Don't ask for years of experience

by Joseph Dudley

Replace ‘N years of experience’ with a list of explicit skills and you can get better quality applications from a wider and more diverse pool of candidates.

You wouldn’t ask for ‘3 years of French’

I have almost two decades of experience speaking French, but I would be no good to you if you need someone to negotiate with French clients. My knowledge of French peaked when I was at school, and, despite practice since then, I’ve never really gotten any better. You’d be much better off with someone who has just done an intensive 3-year French degree, or who has lived and worked in France.

That’s why you’ll never see a requirement for ‘X years of French’, instead we ask for ‘fluent French speaker’ or ‘speaks French to a professional level’. We recognise that it’s silly to specify a number of years of experience for a language, but we persist in doing so for other skills.

Don’t make your candidates guess

What does ‘3 years of experience’ actually mean? Do you need to have practised that skill every working day for 3 years, or just have started dabbling at least 3 years ago? If you work four days a week, does that mean you need 3 years and 9 months worth of experience to compensate for those missing days? I don’t know, you don’t know, and your candidates don’t know.

Some people assume that the number of years is a guideline rather than a requirement, others assume the opposite. If, when you put ‘5 years of experience’ in your person specifications, you really mean ‘roughly 5 years of experience’ or ‘ideally 5 years of experience’, then say that. Don’t make your candidates guess.

The candidates who are most likely to be put off by requirements they don’t quite meet are women 1. If you are serious about being inclusive and getting applications from a diverse range of candidates, then be explicit and transparent about what you want.

Be explicit about what you want

What are we really looking for when we use a proxy like ‘years of experience’? We’re looking for a certain level of competence, proven ability, and a familiarity with edge cases that aren’t covered in training courses. So let’s ask for those things.

Replace ‘N years of experience’ with ‘demonstrable experience of’, ‘deep understanding of’, ‘proven track record of’, ‘very comfortable with’. Better yet, explain what it is you expect your candidate to be able to do.

Basecamp, a leading provider of project-management software, outlines five levels of seniority among their programmers. For each level they provide some criteria and a typical (but not required) number of years of experience. For example, from a senior programmer they expect:

Fully capable of taking substantial features from concept to shipping as the sole programmer (alongside a designer).

Can provide material feedback on the work of junior programmers and programmers.

Deep expertise within at least one programming environment.

Basic proficiency in at least one additional programming environment.

Usually at least 5–8 years of experience being a professional programmer in the specific domain.

Basecamp handbook 2

Similarly, an advert for a software engineering manager at Facebook asks for:

Proven track record setting measurable goals and metrics driving success for teams and holding accountability

Demonstrated ability to manage technical teams

Facebook job advert 3

By being explicit about what they’re looking for, the company makes it easier for candidates to demonstrate that they have the required skills, and easier for their team to decide if they’ve found the right candidate.

Dropping a requirement doesn’t mean lowering the bar

A common argument in favour of ‘N years of experience’ is that it helps weed out poor quality candidates, but the people who apply for positions they’re woefully underqualified for are still going to do that whatever happens, so you’re always going to have to wade through their nonsense. It’s also much easier to stretch the truth about how many years you’ve been doing something than it is to provide evidence that you have the skills that many years of experience should bring.

Stripe, a leading provider of online payment systems, puts it best when they say:

We are willing to give enormous responsibilities to Stripes at any stage of their career if they demonstrate the right abilities to run with them.

We have company-defining products that were originally built by one or two engineers in their first real job (or internship).

Stripe 4

You might consider asking your candidates to complete an application form rather than submitting a CV. This can help you efficiently and objectively identify candidates with the talent you need. With a handful of yes/no questions you can quickly screen out unsuitable candidates and avoid unconscious bias in the process. It’s easier and quicker for you to decide if you’ve found the right candidate, and for your applicants to demonstrate they have the skills you need.

By dropping a requirement you don’t really need, you widen your pool of candidates without lowering your bar. By being more explicit about your requirements, you make it easier for candidates to cut to the chase, saving you and them time.

The candidates you’re putting off are often the ones you want the most

The world is full of successful people who have started businesses, and sometimes even revolutionised whole industries, without lots of experience in that domain. Often it’s that very lack of experience that gives them their edge, they’re not constrained by what’s been done before.

In place of domain-specific experience they make use of transferable skills and experience from elsewhere. They are often good generalists, able to problem solve in any context, and to pick up new concepts quickly.

When you specify ‘+3 years of experience in spacecraft operations either executing pre-launch or post-launch activities’, you miss out on these highly talented people.

We all know someone with 2 years of experience who is much better at what they do than someone else with 5 years of experience. We also know people who pick skills up faster than others. By specifying an arbitrary number of years, you are penalising those quick learners and top performers. You’re excluding the very people who would be the biggest asset to your team.

Hiring is too important to get wrong

Where there’s no substitute for experience, we need to make sure that we’re assessing it properly. Where there is, we shouldn’t make experience a requirement.

'N years of experience' is a lazy proxy, and we should stop using it. Replace it with a list of explicit skills and you can get better quality applications from a wider and more diverse pool of candidates. Ask for evidence, not an arbitrary number.


  1. ^ Mohr, T.S. (). Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified. Harvard Business Review.
  2. ^ Basecamp (). Titles for programmers.
  3. ^ Facebook (). Full Stack Software Engineering Manager. Glassdoor.
  4. ^ Stripe (). Jobs.
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