Strong opinions, weakly held

On experience

The Presidential campaign this year has me thinking about the topic of experience. The Democrats have nominated the relatively inexperienced Barack Obama for President, and now John McCain has selected the even more inexperienced Sarah Palin as his running mate. It has me thinking about how I evaluate experience.

The approach is the same regardless of whether I’m deciding who to vote for in an election or which programmers to bring in for interviews based on their responses to a Craigslist ad. I see experience as a relatively primitive criteria for making decisions.

If I am looking at two programmers, and the only thing I know about them is that one has ten years of experience and the other has only one year of experience, my initial assumption will be that the more experienced programmer will be more capable when they start the job. Nobody competent would stop their evaluation at that point. Generally speaking, I read the résumés, Google them to see if they blog and to see what kind of things they’ve posted to online forums, and if they seem promising, bring them in for an interview.

What I really want to see in a programmer is desire, curiosity, intelligence, talent, and knowledge, probably in that order. Experience doesn’t tell me a whole lot about any of those qualities, what it mainly demonstrates is that they haven’t given up.

The nice things about political campaigns is that the media exposure given to candidates enables us to judge them by criteria beyond their level of experience. We learn how they’ve used their time in office, what they did before they entered politics, how they respond to the pressure of the campaign, and their knowledge and insights into the issues of the day. (Or at least what their political sense tells them to say they think about the issues of the day.)

Right now people are talking about Sarah Palin’s level of experience because we don’t know a whole lot more about her. But by November 4, we’ll have seen enough of her to be able to make judgements based on other, better criteria. Sadly we’ll have to listen to people on all sides prattle on about experience as though it’s highly indicative of something the whole time.


  1. Palin’s pick is an insult to women!

    Do men really think that women are so stupid that they just want a woman in office, rather than a qualified woman in office?

  2. Rita: men, no. McCain, yes.

    There’s experience and then there’s experience. Obama lacks some key pieces of experience, but the experience he has had — state senate, Congress, running a successful insurgent campaign — has been impressive. Palin’s not so much.

    And then there is also judgement. So far, Obama’s shown excellent judgement, both on issues and political strategy. Again, Palin not so much. McCain has a lot of experience, but also a long record of poor judgement — Iraq, for example, and most recently picking Palin.

  3. Judgement is just as important — in politics and programming. For example, if you’ve got a java programmer who’s faced with a task like, for example, importing an Excel CSV file, does the programmer look for a library that’s already been written, or does s/he rely on their “experience” to write something from scratch? True, the 10 year veteran with bad judgement may be able to write a utility a lot faster than the 2 year guy, but it still won’t be as fast as the guy who finds a library that’s already written and debugged.

    That isn’t to say experience isn’t important. Palin is the equivalent of an apprentice in this regard. And even if I didn’t despise her views (such as teaching creationism in the public schools) I still would shudder at the though of such a rank novice being vice president.

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