Since I am limited in the amount of clients I can take on I turn a lot of potential customers down. Each and every time I do I am almost guaranteed to hear the same question: 'Can you recommend another developer or tell me how to find a good one?'. Hopefully this article will help some of those people.
How To Choose A Good Web Developer
Finding an honest, qualified, experienced web developer is like finding a good car mechanic, once you find one you can trust you never want to let them go! In the every growing world of web development a good web developer is worth even more than a good mechanic.
Let’s consider your web site for a minute or two. These days a company’s web site is their first chance to secure a new customer or a sale. Recent statistics say that 80% of the time a potential customers will go to the internet before picking up the phone book. When they find your web site they will make a judgement about your product or service within seconds of first finding your site. If you site is not informative, intuitive and easy to navigate you may have just lost a sale. Allowing just anyone to build your new web site, or web application, can mean the difference between steady sales or the chirping of crickets. Can your company’s primary source of advertising bear this?
What Do You Need In A Web Developer?
So you know how important your web site is. You also understand that hiring the 'kid down the street' is not the proper choice to portray your company’s image and the type service you provide. So where do you go now? In my years as a teacher and many, many years as a developer I have come up with a list that I use to choose sub contractors that I think will also work for any customer that is looking for a good web developer:
- Is the developer honest?
This may seem like a no brainer but you would be amazed how may developers will tell you what you want to hear just to get the job. A little 'trick' I have found useful is to ask a question from one point of view and then later in the conversation ask it again from another perspective. If the developer comes back the second time the question is asked with a 180 degree answer you have someone that will tell you anything just to get the job.
- Is the developer punctual?
If you set a phone appointment with your developer at 1pm Monday are they there and ready to discuss the items at hand? If not you may have someone that may feel the timeframe of your project is questionable. Now if you don’t care when your job is done that may be fine but I have yet to find one client that wasn’t under the gun for a deadline.
- Is your developer willing to give references and show 'real world' examples of their previous work?
Now I know I’m going to get a lot of flack for this one from the developers just getting into the business but it really has to be said. A good web developer is always proud of their past accomplishments and should be open to the idea of allowing you to get references from past clients. Testimonials are great but I have seen some underhanded developers make them up. If your application is mission critical to your success you really do need to ask the hard questions here. Yes the developer may have done job x, y & z but how did they handle it and was the client happy with them. Don’t be afraid to ask a developer for references and if they balk at the idea you may want to rethink working with them.
Another nasty little trick I have seen from some underhanded developers is to show potential clients what appear to be functional, running web applications or sites. Doing a little bit of research on the web sites a developer shows you may unveil a nasty little trick, the sites are all owned by the developer. If you suspect the sites they are showing you may not be previous clients do a WHOIS on the domain to see who actually owns them. Some good WHOIS checks can be found at networksolutions.com or betterwhois.com.
- Is your potential developer able to provide solutions to problems?
One of the greatest compliments I have ever received was from a recent client that told me 'Every time you say we have a problem I take a deep breath and relax because I know you have a viable solution right behind that statement.'
Now this may not seem like a big deal but a developer that can identify problems but has no alternative solution to the problem may not be the right choice. When I identify a potential problem in a web application the first thing I do is make a list of alternatives, long before I tell the customer about the problem. In everyday terms I guess it’s called thinking on your feet.
- Does the developer offer suggestions and features you may not have thought of?
This is one of the things that cements a relationship between a web developer and a client. If your potential developer offers suggestions for features you may not have even thought of you know they are 100% interested and they are looking out for your best interests. When I get involved in a project I really want to feel (and be treated) like part of their company during the time I’m working with them. As a part of 'the team' I am constantly offering suggestions or thinking of things the customer may not have thought of. I know my clients love it!
- Is your developer able to set and meet goals?
There are early signs of a problem in this area. If a developer tells you they will have a quote to you on Monday and it shows up on Wednesday, along with an excuse, you may want to reconsider using them. As the old saying goes; "a leopard can't change their spots". This goes for developers that are always late to meetings or phone calls too (A MAJOR pet peeve of mine). A developer that can’t get you a quote on time or can’t seem to make meetings on time will more than likely not get your project done on time. To me this says the developer doesn’t respect the value of your time!
- Does your developer understand your business niche or marketplace?
One big problem I have seen over the years (myself included) is a developer’s inability to understand what it is you are trying to accomplish. A lot of this comes from not knowing the marketplace your business is in. Now this is not a deal breaker as long as the developer is willing to take the time to learn a little bit about who it is you are trying to market to. If they seem to 'not care' or have no ambition to understand your potential clients you need to move on. Plain and simple a developer can not build an application without some knowledge of your marketplace or your customer’s needs.
Some comments I have heard from clients (after they fired the developer) also showed early warning signs of this problem. The most notable one is "Oh it’s all pretty much the same thing as any other site". Now it may be somewhat true that your functionality is similar to other web sites but unless you want a clone of someone else’s site (shame on you) I have yet to see any two applications that didn’t need some customizing to tailor the site to your target audience.
- Is the developer able to translate what they intend to do in a non 'geek' manner?
Now this may seem quite funny to many people but a good developer has to be able to explain technology to you in some fashion that makes sense to a non technical person. Now I’m not saying they have to explain complicated algorithms or anything like that but they do need to be able to explain technical things that may make a difference in how your application functions. Things such as how search queries will return data on different user inputs. One such example I can think of is the ability to explain the difference between searches with an 'and' or an 'or' when multiple search variables are used. In other words 'When your clients search using these two inputs the query will return this AND this, but using these two variables will return this OR this.' It may not seem like it’s a big deal but it can make or break an application.
- Does the developer require a contract before proceeding with your job?
This one is so important I just can’t stress it enough but for some reason people seem to forget the legal ramifications of hiring a web developer. A contract that has been approved and signed by both parties along with a specifications sheet explaining what is to be developed is absolutely essential. I have seen more deals go bad between clients and developers than I care to even think about and every time I ask the developer (or client) 'did you have a contract and specs?' they say no. The protection goes both ways. It protects the client in project timeframe, scope of work, price of the job, payment scheduling and additional costs for work outside of the scope of the project. The developer is also protected from additional work that was not included in the original specifications, known in the business as 'feature creep'. Both parties should also have any contract approved by an attorney before signing. Any attorney can flag improper clauses and any limitations imposed on the two parties by their location.
- Does the developer seem flexible about how things should be done?
This is one that can really create a lot of problems in a business relationship and one I have seen all too often when I am not the only developer working on a project. It’s the old 'my way or the highway' mentality and it will be the source of tension and headaches during the entire process. It may show you they are not well versed in other approaches but more than not it shows you they are narrow minded and feel they are the only one that can come up with a solution. Granted the source of the 'suggestion' may come into play here (like a web designer telling a programmer how to code) but suggestions have to be entertained and if they aren’t plausible the developer should be able to give viable reasons why, not draw a line in the sand.
- Last but not least, Is the developer looking ahead at new technologies?
This one is a really touchy subject with me. A lot of developers out there are 'coding like it’s 1999' and they refuse to face the facts that the internet is changing at breakneck speed. Probably the biggest gripe I have here is designers and developers that don’t even think about the possibility of your web application being used on non computer devices (IE: PDA, cell phones). Statistics are now showing an amazing surge in 'non computer' web use by these new devices and you can be sure it isn’t going to go away. Make sure to ask your developer if your application will be able to serve these clients or you may just be locking out potential customers.
Make sure to read the companion article to this one, How to choose a web development client. It's may help you be a better customer!
Happy Hunting, Dave