Are You Experienced?
To quote Jimi Hendrix, “Are you experienced?”
In a New York Times article, Allan Ripp, who runs a press relations firm, described his exasperation finding a job applicant with relevant experience. The position in question was Account Director. In response to the ad he posted, Ripp received more than 500 resumes. Somehow, people from across the professional spectrum saw a perfect fit between themselves and Ripp's very specific job posting. Eager resume applicants included a home health care aide, a waitress, a fragrance designer, and an actor. Although Ripp is open to the idea of "transferable skills," he was surprised (and amused) by the unashamed bravado of the job seekers, most of whom had backgrounds that weren't even in hailing distance of the position.
If you want to pull in a new client, land a job, or get a promotion, experience counts. (There are other critical factors, like character, confidence, and good communication, but those deserve—and will receive—their own posts). Experience must be real, and it must be relevant. But Ripp's employee search shows that there are many ideas about what counts as experience. Here is a tongue-in-cheek formula that concisely expresses what I think experience is:
Experience = ((TOT + P) * C) * T
In other words, Experience means you know Tools of the Trade (TOT), have Practiced (P) them in as many different Contexts (C) as possible, and you've invested lots of Time (T) doing so.
Tools of the Trade. Chefs have knives, pots, and pans; programmers have languages, frameworks, and protocols. All professionals have tools (physical, conceptual) they must master in order to do their jobs. These are the fundamental building blocks on which expertise develops. When you learned to read and write, your instructor first might have actually used alphabet blocks to teach you letters before moving on to forming words and building simple sentences. However, just like knowing your ABCs doesn’t make you a novelist, simply knowing how to use the tools of your trade doesn't make you an expert. You need to understand the endless ways these tools can be combined, modified, and applied to a problem. You need practice.
Practice. Practice doesn't always make us perfect, but it does make us better. When I managed projects, I used Microsoft Project to track schedules, budgets, and other project details. The first project I created with the application was embarrassingly simple: about 20 tasks, a minuscule budget, and a project team consisting of one person besides myself. Managing that project, which pushed me to the limit of my understanding of Microsoft Project, taught me skills that I would later use much more deftly on more challenging assignments. I made mistakes and learned from them. As my projects grew in size and complexity, I discovered that some features were better at performing a task than others. I developed habits that helped me avoid problems later down the road, made me more efficient, and enabled me to creatively solve problems that used to stump me.
Context. In his book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, Andy Hunt describes a programmer whose resume highlighted 10 years of experience. What this coder failed to mention was that he spent those years essentially doing the same task over and over again. Give this person a different task and that decade of experience shrinks to near zero. Experience requires breadth not just depth. Understanding how tools and concepts apply in a variety of settings is the best way to achieve a level of mastery in your profession. Broadening your experience doesn't necessarily require multiple jobs or assignments. In many large projects, if you're paying attention and assert yourself, you'll find many opportunities to stretch your skillset and build qualifications.
Time. Everything described up to this point is worthless unless the essential element of time is added. So, how much time should you devote to learning the tools, practicing, and applying your skills in different settings? It depends on how good you want to be. Some researchers estimate that it takes a minimum of 10 years to become what Andy Hunt describes as an expert. An expert pushes the envelope of a profession, is regarded by highly accomplished peers for possessing superior depth and breadth of knowledge, and is sometimes considered a "modern wizard." There are very few wizards around (probably 1 percent of the world’s population), which means you are not likely to meet one, and you needn't fear having to compete with them for jobs or clients. But the remaining 99 percent are your true competition. The maxim "practice makes perfect" is equally true for them as it is for you, so put in the hours and keep growing.
I don't know if Ripp ever found a qualified candidate for the Account Director position. But in my imagination, I picture him finally finding the individual who has committed to paying the dues of learning, practicing in a variety of settings, and investing time so that he or she could say with confidence, "I have experience."
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Allan Ripp, "How Not to Get a Job," New York Times, July 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/07/opinion/how-not-to-get-a-job.html?_r=0
Hunt, Andy. Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. Raleigh, NC: The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2008.