How to Hire a Web Developer and/or Web Firm
Hiring an outside web developer or firm can be very challenging. It often feels like you're wading through acronyms and certifications when all you really want to know is "Will this developer do a great job on my site, or am I paying for mediocre work?" This is a tough question to answer, especially when you're not sure what to look for in code samples. It's easy to get caught up in the "design" of the sites in someone's portfolio. But often the web developer had little or nothing to do with the design.
Last month, I wrote about some online tools that you could use to objectively test web site code. Those will give you a good place to start, but like any objective test, they don't tell the whole story.
As you begin the process, you should ask yourself if you know someone who is impartial and understands web development. If so, include them in the preliminary meeting(s). This will ensure that you can ask appropriate follow-up questions. But even if you have to perform the interview alone, here are some of the questions you should be asking:
- What part of this project were you responsible for? Don't assume that a web site in the portfolio was built start-to-finish by the candidate. It's important to know if they were responsible for any one or a combination of the following items:
- planning & site outline
- design & prototypes
- content creation (copywriting, video, animation and/or photography)
- front-end code (HTML/CSS)
- back-end code (PHP/ASP)
- database development
- search engine optimization
- hosting & server setup
Be sure that the candidate's skill set matches your needs. If you're hiring for design, don't hire a programmer; if you're hiring for programming, don't hire a designer. (This question also applies when hiring a web development company; many places outsource the core site programming, which inevitably leads to higher maintenance costs and slowed communication.)
- What area(s) of web development are your strongest/weakest, and why? They should pick two or three strengths and weaknesses from the list above, or even rank them all from strongest to weakest. This will help you differentiate your candidates.
It's very rare to find web development "generalists" that are competent in every area. Usually, you will need to find someone who is specialized in the areas that affect you the most.
- What steps do you take to ensure your sites work with different browsers? Browsers are more compatible than ever before, but you need to be sure that the candidates test their sites in more than one browser. Generally speaking, they should build and validate their sites to the latest web standards for maximum compatibility. But, they should also test their site (at the minimum) in IE 6, 7 and 8, Firefox 3 and Safari 3. Those five browsers accounted for 92% of web traffic in April 2009, but depending on your audience, you may have slightly different requirements. When asking this question, you just want to be sure that the candidate can speak knowledgeably about browser compatibility.
- What is your process for search engine optimization (SEO)? Unless you're looking for someone to specialize in SEO, avoid hiring candidates who aggressively emphasize their search engine prowess. This is an area where it's easy for web developers to mislead you with unverifiable promises. By pretending that SEO is some sort of dark magic, unscrupulous developers may claim they can cheat the system to gain high ranking "for free". This is ALWAYS a scam. SEO is an ongoing process, that costs both time and money. The candidates you hire for web development should be well-versed in search engine strategies, but should be primarily skilled in making high quality, usable web sites. Don't be sidetracked by companies or developers that come in promising a "get rich quick" brand of SEO.
- What do you do to keep up-to-date in your field? Web development is constantly changing. If you have any doubts that the person is continually educating themselves, they shouldn't be on your short list. In this area, it will cripple you if you hire someone who is relying on what they learned in their college classes. You need to look for a student of the industry: someone who can name key industry leaders, reads their blogs, attends conferences and learns new skills. This also means that formal education is often superfluous. While higher education may produce a more well-rounded person, it's more important that web employees actively learn new things on their own.
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