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How to hire a good Web developer

By Peter Shikli

(10/27/99, 9:50 a.m. EST)

Asking a Web developer to help find a Web developer may seem the height of a question loaded with vested interest, somewhat like asking your local realtor to refer you to a realtor. One big difference is that BusinessWare, my Web development firm, entrusts me to hire a Web developer once or twice a month. With a few years of practice and the company's fortunes riding on the outcome, anyone can get rather good at it.

The lessons learned begin with an understanding of how hiring Web developers is different from hiring others. The trade journals overflow with stories of the scarcity and exorbitant salaries of Web developers. This is neither accurate nor relevant. I moderate a Junior Webmaster Program at my local grammar school, and we have sixth graders who can produce billable work and would do so for milk and cookies. Learning to produce brochureware for the Web is about as hard as designing a paper brochure with a word processor, and the Web developer usually arrives with all the tools to do the job. No matter what great skill sets are in place, if the job candidate can't show a few online work products, you need a solid answer to why the candidate couldn't spend a Saturday getting to first base.

The interview should quickly turn to areas of specialization. This usually breaks into vertical and horizontal specialties. A vertical specialist knows a great many Web development techniques, but has applied them to a particular business segment, which could be anything from accounting to zoology. An engineering specialist understands without explanation the problems faced by engineering firms, and knows what Web techniques work to solve those problems. A horizontal specialist knows how to apply a Web development technique to a great many business segments. A Java programmer can produce Java-powered Web components for almost any business segment.

Candidates should be able to indicate their vertical specialty if that is their focus, it should match your own, and they should sound like one of your own. That means they should be able to explain the technology to you, use analogies from your business, and choose to explain only Internet technology relevant to your business. Candidates professing a horizontal specialty should be able to demonstrate the application of their specialty across wide ranges. A Web-database connectivity specialist, for example, should show how he connected a variety of databases to the Web.

As in many other industries, a claim to be all things to everyone can be translated as still searching for a career. Particularly in the Internet, things move so fast that keeping on top of a slice of it is a full-time job.

Now for some specific tips:

1.) Know what you want to buy before you go shopping. Of course you don't know the technology, but that's not what you want to buy. Before you interview your first candidate, take your managers aside and get answers to:

  • "What do we hope to accomplish with an Internet presence?"

  • "What is the most significant value we provide our customers, and can we provide more of it across a Web site?

  • "What do we want visitors to our Web site to do on our behalf?"

  • "What is the biggest problem with the flow of information between us and our trading partners?

  • What knowledge commanded by the company can be presented on the Internet to form an online community?

    Summarize the answers, present them to the candidate, and ask, "How would you address these answers?"

    2.) Don't begin the process by visiting the candidate's Web sites. That's like wandering around the guy's office hoping to discover something interesting or useful. Most people wander a Web developer's portfolio because they're not sure what they want and are hoping something will jump out at them. This may be appropriate if your Web development focus is graphics design, but that is just a component to your Internet presence. Such unstructured Web site wanderings usually result in a collection of technical curiosities you like and therefore try to force fit into the solution to your problem. Stick to the objectives your managers gave you only have candidates show you Web sites that demonstrate how they would achieve those objectives.

    3.) Hire the vertical specialist first. Let him/her put together the Web development plan and then assist in selecting the horizontal specialists. Expect the horizontal specialists to come and go, but hire a vertical specialist who will stay around as your Internet program manager.

    4.) Avoid prima donnas. The term Webmaster was invented by people who were full of themselves. The Web is a swirling soup of everyday surprises with no one in charge. We are the masters of nothing, except how to be fast on our feet. If a candidate tells you they've been developing Web sites for years, ask them what they learned this week. Push a few questions where the only right answer is, "I don't know, but I can find out" and see if you get acronyms and arm-waving instead. Ask, "Can you teach my people to do what you do?" If the response sounds like a defense of the priesthood, you may not have a team player. And if your Web site is not adopted and supported by everyone in your company, you will not leverage this emerging technology anywhere near its potential. You may need to put up with prima donnas as horizontal specialists if they are creative geniuses, but your vertical specialist will need to battle them with strong leadership.

    5.) Hire in-house specialists when possible. If you have a talented in-house graphics department producing your brochures, interview them to do the Web site graphics. The vertical specialist should be able to integrate them into the horizontal specialists forming the Web team, and they will come with a good understanding of your image, your customer base, and the pictures to convey one to the other. If you have a product champion in your manufacturing department dying to figure out how to put job status reporting on the Web, give her a seat at the table. The vertical specialist should be able to look over everyone's shoulder with guidelines of what works and what doesn't on the Web. Expect your in-house talent to show initiative and to put in some free overtime, but don't make them feel illegitimate by being entirely voluntary — allocate budgets and deadlines for their efforts, too.

    6.) Match left-brained and right-brained workers to your tasks. If your company wants to field an extranet to support business-to-business commerce, you need efficient Web programmers, not the multimedia genius who knocked your socks off with the site he designed for the Rolling Stones. If you want to engage teenagers and promote consumer branding, you need the multimedia genius. Such left-brained and right-brained people should work together, but not to be converted into one another. Expanding the role of a successful multimedia genius into the dry Web programming needs of a Web site is often a way to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.

    7.) Act fast to engage. Many jobs at your firm have a ramp-up period before employees can become effective. Because Web developers come trained at least in baseline functions and bring their own tools, you can give them a task immediately. I go to most interviews prepared with a few small ($200 to $500) tasks ready to assign to a subcontractor — design a splash page, get a given page listed on Alta Vista, produce a small investor relations page from an annual report. If the candidate appears promising, I assign the subcontract right then and there, 50 percent down and 50 percent upon satisfactory completion. My risk is a few hundred dollars with the deliverable helping a decision about thousands of dollars, and most candidates will put out $5 of effort for every dollar paid because they want to impress. But the biggest impact is on the candidates. They do not expect to leave a job interview with money in their pocket, to walk out part of our team, to see managers appear to make fast decisions in their favor. Web developers go to more than one interview, and this makes you stand out.

    8.) Subcontract the entrepreneurial spirit. Ask vision questions about what makes your candidates get up in the morning. If the answers sound like founding a "dot com" may be part of their plans, you may be talking to a budding Internet entrepreneur. HR folks are skeptical of such candidates hanging in for the long haul, and indeed as employees they are often hatching plots to strike out on their own. The hype is out there, as is the lure of instant IPO riches. Because unemployed Web developers with experience are such a rarity, you can't allow talent like that to beat the pavement while your Web remains in the starting gate. If you see a mismatch as an employee, see if you can make them subcontractors, especially if in answer to your question, that is what they tell you they want. Subcontractors trade in results, not effort, which is in your favor if you can make the cost comparative to an employee.

    In the beginning, your Web development project may be too undefined to ascribe a fixed-price subcontract to the whole thing, but you can almost always break it into smaller pieces. Is the first step a needs analysis, a written spec, a demonstration of a key technology component, a competitive survey? Each of those tasks can be subcontracted by defining it with measurable milestones; offer a subcontract price commensurate with what you would have paid an employee (including overhead and contingencies). Many managers resist this approach because they simply don't want to do the difficult work of stating clearly what they want. Forcing myself to do this, even with hourly employees, has improved my ability to meet deadlines and budgets.

    Opening your mind to subcontracting also expands the solution space for your Web site development needs. Instead of thinking only in terms of hiring to get labor, you think in terms of getting the job done. You are not mixing apples and oranges when you compare a Web site development firm to employees. In fact, you benefit by demanding that they address your employee option by showing how they would deliver the management control and task priority that you would get with an employee. By the time you agree to allow employees to work from home, to use flex-time, to be seriously accountable to task budgets and deadlines, and to participate in profit-sharing, you are already mixing the concept of salaried employees and subcontractors. This is a natural outgrowth of the way the Internet is changing how we get work done. Be open to all the new opportunities it brings to "think out of the box."

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