The elusive trap: Work experience!!

Technology professionals can relate with this very well although I think this applies to any knowledge worker.

When you start your career, the biggest disadvantage you have is that you don’t have “enough experience” on the job. Seems like a fair assessment so you agree to work under the guidance of “more experienced” people. As you understand the business, technology and the work itself, you start gaining experience. You are also recognized for your contributions and with increase in experience, you are given increasing responsibilities. So there is progress – in your mind atleast. Seems like your strategy of gaining experience is working. So you repeat this cycle multiple times and rightly so – you start getting higher responsibilities – in other words you start “growing in your career.” Experience is an asset, you think, and your goal is to get “more experience”

One fine day (you will say “all of a sudden”) you start noticing that experience is no longer an asset. In fact, it is a liability. People start saying that “You have too much of experience for this job. We are looking for someone with 8-10 years of experience” and decline making offers to you. You are perplexed. People who were saying that they need more experience suddenly feel that you have “too much of experience” – what has gone wrong?

Here are my $.02 on the topic:

* Earlier in your career when people make an assessment that you have “less or no experience” it seems very logical. The next step for you seems like you are supposed to “make up” and the way for making up is to “gain more experience.”

* The rat race begins and as we all know in the technology world, you can get vERY busy and you may not have time to make the “necessary investments” in yourself.

* Since only 3% of the people have goals in life, 97% of the people have no idea if they are sprinting or drifting towards a goal (??) Since there is no goal, making an assessment of whether you are really “making progress” is very difficult. So, when there are “short-term victories” you may end up thinking that you are making “serious progress” in your career.

* While you are gaining experience, you are also getting older. That’s the part that people tend to forget. When you hit 40, suddenly there is a realization about age but unfortunately you get rewind the clock. Obviously, you can’t compete with younger folks on how aggressively you will look at your career. It is at this time  that the “nature of experience” you gained in your earlier years becomes very important. If the “right experience” was not added to your arsenal, it is almost certain that it will be of little use in your next phase of life.

* Let me provide an example. At 40, if you were to compete for the position of a Vice President, being the “most experienced programmer” won’t help. They are looking for a different “kind of experience.” In fact, under most circumstances, being a “most experienced programmer” might create a problem even to continue as a programmer. Folks younger than you might have offer other kinds of flexibilities (travel, long-hours etc.) that you may not. So, in this case, you might be at a disadvantage with more experience.

In summary, remember that when you are blindly following the crowd (like trying to gain experience without a plan) you will end up where the crowd will end up – feeling cheated and stressed when they reach 40. You can change your game by having a game plan. This is one thing that you should not leave it to the mercy of your manager or your company. It is your life so it is fair to assume that your career is your responsibility.