Thoughts on Job Experience: Conceptual Knowledge vs. Technical Chops

I’ve always been of the mindset that conceptual understanding is way more important than technical chops. Anyone can become a functional monkey, but it takes insight to understand the broad scope, the big picture, the system as a whole.

I think this argument applies to pretty much every domain of work. As one example, I think it’s more important to know the principles of design than it is to know specific tools and software. When I was in college, I had to take a couple of classes on basic design principles. The first was in 2D Design1(from the SCAD Course Descriptions PDF AY 2022–2023)
DSGN 100 Design I: Elements and Organization: Students develop an understanding of the organizational methods used in two- dimensional work. They utilize the elements and principles of design while working in black-and-white and color media. Problem solving processes and research are integrated into the development, refinement and evaluation of images. The work of professionals in a variety of art and design fields is analyzed to understand the application of two-dimensional design. The importance of presentation and craftsmanship is emphasized.
, and in that class we learned the basics of shape and color, variety, and repetition. I knew the concepts, but I didn’t really know them (i.e., they hadn’t become a core part of how saw the world).

That changed when I took 3D Design.2(from the SCAD Course Descriptions PDF AY 2022–2023)
DSGN 102 Design II: 3D Form in Space: Students work with a variety of media and complete sculptural and architectural projects to learn how to manipulate 3D forms and space. Creative problem solving skills, including research, idea generation, support drawings and maquettes, are used to develop concepts and design plans. The integration of presentation options and craftsmanship with the concept is emphasized. The analysis and critique of three-dimensional work develops vocabulary and critical thinking skills.
I had a professor who—according to class folklore—had served in the Czechoslovakian special forces. He spoke like a very angry Werner Herzog and wore a cowboy hat. On the first day of class, he stood at the front of the room and asked, “Who knows all of the elements and principles of design?” Everyone stared at him with that special glazed over look you get whenever you forget something so basic and so necessary that it’s just embarrassing. Like your kid’s birthday while at the pediatrician’s office. Or the date of your anniversary.

“Well, each of you just wasted $3,000. I’m going to teach you what you should’ve learned in 2D design.”

And that he did. For every project, we had to submit a one-page paper that detailed how we had considered or (intentionally) ignored every single element and principle of design in the final work. In addition, he required the class create a group dance that demonstrated the elements and principles of design through movement.

By the end of the class I had all the elements and principles of design committed to memory.

Now if I was pressed to recite a list of every element and principle of design today, I would definitely miss a few. However, the conceptual knowledge I gained of the relationship between all of the elements and principles of design has remained embedded in my memory and fuels my work today. The conceptual knowledge transcends all of the tools that I’ve tried and used over the years, and I’m sure it will outlast pretty much all of them.

Conceptual knowledge supports systems thinking

Another place where conceptual knowledge really makes a difference is mechanic work. Pretty much anybody can change their own oil or swap out brakes. But it takes a true mechanic to know the system, understand the system, and conduct thorough root cause analysis when things don’t work as they should.

I can’t count how many times I’ve hooked up my OBD II scanner to one of the seven vehicles in my family that I had service, and the computer gives me a code that has nothing to do with the actual issue. Or, the code is relevant to the issue, but the fix suggested by the software isn’t anywhere close to what needs to happen. In those cases, it’s crucial to have a good concept of how all of the individual systems work—suspension, steering, cooling, ignition, fuel, electrical, etc.—as well as how each system interacts with all the others. Knowing how to turn a wrench is one thing. It’s another to have the ability to step back and see the system for what it is.

What does it mean to have experience anyway?

In their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson talk about how ridiculous the metric “years of experience” is. In all my years of applying to jobs, I have seen outlandish requirements for years of experience for XYZ hard skill or ABC familiarity with a particular tool or technology. This is what they have to say on the matter:

Years of irrelevance We’ve all seen job ads that say, “Five years of experience required.” That may give you a number, but it tells you nothing.

Of course, requiring some baseline level of experience can be a good idea when hiring. It makes sense to go after candidates with six months to a year of experience. It takes that long to internalize the idioms, learn how things work, understand the relevant tools, etc.

But after that, the curve flattens out. There’s surprisingly little difference between a candidate with six months of experience and one with six years. The real difference comes from the individual’s dedication, personality, and intelligence.

How do you really measure this stuff anyway? What does five years of experience mean? If you spent a couple of weekends experimenting with something a few years back, can you count that as a year of experience? How is a company supposed to verify these claims? These are murky waters.

How long someone’s been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they’ve been doing it.3Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework, 1st ed (New York: Crown Business, 2010), 213.

—Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

The salient issue is here is that years of experience is a qualitatively different metric than say, “intensity of experience,” or “depth of experience.”I may not have as many “years of experience” as someone else does in a particular domain, but it may be that I dove straight into the deep end either out of curiosity or professional import and now I have enough experience to do the work that’s required.

Another issue is that the level of experience supposedly required by a particular job may not actually reflect the demands of the job. For example, lots of jobs ask for familiarity with HTML. But what does that really mean? Is it sufficient to know that HTML has opening and closing tags? Or do you really need to be an expert at building forms and tables as well as semantic HTML? What level of markup wrangling do you need to be at for your skills to be on par?

A continuous-learning mindset is the most important skill

Ultimately, the skill that I think is most important for any job is the willingness and ability to learn. In every project that I undertake, I try to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. I’m not interested in quick solutions. I’m interested in solutions that are repeatable, predictable, scalable and add value for the long term. I’d rather take an extra hour or two building something right than to spend dozens of hours fixing things down the road.

In many cases, designing and implementing such solutions requires learning new skills, and thinking outside the box. I end up leveraging my conceptual knowledge about design, databases, or spreadsheets way more than my actual technical knowledge. I tend to approach things through the lens of, “I know this is technically possible, I just have to figure out technically how to do it.” In just about every case, I don’t have years of experience working with a particular tool, but I do have years of experience thinking about problems and solutions in a systems-oriented manner.

At this point in my life, I have recognized and acquiesced to the fact that I will never be an expert in the myriad tools that I use on a regular basis. I’m blessed if I gain a modicum of competence. I have a definite limit when it comes to memory, and there’s also a level of depth to all the tools that I use that it’s impossible (and highly impractical) to learn it all.

However, I do think it’s possible to become more familiar with the concepts and common affordances that underpin the tools that I use, and it is that understanding that enables me to plunge headlong into ambiguous problems and unfamiliar tools headlong with the confidence that I’ll figure out how to make things work in the end.

In the end, experience matters, but only if that experience has been about finding real solutions to real problems.

  • 1
    (from the SCAD Course Descriptions PDF AY 2022–2023)
    DSGN 100 Design I: Elements and Organization: Students develop an understanding of the organizational methods used in two- dimensional work. They utilize the elements and principles of design while working in black-and-white and color media. Problem solving processes and research are integrated into the development, refinement and evaluation of images. The work of professionals in a variety of art and design fields is analyzed to understand the application of two-dimensional design. The importance of presentation and craftsmanship is emphasized.
  • 2
    (from the SCAD Course Descriptions PDF AY 2022–2023)
    DSGN 102 Design II: 3D Form in Space: Students work with a variety of media and complete sculptural and architectural projects to learn how to manipulate 3D forms and space. Creative problem solving skills, including research, idea generation, support drawings and maquettes, are used to develop concepts and design plans. The integration of presentation options and craftsmanship with the concept is emphasized. The analysis and critique of three-dimensional work develops vocabulary and critical thinking skills.
  • 3
    Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework, 1st ed (New York: Crown Business, 2010), 213.
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