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Hiring Technical Talent

Tech’s Loophole in ‘Years of Experience’

Written By Vivek Ravisankar | September 29, 2015

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Time is arbitrary--a relative school of thought. Ancient Roman civilizations looked at sun and moon cycles and decided that just about 365 days would make up one year. Newton said time is absolute, after which Einstein theorized its relativity. The existence of multiple scientific notions of time itself is proof that time is not real.

The quantification of time was conventionalized centuries ago. Time is not only imperfect but also permutable. The Daylight Savings Act of 1976 exemplifies this perfectly. Benjamin Franklin declared that we should simply move the first hour of light to the evening during the fall to boost productivity. With the mere pass of a law, Americans altered their perception of time forever.

Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.”
-- Albert Einstein.

Time is not real and yet the number of years in a particular job or skill often determines your job opportunity and--potentially--your entire career trajectory. When you really scrutinize why organizations filter by years of experience in job descriptions and what this reveals, it’s hard to believe that it’s still a primary factor for hiring today in tech.

Given the prolific concern of a skill gap, the imperfect illusion of time spent on a skill shouldn’t be a top factor in hiring in the tech sector. When it comes to solid experience, it’s not the years that predict great performance but, as Vinod Khosla advised at TechCrunch Disrupt, “it’s the rate of learning.”

The Loophole is Real

Speculation of agism is well-documented in the technology sector of Silicon Valley. Some point to anecdotal “frat bro culture” of startups (here), while others point to the pattern of successful young co-founders (here). While one-off instances of age discrimination lawsuits are undoubtedly overblown in the media (like that of Google and Twitter), the average median age in tech is a stat that’s hard to ignore. PayScale did a study to find the median age of tech workers, and found that just 6 of the 32 companies it looked at had a median age greater than 35 years old.
Informationweek did a survey of tech workers and found that a 70% said they’ve witnessed age discrimination. This has even caught the attention of the EEOC, the government agency in charge of discrimination laws:

“Some of our offices have made it a priority in  looking at age discrimination in the tech industry,” EEOC senior counsel Cathy Ventrell-Monsees.

If hiring based on age is illegal, why is there such a homogenous culture when it comes to age range? The loophole is in the years of experience. Regardless of what age you are, if you don’t meet the requirement, your resume might never reach the hands of hiring managers in tech. It’s why lawyers, for instance, have pointed out that requiring people with “Native Digital” experience is teetering on the edge of age discrimination. It implies that you have to have been born in the digital age, Fortune reports.
It’s a flawed process. Hiring managers typically write down a ballpark range of minimum, let’s say, 3-5 years of experience in a particular skill. Usually, recruiters run with this range and subscribe to the idea that since Scott has 20 years in COBOL, he probably doesn’t know about cutting-edge tech, like Swift or Block Chain.

But it goes both ways. If John spent 5 years working on Java, he’s considered more qualified than Jill, who only spent 1 year learning on the side. And so this arbitrary notion of time spent in a job helps create a hard-to-prove loophole to filter people by years instead of pure skill.

Today ‘years of experience’ is one of the top filters that companies use to cut through high volumes of prospects. Just look at the Premium feature of LinkedIn, the most-used recruiting tool by hiring managers and recruiters. It’s among the first filters that recruiters see on the left module.
Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 12.40.32 PM
Some recruiters have alternative techniques. A blogger dubbed “Boolean Blackbelt” uses this boolean search to find people who graduated in 2004, for instance: -dir (java | j2ee) -recruiter (engineer | consultant | programmer | developer) "location * Greater Atlanta"  "("BA" | "B.A." | "BS" | "B.S." | "Bachelor" | "Bachelors") * * * * * * 2004"

To top it off, McGraw Hill textbooks like “Start Your Own Business,” author actually capitalizes “PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE” in its guidelines on how to write a great job description. Really, why all of this emphasis on years of previous experience?

The Flaw is Inadvertently Stuck in the Process

A common perception is that because the nature of technology is fast, younger people are stereotypically more adaptable. But many reports underscore an accusatory connotation against companies. For instance, when Google and Twitter were under fire for age discrimination lawsuits earlier this year, repeated reports surfaced the infamous Mark Zuckerberg quote back in 2007: “Young people are smarter.” With each age discrimination lawsuit in tech, that soundbite gets another jolt of life (here, here and here).

But it’s generally not deliberate. The root of this homogenous range of age is two-fold. First, such classification based on stereotypes (re: the Scott example) is sociologically human nature, as PhD Robert B. Cialdini says in Influence.

“We can’t be expected to recognize and analyze all the aspects in each person, event, and situation we encounter in even one day. We haven’t the time, energy, or capacity for it. Instead, we must very often use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond mindlessly when one or another of these trigger features is present. - Cialdini.

For instance, one common stereotype against older workers is they have slower cognitive abilities than the youth. It’s just not true. Scientific evidence reveals that older workers aren’t necessarily less cognitive nor are they any less creative.

Second, this long-standing qualifications has been used to narrow down job applicants for centuries. According to one 1901 journal, engineer Frederick W. Taylor, one of America’s first management consultants, first crystallized the idea of analyzing job ads to write better, standardized job descriptions in Shop Management. He created a list of the most common attributes for each profession to be able to find similar people who’d succeed in the role. Sounds pretty logical for the 1900s.

By the end of 1917, most managers in the country adopted this boilerplate. It just so happens that previous experience was included in checklist. Until the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, people used to actually specified the age in job descriptions.

Changing the Syntax, Closing the Loophole

It’s not the length of time we’re looking for, but the rate of learning and substance of achievements of which they’re proud. The loophole is a matter of poor syntax--a steel oversight that withstood the passage of time and innovation.

Opponents might argue that, for some senior level jobs, you need specific experience that can only come with time. You need to be able to see projects through; see the ramifications of your decisions.

While these are all valid points, it’s still not the correct syntax. Again, the maturity and seniority that comes with time can be evident by what you’ve achieved and learned. Some people are ahead of their years, while others grow to remain emotionally stunted. Years in a job--alone--aren’t enough to prove that you learned something in those years.

Dan Parker runs a coding boot camp, Code Fellows, in Seattle puts it well when he says: “Regretfully, 10 years of experience can also mean 1 year of experience done 10 times.”
Take Kari Tarr, for instance, who was dead-set on switching careers from finance to engineering at Airbnb. She put in late nights of hard work to learn coding on the side. She wrangled friends to use CodePair to watch her code and help her progress. But when she first approached the high-growth startup’s engineering team to express her interest, they were all extremely hesitant. It’s understandable. Airbnb is a billion dollar startup with an extremely high bar for hiring. How can they let someone—even one of their own—come aboard with no experience?

“They were worried they might have to spend too much time showing me how to carry out specific tasks,” Tarr says. “I expected them to be worried.”

But the challenge was on. She rolled up her sleeves and made it a targeted goal to prove herself to the Airbnb engineering team. Tarr did this by strategically choosing projects and keeping an eye out for opportunity.

“If something needed to be automated, I’d volunteer for it. I looked for opportunities that would force me to get exposure to our code base,” Tarr says.

And the engineering team watched it all happen. A year later, they could see her progress and were convinced she’d be a great addition to the team. It didn’t matter whether or not she fell into the right bucket of “years of experience.” Her rate of learning was through the roof.

Plus, the effervescent nature of technology means that the skills you learned last month could become irrelevant tomorrow. Compared to other industries, software engineers generally don’t have as much experience because the field is relatively new. StackOverflow, for instance, pointed out that:

40% of doctors have at least 10 years of professional experience in the US while only 25% of developers have at least 10 years of experience.

The most in-demand programming languages today, according to IEEE, were created just 20-30 years ago. This list doesn’t include newer cutting-edge programming favorites, like Ruby on Rails (10 years old), Go (6 years old) and Swift (15 months old).
And it can be cyclical too. COBOL programmers are stereotypically outdated, but there’s a strong case to prove that COBOL will make a comeback within the next few years. Software engineers are serial learners. There’s a study that finds that, in general, 6-months is usually the amount of time it takes to pick up new tools for professional programmers. If you filter by skill and focus on how fast people learn, you’ll open up a flood of talented engineers.

In turn, David Heinemeier Hansson, author of Ruby on Rails, suggests that engineering candidates should actually view qualifications like “3-5 years of experience in Ruby” as a red flag.

It’s really time we reevaluate how we’re measuring experience. Years are not a measure of knowledge because everyone learns at a different rate. Rather than succumbing to overgeneralizations of entire generations, and risking age discrimination, a better filter is the rate of learning--focused purely on skill.

Will you eliminate “Years of Experience” as a primary filter to narrow the field?


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