I have never read a ‘talent versus experience’ article – be it about tech, art, sports, or folding paper airplanes – that did not end with some platitude on how ‘both are necessary, and the true winner is the person who can find the right spot between both’.
Since I tend to assume that my readers know the difference between truth and truisms, I’ll skip the bit where I say that a developer needs both talent and experience, and that these are not mutually exclusive categories. I’m reasonably certain you already know all that.
Instead, I’m going to keep the promise of my title: I am actually going to compare a software developer who has talent but little experience with one who has experience but little talent, and I’m going to tell you which of the two is better, and why.
Ready to get polemical with me? Then let’s go!
#1 Who works faster?
Highly talented developers can understand problems at a glance, arrive at multiple solutions quickly, and write code with a spontaneity that us mere mortals can only dream of. Put the talented and the experienced dev to work on a coding exercise, and the talented dev will be done in half the time.
Therefore the winner is… the experienced developer.
Wait, wait, wait – put the pitchfork down, and let me explain! Yes, a talented developer can write code more quickly, but that is something different than getting work done.
Occasionally there will be a problem or a client request that needs to be worked on from scratch… but in the vast majority of cases, a developer will be dealing with problems that others have encountered (and solved) before. Where a talented programmer will come up with a new solution in, say, hours or days, the experienced programmer will find a library that completes the task for them without wasting any time at all.
There are exceptions to this rule, edge cases, everything you like. But in some eight cases out of ten, the experienced developer is the one who gets the job done more quickly.
#2 Who writes the better code?
Experienced developers may have a much wider arsenal of tools, but writing code is ultimately a form of composition, one that requires creativity and ingenuity, and these are things that no tool can supplement (other than ChatGPT & co., naturally, but it doesn’t take an experienced developer to know about those).
The talented developer is the clear winner here. Their code is typically more elegant and concise, and while their experienced counterpart will struggle to apply past solutions to new problems, a truly talented dev will be flexible, and their code sensible and easy to understand regardless of what type of application they’re building.
The only advantage an experienced dev has is that they will have worked in teams before, meaning they understand the importance of readability and leaving comments. That said, leaving a helpful comment to thirty lines of code is not quite the same as writing a three-line snippet so sensible that it makes comments redundant!
#3 Who works better in a team?
This question has no answer, and anybody who tells you otherwise is only talking out of their own prejudice. Talent and experience at writing software are two things completely disconnected from a predisposition for teamwork, leadership, conflict resolution, and other such soft skills.
Besides, it’s perfectly plausible to imagine a talented developer who gathered experience in teamwork outside of software development, or an experienced developer who spent almost all of their career as a freelancing lone wolf. This question must therefore remain indeterminate.
#4 Who is better for a small company and/or a startup?
The smaller a company, the more its developer(s) need to be skilled at multitasking, at thinking outside their professional box, at respecting deadlines, and at synergising their work with the company’s greater goals.
This means that a small company will almost always do better with an experienced developer, who typically has accrued a much better understanding of their past software’s broader business purposes, and who has seen first-hand how the work they do affects the company’s overall performance.
Sometimes a talented developer can be the better choice, but only if they are already highly business-oriented (and someone who is both a highly talented developer and a natural entrepreneur is a rare find indeed). Alternatively, a talented dev can outperform an experienced one if under the supervision of an excellent manager, one who knows how to direct them and make the most out of their talent – but not by themselves, and the smaller the company, the more likely that a dev will have to work by themselves.
#5 Who is better for a large company?
A large company will normally have a correspondingly sizeable tech team, which means that – if their hiring manager is anything but a total incompetent – they will already have a mix of talent and experience.
Assuming a certain equilibrium is already in place, then, the better choice for a new hire is usually a talented developer. That’s because large companies already have the team and the infrastructure in place to nurture said talent, and they tend to deal with problems that are more unique and complicated than smaller companies, requiring greater creativity and insight.
Furthermore, large companies are often better places for a developer to cultivate their career in the long term, and one advantage that talented developers have is exactly that: regardless of whether they’re the better worker, they are certainly the better investment – if, that is, they can be persuaded to stay where they are!
We’ve seen a certain balance between talent and experience in the above comparisons. Having to cast my vote in this particular contest, however, I will give the palm of victory to… *drum-roll* …the experienced developer.
This is not because experience is inherently better than talent, but for the rather simpler reason that programmers are professionals who work in a fast-paced and often mercilessly business-minded world. Talent is a wonderful thing to have, sure, and if you give it time, in the long run it will flourish into wonderful things.
But time is exactly what companies in the tech world typically do not have. If a product needs to be deployed, if investors need to be shown a demo, if a deadline is coming up, then a company needs a professional who gets the job done, regardless of whether the code they write is the most elegant or most original in the world.
So, in spite of the fact that talented and experienced devs are balanced in most of the categories we looked at above, the simple fact that experienced devs win in the contest of who’s quickest means that they win the overall contest too.
If you’re an experienced dev, please enjoy my seal of approval! And if you’re a talented dev – well, no need to feel bad. Experience will come to you eventually, with good old work, initiative and a little bit of patience.