The Difference Between Experience and Expertise

For employers, experience is often a way to gauge general expertise. In cases where there aren’t good metrics for expertise, experience is taken to be with expertise.

Formal Definitions

Experience:

the knowledge of or skill of some thing or some event gained through involvement in or exposure to that thing or event

Expertise:

expert skill or knowledge in a particular field.

Put simply, experience is the knowledge that comes from personal involvement in something, while expertise is the total skill and knowledge of a field.

Differences

From the formal definitions, it follows that expertise is a superset of experience. Experience is only the part of knowledge and skill that was acquired from having done something in the past. To an employer, experience should only be valuable for the knowledge it provides the person wielding it. Experience provides a lot of hidden expertise that is difficult to ascertain. However, it’s not a separate category in itself. It is a part of expertise, and needs to be treated as such.

What this also means is that experience is worth different amounts for different people.

Example Case

  1. Person A is someone who will do something the same way over and over again, hoping that the next time is the charm.
  2. Person B analyzes why something didn’t work, and tries a new approach the next time.

How would you value Person A’s experience vs Person B’s? It seems obvious that Person B’s experience is worth more than Person A’s. In fact, I’ll argue that Person B’s experience is worth at least 5 times that of Person A’s. Person B might only have two years experience, but that’s worth just as much as Person A’s 10 years of experience. The experience they had provided different amounts of knowledge. In the end, an employer should be hiring for expertise. Assuming that both Person A and Person B started with the same amount of expertise, and only added to it through experience, Person B should be just as good as Person A.

Programmers

From Jeff Atwood’s blog, we have this interesting tidbit

In the analysis of Coding War Games results, 1977 – 1986, we found that] people who had ten years of experience did not outperform those with two years of experience. There was no correlation between experience and performance except that those with less than six months’ experience with the languages used in the exercise did not do as well as the rest of the sample. (Peopleware, p. 47)

While the study was done “in a vacuum”, the lack of correlation between performance and experience suggest that experience doesn’t matter as much as people think it does. This is the same across many fields where there are good metrics to use to judge performance. For example, most Nobel laureates did their prize winning research early on in their careers.

However, the book in question, Peopleware (unfortunately not available in ebook format right now), does find that the best performers were 10 times better than the worst performers (again, in an experiment in vacuum). This seems to strongly hint that in programming, experience is not very important for building expertise.

Managers

What then, about managers? They rely on human-human interactions (after all, as managers they manage people). So how do you tell if someone is a good manager? For software developers, you can give programming quizzes or even a two week trial run. None of those work for potential managers.

In this case, employers fall back on expertise as a substitute for experience. Without any evidence whatsoever.

Thus, employees get a company wide email saying “So-and-so will be joining us next week as a [senior position]. He brings [x] years of experience in [the industry].” The employees are left hoping the new executive is actually good, but have to wait until they actually start working with him to find out.