Seniority vs Experience vs Competency
Why, as Engineering Managers, We Should Prioritize Competency over Seniority and Experience.
Last week, I made a post on LinkedIn about labels frequently used to define engineering job profiles and to create career paths in engineering teams. This post generated a significant amount of engagement (even getting reposted by LinkedIn News Europe!) and discussions around topics like seniority, experience, and their current application in the engineering realm.
My main point revolved around job profiles that specify junior, mid or senior positions. In my view, these are not only unhelpful but can also be misleading. I've never been an advocate for labels in general, especially when they're not tied to measurable and meaningful metrics like those associated with seniority.
After the post and having read through the myriad of comments, several questions popped up in my mind:
Does age, intended as seniority, play any role when hiring? Does it influence experience?
Are years of experience a valid metric for someone's expertise in a field?
Can we define experience in a consistent, measurable, and universally accepted manner?
If neither seniority nor experience are reliable, what should one consider during the hiring process and when building career paths?
Being pragmatic at things that are inherently intangible is challenging. Add to this the biases rooted in traditional hiring practices, and the task becomes even more complex.
In this essay, I won't provide direct answers to all these questions. Instead, I'll share my approach to hiring and evaluating people, based on the only metric I find valuable: Competency.
👉 For a broader perspective on these topics, for the first time in this newsletter, I interviewed some awesome professionals I know. You'll find their insights throughout the article as quotes.
This is what we will explore today:
The distinctions and similarities between Seniority and Experience
The limitations of both as reliable metrics
The introduction of Competency as a potential solution
My personal approach to roles and recruitment
While much of our discussion might seem driven by semantics, the terminologies aren't our sole focus. The implications behind them are.
So let's begin!
❓ Understanding Seniority and Experience
As always, starting from the foundations helps in building more thoughtful reasoning. Today, when we look at the majority of engineering job posts, they base their requirements on three things, with a particular focus on the first two:
So let's begin by delving deep into these two concepts.
📚 Definition: seniority typically refers to the length of service or the position of precedence an individual holds within an organization or profession. It is often associated with hierarchy and can dictate privileges, responsibilities, or decision-making power.
🌀 Nature: hierarchical, often time-based.
🔑 Key Aspects: loyalty, tenure, position in a structure.
🪛 Usage: used in many organizations to determine promotions and benefits. In some cultures or industries, seniority is highly valued and plays a significant role in organizational dynamics.
Given that my mom is a Latin teacher (😀🤯) and I spent several years studying it in high school:
The term "seniority" derives from the word "senior". The root "sen-" in Latin is associated with being old or elderly, as is evident in words like "senex" (meaning "old man" or "elder").
In English, "seniority" evolved from the idea of being older or having tenure and came to symbolize one's standing or rank within an organization based on length of service or time spent in a particular role. It was used to acknowledge and reward loyalty, commitment, and the accumulation of experience over time. Over the years, however, the concept of seniority has been debated and questioned, especially in dynamic industries like software engineering, where skills, adaptability, and performance are usually prioritized over tenure.
📚 Definition: experience encompasses the knowledge, skills, and understanding acquired through direct observation, participation, or undergoing specific events or activities over time.
🌀 Nature: accumulative, time-based.
🔑 Key Aspects: duration, depth (specific situations or challenges encountered), breadth (variety of situations or roles), context.
🪛 Usage: often listed on job profiles or resumes to indicate familiarity with a role, industry, or task. While experience gives context and understanding, it doesn't necessarily indicate proficiency or ability to execute tasks.
Reliability of Seniority and Experience
A quick search on LinkedIn for engineering roles reveals that many job posts still use years of experience as a minimum requirement. This is often equated with seniority. In simple terms, if you've been in the field longer, you are older, you're viewed as a senior, and if not, you're considered a mid-level or junior.
This perception arises mainly from two factors:
Legacy Cultural Bias: historically, knowledge and skills were primarily learned on the job. If you wanted to pick up a new skill, you'd typically work alongside someone experienced in that area. It was rare for individuals to be skilled without having spent significant time in that role, with their expertise usually certified by others.
Limitations Based on Age or Context: consider driving. Every country has a minimum legal age for obtaining a driver's license. While it's possible to be a skilled driver at a young age (like some F1 racers), it's generally uncommon. Another example is the medical profession. Even though there's a wealth of medical information available today on Internet and immersive tools like VR to simulate surgeries, actual hands-on experience in real surgeries usually requires more years and age.
So, are Seniority and Experience reliable to attract and then validate talents? While for certain jobs for sure they still are (doctors again are a good example), when it comes to software or system engineering world, they are not.
“I look at experience along two dimensions - the first one being breadth (scope) and the second being level of complexity (depth). Number of years by itself is not a proxy for either as it doesn’t directly correlate with increased breadth or complexity.”
Omar Halabieh - Tech Director at Amazon Payment Services
“About years of experience, to me it’s never been a reliable indicator — sometimes e.g. 3 years is actually the same year, 3 times over.”
“Experience is not about how much knowledge you have. It’s about how much you are able to transfer to others.”
Carlos Sales - iOS Engineer at Expedia Group
With the amount of knowledge, tools and mentors/coaches available today with a click, seniority and experience became less relevant and risk to limit or bias our hiring processes. While it’s true that candidates at their first working experience will rarely equal engineers with decades of experience on the field, the gap is becoming way smaller than it was twenty years ago.
I've personally experienced this firsthand, having hired very young candidates at the start of their careers who easily outperformed individuals considered senior. This applies not only to technical skills but also to soft skills.
🧠 Introducing Competency
📚 Definition: competency refers to the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. It involves a combination of knowledge, skills, and behaviors that allow an individual to perform tasks or roles effectively.
🌀 Nature: ability-based, performance-centric.
🔑 Key Aspects: mastery, proficiency, capability.
🪛 Usage: organizations might have competency frameworks to assess candidates’ or employees' suitability for roles or tasks. Competencies can be developed through training, education, and practice.
Competency goes beyond the mere duration one has spent in a role, age, or the number of years in a profession. It encompasses a holistic understanding of one's capabilities, skills, and proficiency in performing tasks and responsibilities. A competent individual is not only knowledgeable but also capable of applying that knowledge effectively in real-world situations.
Competency is a combination of observable and measurable skills, knowledge, abilities, and personal attributes that contribute to enhanced employee performance and ultimately result in their success.
Knowledge: what you know.
Skills: what you can do.
Abilities: how well you can execute your knowledge and skills.
Attitudes: your approach and mindset towards work and challenges.
When hiring, especially in dynamic fields like software engineering, what matters most is the candidate's ability to solve problems, adapt to new challenges, collaborate with teams, and bring fresh perspectives. This is where competency-based assessments come into play.
Why Competency Over Seniority and Experience?
Objective Evaluation: competency-based assessments provide a more objective evaluation of a candidate’s proficiency in certain areas. Rather than just counting the years, it assesses how effectively the candidate can use their knowledge in various scenarios.
Holistic Understanding: it gives a 360-degree view of a candidate, from their technical skills to their soft skills, like communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.
Reduced Biases: by focusing on competency, organizations can reduce biases that might arise from looking solely at years of service or age.
Aligns with Business Goals: competencies are often aligned with the strategic goals and values of a business, ensuring that employees not only have the skills to do the job but also align with the company's broader vision.
In summary, competency let you understand the real impact an individual contributor can have on your job.
“When recruiting, I measure experience based on the outcomes someone drives. Impact is much more important than years of experience. It's a great sign if someone has led an initiative of similar scope to the role they are applying for.That's why I recommend engineers should optimize their growth rate. Improving your resume just through years of experience is way too slow and passive.”
Ryan Peterman - Staff Software Engineer at Instagram
How to Implement Competency?
While competency is a preferred approach, it's not always straightforward to integrate, especially during the hiring process. Specifically, it can be challenging to define and measure the necessary competencies in a job profile.
Here are my suggestions:
🔓 Be Open: keep your job profiles broad and high-level, focusing more on assessing candidates rather than setting rigid criteria. This might mean more work for HR or Hiring Managers, but it ensures you don't overlook strong candidates.
📋 Job Profiling: clearly outline the essential competencies needed for a role.
⏳ Avoid Mentioning Time: In your job profiles, refrain from using labels like junior, mid, senior, or specifying years of experience
🕵️♂️ Effective Interview Processes: although interview time can be short, it's vital to understand the candidate thoroughly. Ensure you have a robust hiring process in place.
🛠️ Assessment Tools: utilize tools, coding challenges, and platforms that evaluate a candidate's abilities, not just their resume.
💬 Behavioral Interviews: engage candidates by asking about past scenarios where they showcased particular competencies.
“When it comes to selecting candidates effectively and avoiding the trap of false seniority and experience, incorporating oblique questions into the hiring process can be valuable. Oblique questions reveal a candidate's genuine attitude and problem-solving abilities by asking about tangential topics. For example, instead of solely focusing on technical skills and experience, a question like "Have you ever solved a business challenge as a software engineer?" can provide insight into a candidate's ability to think beyond code and consider the broader impact of their work.
Hiring managers can assess a candidate's critical thinking, adaptability, and creativity by asking oblique questions. These questions may touch on collaboration, communication, handling ambiguity, or ethical considerations. The goal is to gauge the candidate's mindset and approach to problem-solving in real-world scenarios.
Additionally, incorporating behavioral-based questions that delve into past experiences can help assess a candidate's ability to navigate challenges and deliver results. By asking for specific examples of how they have approached and resolved complex problems, managers can gain a deeper understanding of a candidate's experience and capabilities.”
Luca Sartoni - Former Director of Product Engineering at Automattic
In conclusion, while seniority and experience do offer insights into a candidate's journey, competency provides a clearer picture of their potential and what impact they can do in the role.
As the job market evolves and new challenges arise, focusing on competency ensures that you're getting a candidate who is not only knowledgeable but also adaptable, capable, and aligned with your organization's values and goals.
So, as we step into the future of hiring, the question remains:
Will you rely on the number of years, or will you shift focus to competencies?
The choice is yours.
✌️ That’s all folks
That's all for today! As always, I would love to hear from my readers (and if you've made it this far, you're definitely one of the bravest). Please don't hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn and send a message. I always respond to everyone!