Your experience is probably worth a lot less than you think

Do you work in software? Do you have more than a decade of experience? You do? Im sorry to hear that. That means theres a strong possibility that much of what you know is already obsolete. Worse yet, theres a good chance that youre set in anachronistic ways, hidebound with habits which are now considered harmful. If you think your experience is automatically valuable, I warn you: think again.

To be clear, I am not arguing in favor of age discrimination, which is wrong, illegal, and stupid. (Some of the finest engineers Ive ever known, who anyone would be happy to hire in a heartbeat, are in their 50s.) I am, however, arguing that techs ever-accelerating pace of change means that people tend to greatly overestimate the value of their experience, the returns from which diminish every year.

People say the principles remain the same, you just apply them to different tools / in different environments but thats, at best, a falsely comforting half-truth.

Consider: back in the day, object-oriented development was the solution to all of our problems; now its a problem to which many solutions are proposed. Once upon a time, every web developer knew, axiomatically, that you never mixed HTML and JavaScript, because of separation of concerns; but then came React.

The status quo isnt going to stabilize any time soon. Around the world, veteran developers with valuable experience are already being asked, with honest bafflement: Wait, why are you trying to write an algorithm for this? Why not just train a model in TensorFlow?

I dont mean to imply that all knowledge and experience becomes worthless. Some lessons, and some well-developed instincts, are indeed very nearly universal. Some platforms Android, iOS, containers in the cloud, etc. will be around long enough, and accumulate changes slowly enough, that their understanding will be valuable for a long while yet.

But there has still been a significant sea change. The de facto assumption for most of the twentieth century was that experience was assumed high-value unless proven otherwise. In technology, in software, this is no longer the case. Increasingly, instead, your experience beyond a certain point say, 5-10 years, depending on many factors is assumed low-value unless proven otherwise.

This doesnt only apply to hard technical skills. Managing people scattered across six time zones via Slack and Google Hangouts is very different from managing in person; managing in a high-growth startup is very different from managing in a large static company. Whether youre a developer, DevOps, or a manager, you never get to stop having to constantly prove yourself. That is the nature of the tech beast.

The most important skill, one that truly doesnt get old, is the meta-skill of constantly learning new things and that meta-skill can rust and wither away, too, if it languishes unused. If youve been doing the very same thing at work for the last few years, without working on any side projects of your own, then I am sorry to report that your career is already rotting away from within, without you even knowing it.

Dont let that happen. Stay hungry, stay foolish. That isnt just good advice; these days, its an imperative.

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