From the "You Must Be Trolling for Hits" Department...

Recently this little gem crossed my Inbox....

Professionalism = Knowledge First, Experience Last
By J----- A-----

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 his tools, and asks you to prepare for a lobotomy?

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...

(Photo of "Zero" signs)

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 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?



Let's start with the logical fallacy in the first section. Do I trust a doctor with diagnosing my mental problems if he tells me he's got 20 years of experience? Generally, yes, unless I have reasons to doubt this. If the guy picks up a skull-drill and starts looking for a place to start boring into my skull, sure, I'll start to question his judgement.... But what does this have to do with anything? I wouldn't trust the guy if he picked up a chainsaw and started firing it up, either.

Look, I get the analogy: "Doctor has 20 years of experience using outdated skills", har har. Very funny, very memorable, and totally inappropriate metaphor for the situation. To stand here and suggest that developers who aren't using the latest-and-greatest, so-bleeding-edge-even-saying-the-name-cuts-your-skin tools or languages or technologies are somehow practicing lobotomies (which, by the way, are still a recommended practice in certain mental disorder cases, I understand) in order to solve any and all mental-health issues, is a gross mischaracterization--and the worst form of negligence--I've ever heard suggested.

And it comes as no surprise that it's coming from the CIO of a consulting company. (Note to self: here's one more company I don't want anywhere near my clients' IT infrastructure.)

Let's take this analogy to its logical next step, shall we?

COBOL is (at least) twenty years old, so therefore any use of COBOL must clearly be as idiotic as drilling holes in your skull to let the demons out. So any company currently using COBOL has no real option other than to immediately upgrade all of their currently-running COBOL infrastructure (despite the fact that it's tested, works, and cashes most of the US banking industry's checks on a daily basis) with something vastly superior and totally untested (since we don't need experience, just knowlege), like... oh, I dunno.... how about Ruby? Oh, no, wait, that's at least 10 years old. Ditto for Java. And let's not even think about C, Perl, Python....

I know; let's rewrite the entire financial industry's core backbone in Groovy, since it's only, what, 6 years old at this point? I mean, sure, we'll have to do all this over again in just four years, since that's when Groovy will turn 10 and thus obviously begin it's long slide into mediocrity, alongside the "four humors" of medicine and Aristotle's (completely inaccurate) anatomical depictions, but hey, that's progress, right? Forget experience, it has no value compared to the "knowledge" that comes from reading the documentation on a brand-new language, tool, library, or platform....

What I find most appalling is this part right here:

I honestly and proudly admit that I have no experience at all in applying Kanban. But that's just a minor inconvenience. Because I have attained the knowledge of what it is and what it can be good for.

How can a developer honestly claim to know "what it can be good for", without some kind of experience to back it? (Hell, I'll even accept that you have familiarity and experience with something vaguely relating to the thing at hand, if you've got it--after all, experience in Java makes you a pretty damn good C# developer, in my mind, and vice versa.)

And, to make things even more interesting, our intrepid troll, having established the attention-gathering headline, then proceeds to step away from the chasm, by backing away from this "knowledge-not-experience" position in the same paragraph, just one sentence later:

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.

Ah... In other words, he and his company are going to experiment with this new technique, "in a controlled setting, with time allocated for a pilot and proper evaluations afterwards", in order to gain experience with the technique and see how it works and how it doesn't.

In other words....

.... experience matters.

Knowledge, apparently, isn't enough--experience still matters, and it matters a lot earlier than his "knowledge first, experience last" mantra seems to imply. Otherwise, once you "know" something, why not apply it immediately to your mission-critical core?

At the end of the day, buried under all the ludicrous hyperbole, he has a point: developers, like medical professionals, must ensure they are on top of their game and spend some time investing in themselves and their knowledge portfolio. Jay Zimmerman takes great pains to point this out at every No Fluff Just Stuff show, and he's right: those who spend the time to invest in their own knowledge portfolio, find themselves the last to be fired and the first to be hired. But this doesn't mean that everything you learn is immediately applicable, or even appropriate, to the situation at hand. Just because you learned Groovy last weekend in Austin doesn't mean you have the right--or the responsibility--to immediately start slipping Groovy in to the production servers. Groovy has its share of good things, yes, but it's got its share of negative consequences, too, and you'd better damn well know what they are before you start betting the company's future on it. (No, I will not tell you what those negative consequences are--that's your job, because what if it turns out I'm wrong, or they don't apply to your particular situation?) Every technology, language, library or tool has a positive/negative profile to it, and if you can't point out the pros as well as the cons, then you don't understand the technology and you have no business using it on anything except maybe a prototype that never leaves your local hard disk. Too many projects were built with "flavor-of-the-year" tools and technologies, and a few years later, long after the original "bleeding-edge" developer has gone on to do a new project with a new "bleeding-edge" technology, the IT guys left to admin and upkeep the project are struggling to find ways to keep this thing afloat.

If you're languishing at a company that seems to resist anything and everything new, try this exercise on: go down to the IT guys, and ask them why they resist. Ask them to show you a data flow diagram of how information feeds from one system to another (assuming they even have one). Ask them how many different operating systems they have, how many different languages were used to create the various software programs currently running, what tools they have to know when one of those programs fails, and how many different data formats are currently in use. Then go find the guys currently maintaining and updating and bug-fixing those current programs, and ask to see the code. Figure out how long it would take you to rewrite the whole thing, and keep the company in business while you're at it.

There is a reason "legacy code" exists, and while we shouldn't be afraid to replace it, we shouldn't be cavalier about tossing it out, either.

And we definitely shouldn't look at anything older than five years ago and equate it to lobotomies. COBOL had some good ideas that still echo through the industry today, and Groovy and Scala and Ruby and F# undoubtedly have some buried mines that we will, with benefit of ten years' hindsight, look back at in 2018 and say, "Wow, how dumb were we to think that this was the last language we'd ever have to use!".

That's experience talking.

And the funny thing is, it seems to have served us pretty well. When we don't listen to the guys claiming to know how to use something effectively that they've never actually used before, of course.

Caveat emptor.