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On building teams: experience or talent?

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Obviously when you hire, you want to find a good mix of experience and talent. But a perfectly balanced straddle between the two is impossible. So when forced to choose between them, which do you choose: experience or talent?

The case for experience

The primary case for experience is risk mitigation. If you want to make sure that someone is capable of performing a task, the only real way to know is if she can demonstrate that she has completed the task before. In cases like this, you are looking for the person to achieve the same basic objective that she has demonstrated in the past.

This type of hiring criteria is useful in a lot of settings. Early in a manager’s career, she might be most interested in establishing a stable foundation from which to build. Having a few steady players whose performance can be counted on and who do not require excessive personal management can be a great starting point. In other cases, if the work to be done is largely well-known infrastructure work that is common across all companies, experience frequently trumps talent. Or it could be that the team already has a lot of less experienced talent that need someone to help guide them and avoid common pitfalls.

Where experience falls short

The challenge with experience is that it’s actually difficult to tell how much experience someone has.

For example, we have all seen the resumes where someone has jumped from job to job every 2-3 years. In these cases, does the person have 15 years of experience in the field? Or is it more like 2-3 years of experience repeated 5 times? Doing the same thing over and over is different than getting the kind of experience that only longevity in a position can give you. When we look at candidates based on the number of years in a particular field, we need to be careful that the number of years is representative of the experience level, else we end up looking for experience but hiring something quite less.

The other issue with experience is that it is so contextual. At a previous employer, we hired an executive from Cisco. Immediately the halls were alive with whispers that he was going to branch the software and take plays from the Cisco playbook. But the Cisco playbook was written from a position of incumbency and when it didn’t matter how many versions of operating system their were. In fact, the plays that Cisco ran were largely inapplicable to the types of plays a challenger would run, which meant that the experience from Cisco (at least the specific plays) were not terribly relevant. Coveting experience that is only relevant in specific contexts is dangerous.

Finally, how often do we look for people who have led initiatives? We see verbs like “led” or “spearheaded”, and we get excited. But even here, we need to be careful about whether the person did the work or simply managed someone else who did. Why do you think the first thing new executives do is bring all their old colleagues with them? Because on some level, they are frequently bringing in the people who actually implemented the things for which they are being hired.

The case for talent

If experience is about limiting how low the floor can go, talent is about raising how high the ceiling can climb.

When you hire for talent, it is less about what someone has done and more about how quickly they learn. When you get someone who is a quick learner and extremely driven, you end up with capabilities that far exceed expectations. And these capabilities frequently help pull the rest of the team along. There is no better source of positive peer pressure than someone who is succeeding despite not having the experience to do so.

In general, most people subscribe to the mantra of buying low and selling high. Hiring talent fits squarely within that philosophy. And it’s really the only way to consistently exceed expectations. Experience sets expectations, but talent exceeds them. If you have a team that is skewed one way or the other, you can tell whether you are mitigating failure or promoting success. Each is a viable strategy depending on the role, but you ought to be selecting the objective explicitly.

When talent is not enough

Having someone with talent but not providing them the tools or guidance to succeed is not a recipe for success. The reason that everyone makes the same mistakes is that everyone makes the same mistakes. Your talented new employee is likely no exception, so if you do not pair her with someone who has experience, she will make the same mistakes that everyone else makes.

This means that you need to balance your talent with coaching. Whether that comes directly from you or other senior voices on the team, you need to make sure that the young guns on your team are learning from others’ experience. Of course, this strategy only works if your talent is coachable, which is why you need to complement your search for talent with a quest for coachability. When you find the two in equal measure, you have someone around whom you can build a team.

So which way do you bias?

It depends on whether you are growing your own career or playing a bit of vocational defense. If you are in a situation that warrants a less risky disposition (you are brought in to fix something, for example), then you might bias towards experience to help rein in the loose ends that have been causing problems. If, however, you are trying to exceed expectations, then the only way to go is with talent.

It is worth noting here that neither talent nor experience are another word for age. You can find people of all ages that fit into both categories. The question is really whether you are looking for people who have performed the exact task you need in a previous life, or if you are looking for someone who has the talent to figure it out along the way.

How does this impact interviewing?

Based on which way you bias, how might your interviewing change? If you are looking for talent, the questions are likely less about producing some example of existing code and more about thinking on the fly about some difficult-to-solve problem. You want to know what they are capable of, not what they remember from having done it before. If you are more interested in experience, then things like a portfolio of work and references are much more important.

The point is that interviewing should be different based on what you are looking for. If you interview the same for either case, chances are you are not effectively selecting questions and assessing talent or experience. Consider how you might explicitly alter your strategy.

The bottom line

I don’t personally believe you can ever strike a perfect balance – you skew one way or the other, even if only slightly. If forced to choose which way I skew, I tend to skew towards talent. I have never had a job for which I was completely qualified, but I have been hired over and over. That I am always growing means that I am never quite comfortable, which keeps me pushing harder and harder.

The opposite of success is not failure but mediocrity. Success and failure have a lot in common. The real thing to avoid is mediocrity. Not falling into a state of perpetual sameness with everything around you requires that you stand out. Talent is the key to standing out. If you really want to succeed, you need to be doing it differently, and that likely means that somewhere along the line, you have to place a few more chips on talent.

- See more at: http://www.plexxi.com/2014/09/building-teams-experience-talent/?utm_source=feedly&utm_reader=feedly&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=building-teams-experience-talent#sthash.VUnBXEFe.dpuf

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Published at DZone with permission of Mike Bushong, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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