Building on Experience in an Engineering Career

The current Citi logo was first created and presented as a sketch on a napkin.

In this case, instead being being just a Know Where Man parable, it was a true story from the design world. The designer, Paula Scher, had more that three decades of experience when she evaluated Citibank’s situation, and her expertise manifested itself in a quick, simple, and elegant solution. In fact, most of the work was subsequently convincing Citi that it wasn’t a joke, and how they would transition into the design.

From a layperson’s standpoint, it feels wrong that someone can somehow charge so much for a service that may take them minutes to complete. It’s akin to ascribing value to staying long hours in the office; study after study have shown the effects to be ineffective over the long term, yet the expectation of butts-in-chair remain for most companies.

Circling back to software engineers, we are a community that prides itself on continuous learning, but the flip side of that ideal is that experience with specific technologies becomes outdated quickly. There may be general software and computer science concepts that remain applicable across decades, but the type of diagnosis and resolution in the aforementioned stories are impossible in modern software development1.

Without the ability to rely on experience in the same degree as other fields, it distorts the traditional curve for compensation and contributes to the unspoken ageism we whisper about but never fully tackle. It’s also why people management, despite its wholly different skillset requirement, becomes an attractive career path for older engineers: age and experience are better leveraged when it comes to working with people.

To be fair, I’m not sure this is a huge problem in our industry, particularly compared to some of the other systemic biases and inequalities. Since we will all get older, perhaps it will be a situation that will be recognized and solved once it affects a critical mass of folks.

  1. The one exception I can think of would involve maintaining legacy systems in frameworks that younger engineers would be less interested to learn.

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