Overvaluing Experience

“Sure, great candidate—so long as you just look at the paper. They don’t have any experience.

I wonder how many times I’ve heard this in my networking career—I wonder how many times this has been said about me, in fact, after I’ve walked out of an interview room. We all know the tale of the paper tigers. And we all know how hard it is to land a position without experience, and how hard it is to get experience without landing a job (I have a friend in just this position right now, in fact). But let me tell you a story…

I don’t fish any longer, but I used to fish quite a bit—with my Grandfather. Now, like most Grandfathers, mine was not ordinary. He was, in fact, a County Agent, working for the US Forestry Service. This meant he spent his time blasting ponds, helping farmers figure out how to increase yield on their fields, and growing all sort of odd new types of things on his small plot of land. He also had mules (I’ll tell you about the mules some time later, I’m certain), and an old Forestry Green pickup truck.

Anyway, to return to fishing… He was absolutely no fun to fish with. He would sit down in the chair, cast in, and catch his limit before you could get your first fish on the line. I spent years trying to figure this out. All anyone in my family would tell me was he was a really, really, experience fisherman. I never quite believed this. He would say, “cast in just over there,” and you’d have a hook. Cast anyplace else, and you’d sit there for hours, waiting. I know a lot of experienced fishermen, but his “experience” was something else. In fact, if you ever go out on a lake with a professional or semi-professional fisher-person, you’re going to feel the same way. There’s not just “luck,” and there’s not just “you can case faster and farther than I can.”

Finally, one day I broke down and asked him directly about his fishing abilities. As it turns out, my Grandfather either knew the lay of the land under every lake in the area because he was there before the lake was dammed, or he had actually had a hand in blasting and damming it. In other words, he knew the bottom, the currents, the structure, and all the rest. In the same way, a modern fisher-person will spend hours looking over a map, running around a lake looking at the water temperature in various places, and recording sonar charts to figure out the structure that lays on the bottom of the lake.

Of course, experience matters in fishing. But so does knowledge. And, come to that, so does theory. It’s fine if you have experience fishing, if you don’t know the lake, then you’re not going to get anything on your hook. It’s fine if you know the structure of the lake, but if you don’t understand the way fish act, then you’re still not going to get anything on your hook.

The truth is that it takes all three—experience, knowledge, and theory—to hook a fish. And what’s true of hooking a fish is also true of building a network, or troubleshooting a network, or just about anything else in life. As W. Edwards Deming said—

Experience by itself teaches nothing…Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence without theory there is no learning.

Learn theory, and ask about theory. All the experience in the world isn’t going to teach you anything unless you have a framework from within to ask questions.


  1. Patti West on 28 June 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Hi Russ. Reading your blog has definitely been an enjoyable experience. It often makes me think, and rethink, the networking concepts that I put into my courses. The theory/experience balance is one I deal with every day, students constantly ask why they need to know so much detail. “Just let me light the lights, update the routing table, and get to the Internet” I’m not sure it is about experience being overvalued, I think it is more about the theory and understanding of “why things work” being undervalued. Having worked in networking my entire career, I find that people who are self-taught only through experience do have significant knowledge. Unfortunately, though, that knowledge can be more like Swiss cheese – the places where they have had experience are solid and significant, but holes exist that they cannot fill with their experience alone. Learning the theory behind why networks work like they do enables a person to predict what might be happening when they encounter a new, unfamiliar situation. It also helps one absorb change that comes rapidly, because the framework of knowledge is already built that permits them to place the changes in context.

  2. Sasanka on 28 June 2016 at 11:35 pm

    Hi Russ,
    I believe and agree that theory is very important in networking, if it’s not working theoretically,than it won’t work when
    translated to device specific configuration or setting.If theory wise it is working and not in devices than the implementation of the theory is not exact or missing something.

    • Russ on 29 June 2016 at 1:40 pm

      Sasanka — thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      I “rigged” the title to be a little controversial. 🙂 Experience is important, but — without theory, it’s not “building” anything, it’s just, well… Experience pushing button A to get result B. You need the experience to put the theory into practice, but you need the theory to put the experience in context. It takes both.



  3. Victor on 2 July 2016 at 2:55 am

    Nice post Russ. Experience has little worth without the Knowledge/Theory. In difficult troubleshooting cases, only the engineers who understand the technologies can fix the problems quickly. The experienced ones without the knowledge would rather rely on trial and error methods.