Experience is great in a candidate but don’t let it limit your options; you’re hiring someone for the future not the past.
The long running, and all-too-true joke in technology hiring is that there’s always a company asking for eight years of experience with a technology that’s only been around for three. Companies love experienced candidates. And why shouldn’t they? Someone who has been working in the role for many years is likely a known quantity with a proven track record. They weren’t fired, so they must know how to do the job. It should be remembered, however, that prior work experience isn’t actually what you’re looking for, only a proxy.
At the end of the day, you want to hire someone who can do the job. That’s it. The purpose of the interview process is to assess who is the best candidate. We’ll assume that by “best” we mean most capable and will put aside for this article issues of cost, availability, cultural fit, etc. We’re just looking at mechanical capability for the core activities in the role.
Again, someone who has done that job for a number of years and has not been fired is proven. That’s great; it minimizes the risk of hiring the wrong person. But that’s not the only person who can do the job.
Successful entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin had never run a company before, let alone scaled one to be worth billions of dollars, but they were extremely successful at it. Venture capitalists, the people who invest in startups, like experienced founders because, well, they’re experienced. They’ve proven that they can successfully build a company. But experienced founders aren’t the only people venture capitalists invest in. When looking at a company they look at the founders and see if they believe them capable; oftentimes they see a founder who doesn’t have all the experience but is capable of figuring it out as she grows.
It’s great to find a candidate with exactly the experience you need to de-risk the hire. And sometimes it’s critically important, such as when safety is on the line. Your brain surgeon, pilot, or those running a nuclear power plant shouldn’t be people who say, “I know I haven't done that before, but I feel very confident in my ability to figure it out and get it done.” But for other roles, considering only experienced candidates limits your options, especially in a tight hiring market.
Remember to focus on what you’re hiring for. You’re not hiring someone who has done it before, but someone who can do it now. Prior experience is certainly a good indicator, but it’s not the only one.
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