Professionalism = Knowledge First, Experience Last

Icepick
Do you trust a doctor with diagnosing your mental problems if the doctor tells you he’s got 20 years of experience? Do you still trust that doctor when he picks up a knife and ice picks, and asks you to prepare for a lobotomy?

Note: A lobotomy, or leukotomy, which involves the cutting of connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, was used on many thousands of patients all over the world in the 20th century. These days it is seen as “one of the most barbaric mistakes ever perpetrated by mainstream medicine”.

Would you still be impressed if the doctor had 20 years of experience in carrying out lobotomies?

I am always skeptic when people tell me they have X years of experience in a certain field or discipline, like “5 years of experience as a .NET developer”, “8 years of experience as a project manager” or “12 years of experience as a development manager”. It is as if people’s professional levels need to be measured in years of practice.

This, of course, is nonsense.

Professionalism is measured by what you are going to do now…

Are you going to use some discredited technique from half a century ago?

  • Are you, as a .NET developer, going to use Response.Write, because you’ve got 5 years of experience doing exactly that?
  • Are you, as a project manager, going to create Gantt charts, because that’s what you’ve been doing for 8 years?
  • Are you, as a development manager, going to micro-manage your team members, as you did in the 12 years before now?

If so, allow me to illustrate the value of your experience…

Zero

Photo by Gaetan Lee

Here’s an example of what it means to be a professional:

There’s a concept called Kanban making headlines these days in some parts of the agile community. I honestly and proudly admit that I have no experience at all in applying Kanban. But that’s just a minor inconvenience. Because I do have attained the knowledge of what it is and what it can be good for. And now there are some planning issues in our organization for which this Kanban-stuff might be the perfect solution. I’m sure we’re going to give it a shot, in a controlled setting, with time allocated for a pilot and proper evaluations afterwards. That’s the way a professional tries to solve a problem.

Professionals don’t match problems with their experiences. They match them with their knowledge.
Sure, experience is useful. But only when you already have the knowledge in place. Experience has no value when there’s no knowledge to verify that you are applying the right experience.

Knowledge Comes First, Experience Comes Last
This is my message to anyone who wants to be a professional software developer, a professional project manager, or a professional development manager. You must gain and apply knowledge first, and experience will help you after that. Professionals need to know about the latest developments and techniques. They certainly don’t bother measuring years of experience.

Are you still practicing lobotomies?

43 thoughts on “Professionalism = Knowledge First, Experience Last”

  1. The title and some of the conclusions in the article are pretty specious. Does anyone actually vet these articles before they get published? One of the reasons the Agile Alliance doesn’t give out Agile “certifications” is precisely the reason that knowing about a subject is not the same thing as being able to practice the subject itself. It doesn’t matter that you can recite about some subject chapter and verse, it matters what you can do in that subject. I can read a book that describes how to paint precisely like Hans Holbein or develop a vaccine like Jonas Saulk, but that doesn’t mean that now that I “know” about those things (in dramatic detail) that I can actually do them.

    Bottom line: Good judgment emerges from bad judgment. Bad judgment comes from experience. There’s a lot of factors in developing software that have to do with things that you can’t learn in a book or in school.

  2. Honestly, you are partially correct.

    Let me give you a real situation: Given the choice between a ROR developer yet to roll out a site to a large audience and a delphi programmer who has rolled out software to thousands of users, we chose the delphi programmer. Delphi sucks and ROR rules, but it has been my experience that any modestly intelligent software guy can program well, but FEW people can successfully roll out large software projects. Its the end result of the monkey test. We chose the delphi guy, and he picked up ROR in a few days and used his experience to thwart many problems much earlier than would have occured with the site.

    You seem to be confusing experience as doing rather than experience as learning. If someone rolled out 100 delphi clients regardless of client requests (websites, apps, client server, rocket control systems) then you have something to worry about. But if you see experience as learning, then its more valuable than knowledge per se (as you can’t read experience).

    Let me put it another way: would you like someone who ran a successful web design business or someone who wrote w3 specs?

    I believe knowledge is a commodity and experience (good experience) is scarce. Thats why the famous exec who lost millions on his first day wasn’t allowed to quit, his boss invested millions of dollars in his experience!

    I can see where you are coming from though, but give any successful business owner a choice between two candidates with equal ABILITY for knowledge but different experience, and they will always choose the one with more experience. They just understand what experience counts for, and you don’t.

    1. hello,

      related to work experience and knowledge, let me tell you about my case. I’m 27 years old, i come from a humble family, i got my first computer at the age of 17, had a 56k connection until 22, a high-school degree in computer science but started working in IT ate the age of 18, doing network administration and help-desk for a private school.
      Worked there for almost 2 years then had an internship in the IT department of a factory. While there i developed SAP R/3 reports in ABAP, introduced, proposed and developed internal PHP applications, got acquainted and started to love Linux at workstation and server level.

      I was there 3 years and 9 months them moved to a small software house developing LAMP applications for 2 years. While there i built a reputation of being creative and problem solver and highly flexible, i developed an integration between PHP applications and electronic weighters using Java applets, i migrated applications and databases to Oracle 10g and designed an automated PDF report network printing solution using ghostscript, installed and managed linux dedicated servers, did customer training and installed production applications . When i got tired of being very badly paid and having to write bad code due to company resilience in migrating to new technologies and having to use a not even spaghetti code level application framework, i moved to a smaller shop maintaining a Java Struts/Hibernate CMS solution.

      After 5 months and due to poor management, the company almost went bankrupt and i moved to a web design shop, where i worked for a year and a half, developing PHP4 websites. I proposed, analyzed and setup Subversion for the company projects, did internal training on it to my colleagues and built a reputation of being a top developer always pushing for quality and better ways of developing applications, with ORM for example (Propel) and Zend Framework. I also migrated an application to SQL Server.

      After that i moved to another shop as a main developer because it was a service company that wanted to start an internal development department. I was asked to develop a new CMS solution for them, prepared to the future. So i took PHP5, Propel, Zend Framework and JQuery and architectured a very flexible OO framework. The problem was that no one had the faintest idea about real programming there, i was responsible and had the assistance of a person in an internship, without real developing experience, which i had to train in PHP, MySQL and O.O. developing from scratch, while still having to do my work and correct hers.

      The situation started to become unacceptable and i was offered a job in an outsourcing company where it was suggested that i would be assuming a role of Java web development, but in fact i became a junior consultant, i developed J2EE API’s for 2 weeks and now i’m (for what i have been told will be a short time but i’m here for almost 3 months) solving customer problem tickets for a major mobile operator in my country, i have a smaller salary than other colleagues with a degree and work experience of months.

      Concluding, i did all of this with a high-school degree, a lot of geekiness and a passion for learning and IT, my knowledge goes far from the tasks i performed professionally until know but still i’m being judged by my educational profile, so how can we really measure knowledge and experience?

    2. You chose knowledge over experience. The Delphi person had the knowledge you needed but no experience with the product.

  3. It would be crazy to measure a professional in year of experience.
    On the other side, it would be equally crazy to give too much responsibilities to the guy who master the greatest-and-latest framework, but has no professional experience (in years) at all.
    Not surprisingly, the virtue’s in the middle. A good professional needs to have the passion and the humility to learn new tools, techniques and methods, but also needs time and experiences in different projects.

  4. Yes, the people you hire need to have a level competency in the skills for which you are hiring them. That is what technical interviews, tests and whatnot are for. However, I have experienced the other side of this type of thinking. I myself have approximately 10 years experience in software engineer though I do not have a college degree. For many hiring companies this apparently means that I do not have any knowledge at all. Which is absurd.

    So I think you should look at what types of things the person has done in those many years of experience. Is there anything they can produce for inspection? What are their achievements, etc.? Sure you wouldn’t hire the guy that goes for the lobotomy, but would you consider a doctor who had hundreds of success stories with patients using the correct or appropriate treatment?

  5. Knowledge is extremely important! Extremely! But experience is as important as knowledge.

    You mentioned doctor’s example – good for you. But you know what? Doctors have to study at university for six years (at least in Poland) and they are still not allowed to do any operation and to treat patients. Why? Because they need another five years of EXPERIENCE. Is now knowledge more important than experience? I don’t think so.

  6. You’re right that it’s knowledge that matters. Years of experience is just used as a proxy because it’s impossible to assess knowledge without working with someone for a while. Once you know what someones level of knowledge is it’s true that that’s what matters in large part.

    Your observation is true in theory. In practice however, knowledge is a difficult thing to quantify.

  7. I agree with you. Experience makes you handle the problems quicker. However, if you don’t know how to solve them, you cannot do anything. Knowledge brings you the experience. Because, you face the problem and spend lots of time to solve it. So, you know it. When you faced the same problem for the second time, you solve it in a minute. I think, this is experience.
    In addition, as you said, you cannot measure the experience with only counting passing years. Two people come to the same experience level one with spending 3 months and the other with spending 3 years. 😀

  8. Thanks everyone for the great feedback. Given the replies above, it seems to me that knowledge and experience mean different things to different people. I don’t have the time to respond to each and every single thing written here, but my position remains as follows:

    When I hire people I am interested in how they would solve problems *today*. When they can show me that they are applying the correct solutions (which, in my terms, equals to using their *knowledge*), only then will I be interested in the amount of experience they have in applying that knowledge.

    I would rather have someone with 20 days of experience in using Scrum than someone with 20 years of experience in using waterfall.

    (However, I am of course more interested in someone with 5 years of experience in using Scrum over someone with just 20 days of experience.)

    That’s why I still claim that knowledge (of correct solutions) comes first, and experience (in applying the correct solutions) after that.

  9. I agree with the points you are making here. It seems there are a lot of people in development/project management/etc. who rest on past successes to give credibility to their out-of-date opinions.

  10. I’m seeing a lot of misinterpretations of my post. Maybe it’s my own fault for not being clear enough. Maybe people don’t read properly. I don’t know. But let me reply to this…

    “experience is as important as knowledge”
    YES, OF COURSE!

    I want my doctor to be knowledgeable AND experienced.
    I want my car to be able to start AND brake.

    However…

    I’d like my car to start first, because without that the ability to brake is irrelevant.
    And I’d like to check for knowledge first, because without it experience is irrelevant.

    Knowledge first, experience last…

  11. Suppose you have to choose between two people:

    – one person with only knowledge (but not having any experience yet)
    – one person with only experience (but not knowing if he is doing the right thing)

    Which one would you choose?

  12. I would hire them both because neither of them would be good for me 🙂 I wrote about knowledge vs. experience in 2006 (yet the subject is very very wide) http://java2jee.blogspot.com/2006/12/knowledge-vs-experience.html

    I think I get what you mean (but it’s not clear from the post). You have to gain knowledge FIRST and then get the experience. I hope you meant timeline, not the importance (what you already wrote “knowledge is as important as experience”). Then I totally agree with you. You have to first learn stuff then go to work and get the experience.

  13. I don’t remember were I’ve read that – I think it must have been some other blog: someone who does the same thing for eight years doesn’t have eight years of experience. He has one year of experience, repeated eight times.

  14. You seem to be confusing the ability to regurgitate a solution (knowledge) with the ability to practically use that solution (experience). The latter is more important. It’s why there is a position called “junior developer”. Its why you can’t do a doctorate without a research paper or years of experience, experience counts more than knowledge.

    Epic fail.

  15. For all the stupid content and comparisons of this text, this is probably the more stupid:

    “Suppose you have to choose between two people: – one person with only knowledge (but not having any experience yet) – one person with only experience (but not knowing if he is doing the right thing) Which one would you choose? ”

    How can a person have “only experience”? It has to know something to do something even if he’s “not knowing if he is doing the right thing”. At the very least he has to know to do something in the wrong way. Actually a person can have *only experience* without knowledge if he’s experienced in doing… nothing!

    On the other hand, nobody can have experience in doing things without knowing if he’s doing it right, because if he does he probably screw it very often and then he gets fired and won’t be able to get more experience on wrongdoings.

    About the other stupid comparison about the doctors, well, at that time it was the best treatment for that particular condition. There is even a Nobel Prize given for that. To say what you said now it’s like saying “why the stupid sailors that discover America (by change, actually) used wooden ships moved by wind and not some metallic, diesel-propelled ships? Or why the stupid Romans and Greeks used a abacus to make calculations where there is so many spreadsheets to do it?

    Bottom line, this text is just some rants of no interest whatsoever. I don’t know why I wasted time commenting it. I maybe better be doing something, even if I don’t know if it’s the right thing.

  16. I still feel that some people completely misunderstand what I wrote.

    My post was about people claiming they have “X years of experience”, while
    in reality they have gained experience practicing the WRONG thing. You need
    KNOWLEDGE to know whether you’re doing the right or the wrong thing.

    I have an example of an experienced dentist who wanted to practice an old
    technique on me that would have required me to give up two healthy teeth in
    order to save a third one. However, just before he started he was notified
    by someone else that there was a newer, better technique available. A
    technique that did not require me to give up some teeth. That requires
    KNOWLEDGE!

    So, my dentist sent me to someone who had gained some experience practicing
    the newer technique.

    Knowledge first, experience last…

    But anyways, I think it’s fine when people disagree. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with bad-mouthing and name-calling. It’s so childish.

    Cheers!

  17. Well, I didn’t call you stupid, just the comparisons you made. Saying something stupid does not make a person stupid, that only happens if a person says more stupid things than otherwise. No offense intended. But please, this last example of yours, a dentist who wants to remove two good teeth to save one, well, what can I say? Is so stupid that can only be a joke…

    But my point is, there’s *no one* that can have just “only experience”, experience is the accumulation of knowledge. So what you’re been talking about just doesn’t make any sense. There is no dichotomy between “knowledge” and “experience”. One is consequence of the other. You can only have experience based on the application of knowledge, but when you’re using your experience you’re actually learning something more.

    You can actually start by having “no knowledge” and acquire knowledge through practice, learning as you go. Actually, all “knowledge” come from some kind of “experience”. Man probably “know” how to make fire because some many centuries ago they try and fail and try and fail until they actually succeeded in producing fire. So what you call “knowledge” was actually someone else “experience”.

    As said elsewhere, if you’re in the middle of a burning house, who do you prefer? A fireman who had been in that same situation dozens of times but it’s from the time when there was no fire schools, so he never actually “learned” how to do fire fighting except through his experience or someone that had just finished his Fire Fighting school?

    But serious, I’m not calling you stupid.

  18. I certainly would enjoy a debate about how experience does not trump all (and neither does knowledge). But to say that knowledge is the only thing that counts is just plain moronic. In order to properly evaluate something you have to have experience of it. That’s it. I can’t believe anyone would even take this guy seriously.

  19. Don’t post deliberately provocative material then. If you want a sensible debate, be sensible. If what you mean to say was that sometimes doing things the same way as in the past is bad, well, you should have written that.

    Instead, you wrote:
    “There’s a concept called Kanban making headlines these days in some parts of the agile community. I honestly and proudly admit that I have no experience at all in applying Kanban. But that’s just a minor inconvenience. Because I do have attained the knowledge of what it is and what it can be good for. And now there are some planning issues in our organization for which this Kanban-stuff might be the perfect solution. I’m sure we’re going to give it a shot, in a controlled setting, with time allocated for a pilot and proper evaluations afterwards. That’s the way a professional tries to solve a problem.”

    I would never hire you. No one who had any sense would. I mean, maybe you will say that you would only use it in a very limited way etc. (to get experience with it maybe?) but since you dismiss the value of experience, I will assume you would just as soon roll it out on your most important project. I can’t even start to explain to you all the reasons you are wrong (seriously, its not worth my time), but I honestly believe its important that you realize you are an IDIOT and need to seriously reconsider how you approach technology.

  20. I’m afraid I lack the time to respond to each and every comment. So I’m leaving the replies as they stand. I see that the post is misinterpreted by many. And maybe I deserve that, for writing such a provocative text. (Though I didn’t consider it so provocate when I wrote it at the time.) However, I also see that no less than 16 DZone readers have voted *in favor* of the post, while only 6 have voted *against* it. So it appears that the people who have been attacking either me or the post itself are simply a minority. So despite the flaws of the article, most people appear to understand what I mean. And I will leave it at that.

  21. Well, I didn’t realize that there was a poll going on. So I think if 12 people agree with you, it’s a well proven fact that you’re are right. No doubt about it. Congratulations! But you saying that, is just one more stupid thing to say in the line of all the stupid things you said until now. C’mom, get real, do you really think the fact that 12 people agree with do (kinda) and 6 disagree, makes you right? [Part of the comment was censored by Artem. Sorry, no offensive name calling here]

    Or maybe, just maybe, those 12 lack the *experience* to know that in the real world, outside of your little head and outside your “controlled setting, with time allocated for a pilot and proper evaluations afterwards” – btw, in the real “real” world that never happens, there is simply no time for pilots and proper evaluations, that’s why *experience* is so valuable – things are not as you say. The only reason to prefer “knowledge” over “experience” – and I hope you’ve realized for now that there are no such thing as “experience without knowledge” or as you put it “only experience” because both live in the same house, they are the two faces of the same coin – is probably because you lack experience, and thus you need ” time for pilots and proper evaluations” – and you only need that to overcome your lack of experience and limited general knowledge – while the experienced guys do the *real* work.

  22. “Professionals don’t match problems with their experiences. They match them with their knowledge.”

    This thought process leads to teams fitting a problem to a solution they would like to use. I see this all the time in the consulting world. Sell a company on a new technology buzz word and then leave them with a faulty solution.

    Technology X is new, I’d like to use it. I think my client’s problem can be solved with Technology X, although I have no experience with it. Who cares what the side effects are! We won’t find out until long after my company is gone. Besides, Mr. Evangelist says its good!

    Critical thinking involves thinking about something from all angles before making a decision. Did you think about this post from all angles before submitting? You do not acknowledge any value in experience. This is to say that a new graduate really can know it all. Perhaps a degree or HS diploma isn’t even necessary experience?

    Experience is valuable, regardless of if it is with a specified technology. You need experience to know what could go wrong, as well as what should go right.

  23. “You obviously stole your post from…”

    As you can clearly see on Ted Neward’s site, Ted stole the post from me. He copied it and blotted out my name, (except for my initials).

    This is becoming hilarious.

  24. “I couldn’t care less about programming languages. I care about management practices.”

    Gee, I hope you manage everything but programmers/developers. Because, I hope this aren’t news to you, developers *do* use programming languages…

    The only thing hilarious by now is how someone that says nonsense, stupid things with the aid of even more stupid arguments still thinks it’s saying something right. And why? Because 16 people agreed with him (I noticed that you updated your post from 12 to 16 – wow!). Actually, if you know how to read and understand what they are saying, most have said “yes, but…”. Maybe you have the knowledge to read but you lack the experience to understand what they say?

    Get a grip. Put in your little head of yours that there is no such thing as “only experience” as you said earlier (please don’t update that too), all experience implies knowledge. As I said elsewhere, “experience can not exist without knowledge and the very act of acquiring knowledge creates experience.”

    You just said nonsense that grab you much more attention than you deserve. You should be learning something out of this experience in order to improve your knowledge about posting nonsense, stupid things and, thus learning your lesson, admit that you were just plain wrong. And, with the experience thus acquired, think twice before posting other nonsense, stupid things.

  25. From elsewhere…

    Question: “Assume your child or your wife is sick, and as you reach the hospital, the admittance nurse offers you a choice of the two doctors on call. Who do you want more: the doctor who just graduated fresh from medical school and knows all the latest in holistic and unconventional medicine, or the doctor with 30 years’ experience and a solid track record of healthy patients?”

    Answer: “I will first check if the doctor with “30 years of experience” has any knowledge of newer developments in the last 10 years that might have to be compared with his own experience. If the doctor has no such knowledge of latest techniques, then I will consider him useless, and I will ask the other doctor fresh from medical school what the latest developments say, and I will then seek someone with some experience in performing the most appropriate job.”

    Comment: “Don’t you think that by then your children/wife will probably be dead?”

  26. Professionals don’t match problems with their experiences. They match them with their knowledge.
    Professionalism is measured by what you are going to do now…
    Knowledge Comes First, Experience Comes Last

    Were you drunk when you posted this? You are pretty young, aren’t you?

  27. And why do I have a feeling that it’s the “new” guys that are “envious” of the money more experienced guys make, and are somehow trying to “dismiss” the value of experience in order to feel better about what they think is a “injustice”? :d

  28. This is really good stuff…

    “Professionalism is measured by what you are going to do now…”

    This means that Professionalism is measured by what you actually DIDN’T DO YET, and not what you have done in your Profession until now…

    What about if “what you are going to do now” happens to turn out wrong (maybe because you lack experience in that or similar areas?), is that still Professionalism?

  29. It’s impossible for everyone to be right as there are two completely different opinions here. A non-sense opinion of “knowledge first, experience later” and even worse, equalling that to “professionalism”, and another opinion that says that both knowledge and experience are faces of the same coin, you can’t have one without the other, there is no such thing as “experience without knowledge”, or “only experience” as the author stupidly put it, and to have “knowledge without experience”, although is possible, doesn’t take you nowhere.

    Professionalism is the act of “doing something”, not “knowing something”. I do know how to get to the moon, but that doesn’t make me an astronaut… At least a professional one…

    So probably you’re just, like the author, trolling for hits for your blog, in which both probably succeeded.

  30. Really don’t think this post has any value at all. I think everyone knows better than to take someone’s 5 years or 10 years of experience with a pinch of salt until it is determined what the guy is good for.

    But morphing that into a Knowledge versus Experience argument is pointless. What next? Smile versus Handshake???

  31. Isn’t knowledge something you gain though your own experience or the experience of others? You only gained your “knowledge” of Kanban because others before you had the experience to develop and use it.

    Humans are born into the world with no knowledge, but quickly gain it through experience and eventually are able to gain knowledge by learning from others. Obviously, knowledge can be passed on without having first hand experience, but I believe it’s only through experience that one gains a deeper understanding that cannot be obtained academically…

  32. you can only acquire knowledge through experience.

    Experience is important. The best indicator of someone’s future performance, is looking at someone’s past performance.

  33. I read the post with great interest because many of the themes are directly applicable to my current work situation. Meaning, I guess, I work with a bunch of “experienced” individuals rather than a bunch of “knowledgeable” individuals. However, I’m not entirely convinced your theory holds up under close scrutiny, but I do like it.

    Really, I think, what you’re talking about is intellectual curiosity versus ignorance or perhaps adaptability versus rigidity rather than knowledge versus experience. For example, one should certainly be open-minded and consider a variety of approaches or methodologies for solving a particular problem. That person may pick one particular methodology based on their experience (e.g. using Gantt charts and MS Project to manage a project), but when that doesn’t work anymore or you end up investing more time complying with your project management methodology than getting stuff done, you ought to be a) smart enough to realize that and b) willing to try something new in order to be more efficient and get more done. If you don’t choose Scrum or XP that doesn’t mean you’re dumb, but if you decide to stick with Gantt charts and MS Project because it’s what you know, well, maybe it’s time for that lobotomy after all.

    Lobotomies aren’t practiced anymore because there’s a better way to achieve the desired effect or treat the symptoms (pick your metaphor). Someone realized that along the way and had the intellectual curiosity and horsepower — and desire, motivation — to pick something better. They *applied* their knowledge and used their experience to forge a new way. It’s evolution, baby.

  34. Education helps. In some areas it’s a must have.

    Most education will not give you ambition, nerves or moral, it will not make you a fighter. However it gives you knowledge, and sometimes knowledge is key.

    So just walking about with a lot of knowledge won’t make you a success. You have to throw yourself into action, the right action, and make things happen, even if you’re stomach screams no. Forward is the way to go. That will give you ambition, nerves and moral. You have to build yourself in a way.

    I do what I have to do in order to achieve my objectives, with common sence ofcourse. And if that includes having to get an education, so be it.

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