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There is quite a bit of disparity between hiring practices among companies. Some companies look for years experience, or breadth or depth of skill, and others choose other selection criteria. As well, software developers are in the unique position that, unlike many professions, many continue to work on their craft outside of work for personal interest (or perhaps career advancement).

My question is this: when it comes to hiring, which is more important to HR people? Is it years experience at a company / in general? Or is it experience on personal projects?

I ask because, as I see it:

  • Time spent at a company is an odd measure, as it is difficult to quantify what you individually accomplished (depending on your role and how the organization works). As well, the work that you do at work may not be technically challenging, or may be constrained to a very specific set of tasks (e.g. User Interface, Database)
  • Personal projects, in particular non-profit projects, don't have the same set of strict day-to-day requirements that you might find at a full-time job. Though personal projects demonstrate 'passion', self-determination, aptitude for learning, and provide an opportunity for both breadth and depth of learning, it's difficult to dig into them because they don't pay the bills.


I'm leaving the question as it was originally phrased, but I should have said: when it comes to hiring, which is more important to the people responsible for hiring (HR, hiring manager, startup CEO, etc.). Apologies for broadening the question a bit.

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I have never seen a CV that listed personal projects at all, let alone above previous professional experience. –  hplbsh Oct 25 '11 at 16:57

8 Answers 8

up vote 7 down vote accepted

HR people basically don't care about personal projects. They care about a skills matrix - a list of skills (i.e. - words or phrases they don't know the meaning of) and how many years of each you have.

They have some rule like "anyone who has the required number of years of experience in 7 out of 8 skills passes, or 6 out of 8 if they have at least 3 optional skills" and they sort the stack into two piles.

If you are in the wrong pile, then no one will read about your personal projects.

EDIT - response to edit of question:

Technical people may care about a personal project. They will consider it as part of the evidence of your technical skills and programming passion. I think your question did a good job of summarizing the pros and cons of personal vs. work projects.

For either kind of project, people will be skeptical and try to find out what you did personally, and ask questions to verify your claims (including hard technical questions someone who did what you claimed to have done should be able to answer).

For the most part, real experience doing something similar to the job you are applying for will trump personal projects, since after all, you are applying for a job, not for a personal project.

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If you let your carrier to HR guys - you are doing it wrong ;) –  c69 Oct 25 '11 at 16:33

software developers are in the unique position that, unlike many professions, many continue to work on their craft outside of work for personal interest

That's hardly unique to software. Artists, craftsmen, performers, designers, writers, chefs, engineers, etc. are all likely to work on their own projects to improve their skills or just for the fun of expressing their creativity.

Is it years experience at a company / in general? Or is it experience on personal projects?

I doubt anybody cares whether you've spent 4 years or 5 at your last job. What they want to know is:

  • Do you have the depth of experience that they need for the job in question, or are you going to make a bunch of rookie mistakes?
  • Do you have skills that will help in the job in question, and if so which ones?
  • Can you hit the ground running, or are they going to have to provide training?
  • Do you have a history of bouncing from one job to the next, or do you tend to stay in one job at least long enough to make a meaningful contribution?

In short: Will you be a net-positive asset to the company, or are you more trouble than you're worth?

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Don't give HR too much credit. They will want to know if you've spent 4 or 5 years using Java. –  JeffO Oct 25 '11 at 20:59
@JeffO I agree, particularly when the HR person has a requirement for 5 years. I just mean that it doesn't usually matter much if that 5 years is 2 at one place and 3 at another vs. 1 and 4. However, if you have a long string of non-contract positions that are all quite short (months instead of years), that'll need to be explained. –  Caleb Oct 25 '11 at 21:09

My personal opinion is that for most HR people it boils down to whether or not you pass a screen they have. Do you have X years of experience with A, y years of B, and z years of C? If you fail any of those, out you go. Otherwise you get to stay in the pile that will be used to draw those that get interviews.

Years at a company is easy to fact check in terms of you start at one date and left at another date. Yes, lots of different things could happen between those dates but that isn't what HR is likely wanting to dig, they just want to know if you pass a screen or not.

However, people in smaller companies may not take such a formal approach and in those cases personal projects may be worth more as it gives you a way to start conversations and get somewhere if you are just getting to know the person. You'd have this case arise from networking and find out that someone in a company is looking for talent and so you have this somewhat spontaneous conversation rather than a meeting where most things could be canned or prearranged to happen. Thus I would say the answer to this depends a bit on who is hearing the answer, a fellow techie or someone in HR that may not know anything about programming?

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In my experience, when doing interviews, people from HR are actually the last step. With the people from HR I will discuss wages and terms/conditions.

Most of the interviews I have had was with someone technical. I myself have also interviewed a lot of potential collegues. Imho your years of experience are valid because so many things you will only learn through lots and lots of practice. Also, if you are capable of staying at an employer for a longer time is interesting. People want to invest time in you, and if you never had a job for longer than six months, that would predict you are not one to stick around long (for whatever reason).

On the other hand: I want to see code. Show me a piece of code you are proud of. And this will tell a lot about your skills. At interviews I can talk about techniques and theory, but I am disappointed if we have not gone into code. Unfortunately, your code done at a previous employer is must of the time actually not showable (copyrights, NDA, ...).

So if you have some personal projects, on github or something similar, that is always a plus. If you participate in open source projects that is definitely a plus. It means you are passionated by your craft. It means you are giving back to the community.

I am not sure if HR is ever going to have a look at your personal projects, but your future collegues most definitely will.

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Looking at examples in programming history - smart guys were either making side projects, or doing some industry breakthroughs at their main job, and then capitalizing on it. If you want a good job - you must hit for the head - CEO, CIO, CTO, other top guys in the company, and not go through the HR sieve.

But the most efficient way to make a career - is to find a smart guy, let him do the hard stuff for you, then take the credit for it. Like a boss.

Of course, you can be the smart guy, and do the hard stuff yourself, overwork, be under-payed, and eventually let other people take credit for the stuff you've done.

Or super-smart guy, who helps his country to win the war, and basicly defines a new branch of human activity called 'programming', just to get chemically castrated and forced into suicide, as a gratitude from government.

But if you are going to rely on HR guys, showing them years of experience and letters from previous jobs, - that wont be a career.

p.s.: this might sound cynical, but that's how our world works.

edit: when you give a minus, don't forget to comment ;)

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You'll just appear over-qualified. –  JeffO Oct 25 '11 at 20:58
Alan Turing would never get through a HR screening. Maybe Woz if he had a little more java-script. (Also, quite possible that Turing's suicide had some active, unrequested, assistance). –  psr Oct 25 '11 at 21:18

Most companies hire on a NEED basis and not on a TALENT basis.

i.e. Most will want the person who's existing skill set matches with what they are doing.

Outside of this, precious little matters.

Also remember that not all companies appreciate personal projects. Depending on the corporate culture, it could even be something that's deemed undesirable. Granted, those might not be the companies you would WANT to work at, but it does happen.

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For a typical programmer, typical workplace and typical HRs :

Time spent on a project/Experience in x, or y etc.

Will get you your next job.

Personal Projects

Will make you a better programmer, and lay the foundation for your start-up idea or a great job at an awesome company some time from now.

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I think personal project are good if they have wide popularity. But if they have it you will not work for an employer as doer (how many-many people do). In the case you would like some special.

So hardly HR people wait for successful programmer who started his own profitable projects. He does not interested for their proposals.

Other way if you finished your project and offer a partnership for some company. It's possible and sometimes delivers a cretor from some problems. For example he could sell half of a project and get some help to advance it because to do it alone can be very difficult.

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