Experience is the last thing you need

Why we should hire for “attitude & aptitude over experience and specific technologies”

It intrigues me that so many job adverts for software developers focus on experience and how many CVs have number of years developing in x, y or z technology listed front and centre.  A quick (and unscientific!) trawl through a major job site today showed the vast majority of the first couple of page of job adverts requiring ‘experience’ and often in very specific technologies.

As if the number of years working with a specific technology is the critical factor that will make someone magically fit into an organisation and productively work as part of a team to create complex software solutions! A few more enlightened posts look for passion, enthusiasm and the ability to learn but they are few and far between.

Together with a recent conversation with the hiring managers at a large company, it got me thinking about the key things we should value when hiring.  What are those things that are going to help our business grow, make it an attractive place to work, and ensure that the people we hire are enthusiastic advocates of what we do?

Embracing the “growth mindset”

I think it boils down to the apparently simple decision to hire based on the attitude, aptitude and experience of candidates. In that order. Of course, I’m not arguing for a second that experience isn’t important – we need people with proven skill in the tools and technologies we use, not least of all to guide others in their use.  We need our teams to be in balance and a healthy blend of hard-earned experience and youthful enthusiasm.  But let’s imagine that we adopt a value that echoes those listed in the Agile Manifesto and boldly state that:

“We value attitude and aptitude over experience and specific technologies”

How does that sound?  It doesn’t mean experience isn’t important but that, given the choice, we would prefer someone with the right attitude and aptitude. Whatever their level of experience. Whether that sounds crazy or sane might depend on how much you might already have embraced and value the “growth mindset”. In other words, are you hiring to get a job done or to fuel the kind of organisation you strive to be.

In summary for those new to it (and with apologies to those more expert than me), having a growth mindset means having a desire to learn which leads to a determined attitude to overcoming challenges, persisting when things get tough, learn from mistakes and find inspiration in the successes of others.  That sounds like the sort of person I’d love to have on any team!

Assessing people for attitude and aptitude

Maybe one reason we fall back on experience is the perceived risk and the difficulty in assessing someone for attitude and aptitude rather than relying on the harder’ fact of years’ experience. It’s something we’ve wrestled with at CodeClan over the last year and half when assessing students for our intensive software development course.

The career changers applying to our courses typically have zero previous experience so it isn’t even an option for us.  Across the 250 people we’ve brought onto our Professional Software Development course, we’ve never found an automated, test-driven or systematised approach to this. We’ve tried psychometric testing and found no pattern. We’ve used logic tests and puzzles with mixed results.  

In the end, it comes down to an intensive, face-to-face hour with our admissions team convincing us of the determination, passion and commitment that to learn and persist when things get tough. And it’s those very qualities, reinforced over 16 weeks of intensive work and supplemented by the coding knowledge they acquire that makes our students stand out to employers.

The proof of the pudding is in the 90% of students that find employment in new digital careers following completion of our course. I think it’s fair to say that these amazing individuals come pre-qualified for attitude and aptitude!

Prisoner’s Dilemma problems

Taking on a person with a limited experience but a growth mindset has many benefits. It provides the opportunity to shape a bundle of raw talent into someone that is as passionate about your business as you are and can work in the ways you know achieve results. Providing opportunities for personal and professional growth inspires fierce loyalty and improves retention. It also brings smart people with fresh perspective and new ideas into organisations to challenge the status quo and lead positive change.

I recognise that spending time and effort developing people with less experience is an example of the game theory Prisoner’s Dilemma problem. Paraphrased: If I rely on recruiting only experienced people whilst leaving the development of new talent to others I may be individually better off but it is by working together that we will all be better off as a community.

That community being the digital economy of Scotland. That’s certainly how we see things at CodeClan and are proud to be working with well over 100 like-minded companies collaborating to help us address the critical skills shortage we face.

In the end, with new roles required each year in the digital economy, it is simply a fact that we cannot rely on the existing pool of experienced people.  

We’re going to have to look to new sources of talent, accept and embrace the fact that we will all need to play a part in developing the future of the workforce and celebrate that together, we are developing Scotland’s digital future.


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