The experience trap

David Chappell, a professional speaker, who often works for Microsoft has written a very interesting little article on the subject of the experience trap.  In essence, as you get more experienced, especially in IT, that experience can cause you problems as well as give you an advantage.  He recalls discussions with computer science professors who are debating which programming language a person should be taught.  Here is an extract in his own words:

The difficulties faced by teachers of computer science provide one example of the problems experience can cause. But the challenge certainly isn’t limited to professors—we’re all in danger. And since the experience trap isn’t much of a problem at the beginning of a career, it can sneak up on you. When you’re twenty five, you don’t rely much on experience because you don’t have any. When you’re forty five, however, it’s tempting to rely too much on experience. The truth is that experience is useful only if the future is like the past. In software, what will be important next year is often very, very different from what was important last year. Realizing that a significant part of our hard-won knowledge becomes valueless every year is a necessary part of moving forward.

He concludes with an interesting remark:

After teaching for a decade or more, I’m sure some of the computer science professors I spoke with wished they’d chosen to teach history instead. History professors don’t have wholly new topic areas suddenly appear, nor do they need to readdress basic pedagogical issues every few years. But my conversations with these people reminded me of how important it is for all of us—professors and practitioners—to sometimes ignore our own history. Avoiding the experience trap is an essential part of making real progress.

I found this fairly interesting from two perspectives:

  1. I have just turned 40 and after years of feeling like the new kid on the block with lots of bright ideas, I have started to feel like the experienced old hand.  learning new things has become more difficult through a combination of age and lack of time and the volume of new stuff to learn and the online resources available to help have exploded.
  2. The second reason is that I recently recalled a series of psychological tests that I udertook a few years ago, and part of the feedback was that I was likely to be resistant to change.  At the time I ignored this feedback as I was taking my company through some of the most radical change it had ever seen in IT and it was a very challenging time for me as well as well.  However in the light of point number 1, recent posts on how I like things that are familliar to me, and how too much choice, (loosely linked to change), affects happiness I think it needs revisting.

Bottom line is that as I get older I need to be ever more focussed on following process rather than instinct.  Following the right process should help make sure that I do not rely too much on experience and do not resist appropriate change.  Instinct probably drives me in the opposite direction!

If you want to read the whole article have a look here.  David is an interesting person to listen to and read, but watch out for the fact that he makes his living evangalising Microsoft technologies and that some of his talks are sponsored by Microsoft, although he does generally make that clear.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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