound pay of 60K.  Just as long as you have 2 years and not a day fewer of {C#, ASP.NET, HTML, CSS, SQL Server}.  Those with only 1.8 years of HTML needn’t bother applying.

Okay, so the stage is set.  Let’s get down to brass tacks now about why I invested a few hundred words to frame my answer.  This is the absolute, bottom of the barrel, lowest common denominator programmer job hunt situation, as evidenced by the sweatshop rate and the fact that they’re spending money advertising on monster.

This isn’t a criticism, per se, of either the organization or anyone finding organizations this way, but a simple statement of truth.  It is the most budget way for the two parties to find a fit, and you get what you pay for.  If this results in a hire, it’ll probably be a hire that pleases no one.

It’s relatively common for me to hire or help companies hire software developers.  In this capacity, if I were to find myself in a situation where I was saying, “it’s hard to decide between Alice and Bob, but I do like Alice’s 2 years of HTML to Bob’s 1,” I might as well flip a coin because I’ve already failed pretty badly.  I would only say this if I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when it came to hiring developers.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of people in the hiring process that would make candidate decisions in this fashion.

  • HR Gatekeepers
  • Clueless recruiters
  • Non-technical line or project managers
  • Incompetent senior developers/architects

To make it exhaustive, I’ll just say it’s a list of people that you don’t want to talk to during the hiring process or that you don’t want to work with if you get hired, or both.  Now, there is a method to my madness here — I’m not just ranting.  All of this was necessary framing for the advice I’ll now give.  It follows in the order of actions that I would take, personally.

Skip The Company

Honestly, my first impulse, confronted with a job description like this, would be not to bother with the company.  The presence on monster, the HR/recruiter optimized job description, the arbitrary experience tuples… they all suggest that the company is neither good at nor particularly interested in hiring good people.  And that doesn’t bode well for your quality of life even if you do get the position.

If a company treats hiring developers the same way they treat hiring inside sales reps and accountants, that company is likely to view software developers as “IT” and IT, traditionally, is overhead.  When organizations don’t particularly value developers, there tend to be a lot of weird, demoralizing politics arising from attempts to treat line-level employees uniformly across the company against the backdrop of a world where developers make more money and command more perks than their counterparts in other departments.  On top of that, organizations that hire this way tend to attract the types of people that equate years in a job with competence: expert beginners.

Look for Multiple Openings

Okay, so let’s say that every company that interests you operates this way, using job postings, gatekeepers, and experience tuples.  In other words, “skip it” isn’t an option.  You can still force rank these places according to an important criterion: general hiring versus specific position hiring.  You want general hiring.

The most obvious reason that you want general hiring is that more open positions necessarily mean better odds for you.  But there are more subtle reasons as well.  Companies doing general hiring are probably growing or at least growing their software departments.  That typically means success, which, in turn, makes better morale and advancement opportunities more likely.  In addition, companies that tend to do rolling hires are accustomed to developers coming and going, which will correlate with healthier, less insular places.

All of this holds unless a stodgy company is hiring like 4 people because developers recently quite en masse.  But, that’s easy enough to recognize — places that do rolling, general hires will be less specific in their job descriptions, have broader ranges in their tuples, and sometimes even talk about title/pay depending on the individual applicant.

Skip the Gatekeeper

Alright, let’s say that you can’t skip it and you have one, specific company in mind.  Maybe their hiring process isn’t the best, but they have singular opportunities or you have some, specific reason that you like this company.  So it’s you against X other candidates, and you have the short end of the experience tuple stick.

If the software developers and architects there care about experience tuples, I’ll reiterate that this is probably not an awesome place to work, so let’s assume it’s not a big deal to them.  They’ll base their decision on your aptitude, attitude, and knowledge in the interview.  So the trick becomes getting there and not being punted by the gatekeeper.

Gatekeeper

The answer is simple.  Don’t deal with the gatekeeper.  Find the listing wherever you’re finding these things, figure out what company it’s for, and then use Linked In to find people that work there.  See if you know anyone there or if someone you know knows someone there.  Look for connections or reasons to get introduced.  See if one of the developers there goes to local user groups, uses twitter, or blogs.  Find them on Stack Overflow.  Whatever.  Start a conversation with them directly and steer it toward their company hiring for a position.

No fuss, no muss, no gatekeeper.

What You Can Do > What You Know > Years Experience

I’ll end with a general tip that applies whether you skip all experience tuple companies, skip some of them, skip the gatekeeper, or simply grit your teeth and plow through it all.  As I mentioned earlier, if someone is making a hiring decision or a decision about who to interview, and all they have are resumes and experience tuples, they’re in pretty bad shape.  Managing not to get fired from a programming position that theoretically involves working with some technology is hardly predictive of competence, much less awesomeness.

So, anyone relying on experience tuples would almost certainly rather be relying on something else.  They’d probably love to hire a developer they’ve worked with in the past or someone that is highly recommended.  They’d love to steal a consultant away from a vendor or hire someone that’s a known commodity or expert in the field.

In short, they want proof of what you can do.  And years of experience is the absolute worst, bottom of the barrel attempt at such proof.  So prove it in other ways.

If you have a particular company in mind, familiarize yourself with their software and, if at all possible, start building ad-ons/plug-ins/extensions/whatevers for it.  Or, build a prototype of something related.  If none of that is possible, build something else useful and open source it.  Contribute to open source projects, preferably using the techs that they use.  In short, show what you can do in a way that they’ll easily be able to see.  If you succeed in doing that, when they’re weighing you against other candidates, years of experience will simply melt out of the conversation.

With all of these pieces of advice, there’s a common theme.  If you’re lacking in one or more of the outlined experience tuples on the job description, you don’t want to lie, but you also don’t want that to come up in the conversation.  So you need to do whatever possible to avoid those conversations.  Skip the company or skip the gatekeeper and get to the meat of the issue.  But if that’s not possible, make yourself so impressive that they forget to ask about experience tuples in the first place.

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Noam
Guest

The worst is talking over the phone with a recruiter asking you questions like ‘so how many years have you done xml?’. what do you even answer to that? 6 years? it’s not like every day I wrote xml files….

On the other hand – I interviewed developers that just lie on their resume. I had one guy that wrote ‘unitest’ all over this resume, but had zero knowledge about it.

Andrei Dragotoniu
Guest

this reminds me of one guy I interviewed recently. He wrote Angular everywhere and unfortunately for him I am quite experienced with Angular. He didn’t know what to reply to any of my questions and after I grilled him a little bit, he told me that he looked at Angular because he wanted to learn it and then he put it on his CV. He had literally looked at it for like 5 minutes.

What do you say to something like that, other than thanks, we’ll be in touch …

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Yeah, that’s why the experience tuple paradigm is really good for no one. It’s easy for candidates to game, it’s reductionist, and “years experience” means pretty little. And I fully agree with “WTF does it even me to have 6 years of XML?”

Paul Smith
Guest

“I went to monster.com today and discovered that it still exists.” — great opening line. I was similarly surprised recently when I saw experts-exchange.com show up in the first page of Google search results for something.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Wow… experts-exchange. I think I once actually went through the effort of blacklisting that site from my google searches. It was the only thing worse than seeing yahoo answers come up in your results.

Aaron Wolfson
Guest

To be fair, I once read a *fantastic* Yahoo! Answer about the lifespan of bees and why it’s longer for females.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Do you have a link? I must admit, I’m kind of curious now 🙂

Aaron Wolfson
Guest

Sadly I don’t, and I spent way too long trying to find it again!

ceineke
Guest

What better options are you talking about? Are you alluding to other job sites like Glassdoor, Workopolis, Indeed, etc.? Or are you suggesting an orthogonal approach, like reaching out to your contacts?

Erik Dietrich
Guest
I’m suggesting orthogonal approach(es). Mainly, this would include flexing networking muscles, but there are a lot of ways to do that. If you have contacts in orgs that you want to work at, that’s clearly awesome. But I don’t think it’s necessary. You can ‘lurk’ through social media to see what devs from those companies are doing and working with and then brush up on those things and/or interact with them. You can do open source plugins/extensions of their software to get their attention. If they’re a consulting firm, you can see if you can bring them a client (there… Read more »
bla
Guest

Another great article, Erik! Would you consider modifying your tagline, since your stories are about much more than simply software?

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Thanks — glad you liked! As for the tagline, that’s kind of an evolving process, so stay tuned. I think it stays accurate if you consider “software” to be the processes around it as well (hiring, management, etc). Meaning, I don’t write posts about fishing or what have you.

But, point taken. It’s definitely something to think on, and I’m open to suggestions =)

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