Nick Halstead recently asked himself the question:

Is experience better than talent?

It’s a perfectly valid question and probably one that more hiring managers should ponder before kicking off a recruitment run. Nick’s conclusion was really less of a conclusion and more of an affirmation that it’s too hard to give a simple answer to the question. Instead of attempting to answer the question in the same manner as Nick, which is to say that I don’t really have any valid bullet points on the topic, I am going to turn to my other passion, the NBA, and see if I can draw an analogy to help answer the question.

If we apply this question to the NBA, what we are essentially asking is “Would it be better to hire someone with unproven talent and an unproven track record or a seasoned veteran?” Taking this one step further, put yourself in the shoes of the Portland Trailblazers at the moment they discovered they had the #1 selection in the most recent draft. The question become “Do we draft a potential superstar in Greg Oden or Kevin Durant or trade that draft pick for someone with experience?” Portland chose to draft Oden #1 and he is currently sitting on the bench due to a necessary surgery.

If you stop the analogy there you might arrive at the conclusion that Portland made a mistake in going with unproven talent, but you would be wrong. Oden has yet to prove his value, something Portland is hoping he does next year after being in the league for a full year. Let’s shift the question to the Seattle Supersonics who selected Durant #2. Durant is currently averaging nearly 20 points per game, which is a great way of measuring a single players output on the court. In college, he averaged nearly 26. While lower than his collegiate numbers, you could say that the decision to draft Durant is paying off and falling in line with expectations. Unfortunately, Durant is also out with a minor ankle injury. Injuries are something that don’t affect programmers and their ability to produce quality code.

Durant and Oden were both amazing college ballplayers that entered the draft after a single collegiate season. While this is a form of experience, it is on a different level and could be compared to a programmer with 1 or more years of University under their belt. It would be expected that a college student with any formal exposure to programming has a form of experience.

The analogy does start to fall apart when you factor in the difference between measuring basketball stats as a form of talent versus the intangible talent that a programmer possesses. We did see from the analogy that taking a risk on unproven talent can reap great rewards in the form of a “superstar”. Often enough though, a potential superstar goes bust and fades into the crowd. What had happened if either team had gone with experience? It’s hard to put a real value on the 2 young players in their first year, but both of these players are making close to $4M this year in salary (Source: HoopsHype). One could assume that their trade value is much higher than their per year salary in pure dollars. I’d expect that either of these players on the open “market” would fetch a superstar in return if the deal was right or if there was another player thrown into the deal.

What that leaves you with is an almost 1:1 trade value. Let’s scale back the basketball economics though and get back to the real issue of experience vs. talent. Talent has risks associated with it, especially in younger players or employees. They are unproven and could fizzle out. Take Dolphins running back Ricky Williams for example. Likewise, a young talent could explode and have massive rewards far greater than one could imagine. The experienced employee is the safe choice. You have a track record that shows you what to expect and while not the most talented person you may have more an idea of what you are signing up for versus the young talent.

In the end, I think I am arriving at the same conclusion that Nick did and that is that it depends. Not all young talent is created equal and not all experience is learned from. That said, for hiring managers faced with the choice I would said that a good mix of the two is really the best formula. The young talent can learn and grow through the experience of your veterans and allow their true potential to really shine through. Your vets may even get a second wind as the new talent comes in and raises the drive of those around him/her.