A recent Dilbert cartoon had a man saying “I know what I am talking about. I have thirty years in this industry.” Asok the intern asks “How does that help you understand technology that is six months old in a youth-oriented culture?” OK everyone chuckle now – I’ll wait. OK now we know why Asok is still an intern. He doesn’t understand experience.
A lot of people look at a piece of technology that is “six months old” and think that it suddenly sprang from thin air, there there is not previous art that lead up to it, that there is some sort of virgin birth for technology. In truth this almost never happens. In real life technology evolves over time. Not only that technology, at least in the computer field, often moves in cycles. An idea that is a research project one day my 20 years ago suddenly find a missing piece and jump into the mainstream. Having had earlier experience with this sort of technology can help avoid known problems or add ideas that were once “what if” but that are now possible.
Other “new” technologies are reengineering or rethinking of older technologies. Cloud computing for example has huge similarities to old style mainframe computing. Someone with experience can help avoid the pitfalls that lead to first mini-computer and then personal computer paradigm shifts. Just as importantly they can help promote advantages of the “old way” that will work with the “new way” that the youths on the team might not think of at all.
And the bit about youth-oriented culture? Well some of us old people actually used to be youths ourselves. With a good memory we can remember some of it. Good professionals keep up with what is going on in the wider culture too. Do I appreciate Lady Gaga as much as the “kids?” Probably not but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand her. In fact she is a perfect example of what I wrote about here already – anyone else remember Cher? Often times being young means knowing what the latest big thing is without knowing how to make it work. Experience can often help turn the idea of the new cool concept into the reality of the new cool product.
There is a stereotype that says that older more experienced people are slow to change – to adopt new technologies. Sometimes that is true. But my experience (see that “experience”) is that a lot of young people are slow to change as well. Because they often have a narrower background and less experience making changes is often harder for them as well. Experience is very helpful when picking up a new technology.
People with experience have to be careful of falling into the trap that they know everything already. But the young and inexperienced have to be just as careful not to fall into the trap of assuming that the experienced people don’t know anything of current value. Somewhere between knowing all and knowing nothing is the reality. It’s a reality that can greatly benefit those smart enough to tap it.