Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Misc. | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

Theoretical and practical knowledge in skill-sheets

Over the years, I have seen a great number of skill-sheets of various kinds from many different companies. A majority correctly makes a differentiation into theoretical knowledge and practical experience for the individual skills. However, a very large minority insists on a one dimensional scale, e.g. (adapted from a real example):

  1. Several years experience in projects.

  2. Experience through development (small projects, in-house).

  3. Experience in modification and correction of existing source code.

  4. Theoretical knowledge.

This may look reasonable at a casual glance, but turns out to be highly naive in practice: Only by both gaining practical experience and deepening theoretical knowledge can mastery be reached. I have often seen colleagues who have several years experience in a field, yet lack knowledge present in even an introductory text on the matter. (See also my discussions on intelligence, experience, and studies and what to read.) Generally, gaining knowledge by just gathering practical experience is slow and inefficient. Consider, by analogy, a chess player who spends eight hours a week playing chess, and contrast him with an equally talented player who divides the same time evenly on playing and on reading books on strategy, end-games, openings, ... The latter will be superior—there simply is no way that the former can keep up in knowledge and understanding.

This would not be an issue if everyone paid attention to the theory—then the scale above would work decently. However, the depressing fact is that a clear majority do not in any way try to deepen their knowledge. This implies that they are unaware of many traps, do not learn of alternate approaches, are unaware of existing libraries, have little idea of “best practices” and “do’s and do not’s”, ...

Given the choice, I would rarely hesitate in picking someone with a 2 in theory and 3 in experience over someone with 3 in theory and a 1 in experience: The former will gain in experience and is likely to voluntarily improve his theory further; the latter is highly unlikely to ever gain the level of theory needed to excel. (An exception to this would be e.g. very short-term projects, say hiring someone for two weeks. For indefinite employment and projects above, possibly, a quarter year the above choice is a no-brainer.)

Practical experience without theory (and vice versa) makes about as much sense as a biathletew who never bothers to touch a rifle outside of competition. Yet, unfortunately, this is what very many alleged professionals do—and this is what the above scale encourages.