How to find and hire Web developers

You need great Web developers but have no clue where to find them. You’re not alone. We hire entry-level journalists from j-schools, so can we find entry-level Web developers in university computer science or IT programs? No, we can’t.

College computer science and information technology programs are not producing the great Web developers marketers need. Part of the problem may be that “Web developer” does not actually describe a standard list of skills or competencies.

The biggest need most digital marketers have is for HTML/CSS experts who understand how to translate a design into Web pages that load fast and work across most browsers.  These professionals work on the parts of the website your users see, or the “front end.” They should have some understanding of both the “softer” issues of user interface design and how their “front end” works with the “back end” databases and applications that do the heavy lifting in a modern website. There are tens of thousands of people who do this for a living. Why do nearly all of them learn their craft on their own time, rather than in a college computer science program?

A recent New York Times article on the recent growth in computer science students had this to say:

“Professors stress that concentrating on the practical applications of computer science does not mean teaching vocational skills like programming languages, which change rapidly. Instead, it means guiding students to tackle real-world problems and learn skills and theorems along the way.”

More than a plumber

For those without the patience and money to pay for four years of learning problem solving, vo-tech schools seem like a natural alternative. However, these programs don’t attract the best and the brightest. Aside from that, treating Web development as a trade like plumbing makes little sense. The pace of technological change means that agile, creative approaches are the only ones that will generate lasting value. Just want someone to pound out some basic code according to a spec? There are millions of folks in India who will happily do that for far less than you’d pay even a new grad in the U.S.

To get and keep sustainable competitive advantage on the Web, or mobile, you need more than an HTML plumber. Developers should also understand business, and design, and SEO, and email, and usability, and … well, you get the point. The best developers are voraciously curious and creative people who love what they do. Anyone who doesn’t fit that description will eventually be replaced by someone in another country who can live handsomely on $12,000 a year.

If universities aren’t training our smart kids to become the hardcore Web developers the business world needs, where are all those amazing Web developers coming from? Just about every “real” Web developer I’ve ever worked with has been self-taught, and many have a degree in some non-technical field.   Certainly there are a lot of high-profile examples of developers and technologists who bypassed college altogether.

The qualities that make a good developer are curiosity, aptitude and creativity. Knowledge is not nearly as important as knowing how to find that knowledge when you need it to arrive at the right answer. Tools are changing quickly, and knowledge that’s crucial now will be old news in five years.

Web development shopping list

If you can’t just set up a table at the college job fair, where do you find your Web gurus? Personal references are the best source of leads on good developers.  If you or someone you trust has worked closely with a developer and knows their strengths, you’ve shortened the search process considerably.  Otherwise, you’ll need to work with tech recruiters.  Before you use either of these, understand what types of skills you really need. When I spoke with Jamon Crockom, CEO of development shop Business Atoms, he said, “A great website is a complex, layered construct, and no one person can be good at doing all of those things.”

First, you need a developer who understands all the back-end systems, databases and applications that are essential for any modern media website. She might be called an “architect,” because she’ll understand how the site should be built from the ground up so that it is fast, reliable and scalable. This person is the one you lean on to help you hire the right front-end Web developers. If you’re a small operation and don’t have much technical depth on staff, you may want to buy this service from an outsourced service provider. If you have a truly technically savvy manager on staff, you might find the best option is to hire a contractor as-needed, and manage them closely.

Next, you need HTML/CSS ninjas who can take a design mockup and make it look just like the concept.  At a minimum, your front end developer should be very well versed in HTML (preferably HTML5), CSS, javascript, and PHP or some other server-side language. If you are using an open source web CMS like Drupal or Ruby on Rails, your front end developer should know that platform very well indeed.  If you have a good back-end developer on staff, they can be very helpful in screening front-end developers.  However, unless you’ve worked with this person before, use testing to verify that they have the skills you need, and the level you need them.  There are several sources of inexpensive online testing at companies like ExpertRating, TechCheck, or, specialized certification tests such as the Zend PHP certification.

Finally, you need a good Web designer.  If you don’t have enough work to keep a designer busy full time, then this is a good position to contract out or hire part time.  A good web designer not only understands the principles of design, but also understands how people interact with content on the web.  He is sensitive to how his decisions can impact technical outcomes like page load time. If your web designer is also good with HTML and CSS and has time to do some building in addition to designing, that’s a bonus, but don’t expect it. For more on working with web designers and why they are important, you should read “Let your designers do their job“.

What you can’t do and expect good outcomes is to have one “Web guy” and expect him to be able to do everything needed with some input from your print designer.

And please don’t put the guy who runs your network and phone system and firewall in charge of your Web developers. That’s IT, and that’s a whole different animal.

If you’re too small to be thinking about headcount at this level, scale back your aspirations for an all-conquering suite of Web applications and execute on the basics like building a simple, easy-to use website that offers sponsorable content that your print product doesn’t. Get your edit and sales staff into the mindset that they can earn more functionality as they meet audience and sales benchmarks. The fact is, you can accomplish an awful lot with a simple WordPress site and a stock theme, without brilliant technical people on staff.  When the revenue will support the headcount, hire the best you can afford.

This post originally appeared on eMedia Vitals.


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