How to Hire a Web Developer
With online sales accounting for a growing slice of retail revenue – Forrester Research estimates they could hit $177 billion in 2010 – and online marketing the key to many start-ups' success, it's crucial to work with a skilled web developer from the start.
But is adding a full-time developer to your team necessary? If your business is primarily online, or will incorporate a lot of mobile technology: certainly. If not, and you and your current staff are equipped to handle site maintenance and upkeep, you might consider retaining an independent contractor.
For Jamie Resker, who advises companies on workforce issues, hiring a contractor was an easy solution: "For my consulting business, I hired someone to do a site for me, and now I write my own content," she says. "I've encountered a lot of small-business owners can do it themselves."
Whether you're seeking a contractor for initial design and ongoing support or a full-time developer, it's important to identify exactly what skills and qualifications your developer will need to possess. The simplest way is to lay them out in a job description.
Hiring a Web Developer: The Job Description
The first item under the job title should be a summary overview the position. A list of job duties and responsibilities should follow. Though the nuts and bolts of the job responsibilities can vary, overall front-end site management is generally included, as are the abilities to optimize graphics and webpages, and do cross-browser optimization.
Resker advises to examine what's new in job listings, such as the ability to do search-engine optimization, which has become a mainstream job requirement over the past couple years.
"If they're hiring someone to do the web work, they're not only hiring someone to get the content up, but hiring someone so that they're find-able when someone Googles them – someone who's going to know how to use keyword search," she says. "They need to be marketing-savvy and know what terms someone might use to look. Knowing what a long-tail keyword is, too."
Despite the host of technical skills they'll need to possess, a developer should no longer be thought of as a solitary worker. They'll need top-notch communication skills, and the ability to work well as a team with programmers, designers and marketing specialists. If you're hiring a senior developer, you'll also want to make sure your new hire possesses leadership skills and that you could foresee them leading a growing team of developers.
When drafting the description, it's key not to forget a catch-phrase line to include additional "duties as assigned," just in case the job morphs over time or something is omitted. "Basically, it's so a hire doesn't come back and say 'that wasn't in my job description," says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, the founder and principal of Human Resource Solutions.
Hiring a Web Developer: How to Determine Compensation
Before deciding a salary, it is important to weigh the skill level of the position you need filled with the amount you are prepared to spend and find a balance. A junior developer with less than one year of experience could a cost-effective hire – but without strong coding knowledge or familiarity with SEO or CSS might not possess the skill set necessary to oversee a site. Seek a mid-level or senior developer for all-encompassing responsibility loads.
To find a salary that's fair to offer, search other local listings online, and check out what web developers earn in your area on PayScale.com – where you can search for position plus experience, and take location into account. Searching Salary.com reveals that the median base salary for a web developer in a large city is between $48,000 and $64,000. But expect to pay more for a senior developer being hired into a do-it-all position.
When in doubt, it's also perfectly couth to ask applicants about their salary expectations. Consider benefits, also, as part of that expectation, because there is no gold standard for salary-setting.
That said, it's perfectly couth to ask applicants about their salary expectations in terms of base plus benefits. It's also worth asking what sort of salary scale the candidate expects for the rest of his or her staff.
And don't ignore the power of benefits to affect a web developer's decision to join your company. In small companies, benefits send important signals about culture and stability. "If you're like Google and have incredible benefits, then you might not need to pay that much. But if you don't offer health insurance, you might need to pay more," Matuson says.
Hiring a Web Developer: Attracting the Right Applicants
Online, turning to social networking can be valuable for finding members of a small core group of employees – but be selective which sites you choose. While posting on Craigslist.org may cause a landslide of resumes, a message over LinkedIn is likely to yield a few qualified professional applicants whom your trusted contacts already endorse.
Lucas Biewald, founder and CEO of CrowdFlower, the San Francisco-based crowdsourcing start-up, prefers to find developers on sites such as 37signals.com or jobs.joelonsoftware.com, though listings cost more than simply posting to Craigslist.
For finding contractors in web design and development, try sites such as eLance.com and Guru.com. One tip: search directly for words in the skill set you'll require, such as "CSS" or "XHTML."
If you're posting a listing for a full-time developer, you'll want to clearly list job responsibilities and a job summary, which can be pulled directly from the job description you've already created. In addition to the overview and list of responsibilities found in the job description, a great job listing incorporates desired behavioral characteristics of your ideal hire. If you're not sure about these temporal and experiential traits, just look around you.
"In this economy, you want to look for people who can be flexible in the small business setting," says Mark Clark, an associate professor at American University's Kogod School of Business. "You want people who are very interested in accomplishing things, rather than just filling a position."
Next, include at least a paragraph detailing minimum qualifications, including preferred educational and experiential background. Being detailed will help narrow the applicant pool.
Preferred educational and experiential background can also incorporate behavioral characteristics. Instead of a bullet point saying "10+ years experience required," consider something along the lines of "Team player with strong leadership skills and 10 or more years of demonstrated ability to manage effectively."
If a flood of applicants is your fear, listing a salary could narrow the pool. Otherwise, experts suggest it is not necessary.
With the listing complete, post to your company jobs site, if you have one. If not, consider posting the listing in trade publications, specialized media or online job sites. If sites such as Craigslist.org and Monster.com seem too general interest, don't worry. In the era of spider-search sites such as Indeed.com and SimplyHired.com, if candidates are searching, and your listing anywhere gets crawled by search engines, they'll have the opportunity to find your post.
Hiring a Web Developer: The Interview
If interviewing seems intimidating, just remember your key objectives are to find out: Can this applicant truly do the job and will they fit into our work culture? Of course, these are just the basics. To this, add discovering whether the applicant possesses the desired skill set and behavioral traits you've already laid out.
Simple? Crafting questions that elicit responses that easily display the answers to these questions might not be as easy as it seems – especially when they involve technical terms you yourself might not be fluent in.
Before the interview, ask for URLs of the candidate's previous work. This shouldn't simply come in the form of a portfolio – you should have live links to examine. Aside from the obvious design aspects, which should be clean and easily navigable, check the HTML code of the site – or ask a third party familiar with HTML to examine it for clarity and organization.
Ask some pointed questions about the applicant's role in creating and maintaining specific sites in the past. What portion of it did they contribute? Did they work with a designer on the project, or did they do the graphics themselves? Did they work with a more senior programmer on the project? Have they overseen more junior developers?
Turn also to specific technical questions, such as their experience with search engine optimization. What strategies they have put in place in the past?
"Most people don't begin to think how they can optimize their own site," Resker says. "Ask an applicant how you've used Google Analytics in the past. And if they said 'um, oh, I've heard of that,' they're not qualified."
Simple? Crafting questions that elicit responses that easily display the answers to these questions might not be as easy as it seems. Asking a candidate whether they function well under pressure is likely to elicit simply a "yes." Asking her a question that directly applies pressure, such as "What makes you think you are better for this job than all the other candidates?" or "Which co-worker at your last job did you not get along with well and how did you handle that situation?" is more effective, and will likely yield a telling answer. Hypotheticals about a candidate's future employment at your company can be even more revealing.
As you ask these behavioral, open-ended questions, listen not only to the content of a candidate's response, but also to the voice and manner behind it.
Biewald, the Dolores Labs CEO, recommends that when technical skills are involved, tagging on a quick example programming task to the interview process can show more about an applicant than answers to a dozen specific interview questions.
Hiring a Web Developer: Checking References
Checking a candidate's references is the most overlooked part of the hiring practice, but experts say it is absolutely essential. Many employers also ask that applicants agree to credit-history checks and pre-employment drug screenings; those are optional, and often depend on vocation.
Of three references, have a phone conversation with at least two, and pay attention to the tone of a reference's recommendation, not just its content. Most people feel that it is not wise to hamper future employment for a past employee, so savvy references won't say anything negative. One tip: Leave a voicemail message that says, "I would appreciate a call back only if you feel this candidate is exceptional." If a reference truly believes in the candidate, he or she will return the call quickly. If you don not hear back from them, you can read into that, too.
Human resources experts also recommend trying to check a reference that's not recommended by the candidate: Hunt down a person at the applicant's most recent workplace (on LinkedIn, for example) who should have known him or her well, and ask for an opinion.
And when you have a reference check on the phone, what should you ask? Resker, president of Employee Performance Solutions, says: "A question I like to ask is 'if the person could have been more effective, what could she have done differently.' Rather than asking one weakness, which can make them uncomfortable."
Hiring a Web Developer: Other Best Hiring Practices
• Great candidates should naturally follow-up on an interview with a call or e-mail, making it easy for you to invite them back for a second meeting. Do so, and allow other managers to meet with potential candidates on their second interview before offering a position. A second or third opinion is valuable.
• Set up a program that rewards current employees for referring apt job candidates. People within the organization can recognize others who would fit in well, and are unlikely to choose someone who wouldn't pull their weight.
• In both job listing and interview, pose only legal obligations and ask only legal questions. As an employer, you are not permitted to ask questions about a person's age, race, creed, sexual orientation or marital status.
• Despite a good gut feeling, never hire on the spot. Take time to review all candidates interviewed, both so that you have a chance for reflection and because you want to be in a strong negotiating position when discussing compensation.
Hiring a Web Developer: On-Boarding the New Hire
The buzz-word right now is "on-boarding" for making sure a new employee is up-to-speed and productive as quickly as possible.
"When you work in these small companies, you are always understaffed, you never have time," says Ellen Rudnick, professor and executive director of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. "But it's really important to take the time you don't have to get a new employee up to speed."
One thing that helps is to have company policy, including employee guidelines and procedures in place. Even if you don't have an HR department, having human-resources policies in place is essential from day one, experts say. It will not only ease the transition into the new job for employees, who will know what's expected (it's never fun to have to ask a new boss "what's the vacation policy?" on the first day), but also protect your company from potential future legal trouble. Consider including expected work hours, presence in the office, and acceptable personal use of company electronics and space. Binding it in a guidebook, or having an online employee guide that's always available to staff is your best bet.
Managers should make it a priority to schedule face-time with a new employee within the first day or two – and ask pointed questions about how they're feeling and what they feel would help them out in their job that hasn't been provided.
Looking ahead, a company intent on keeping its new employees should schedule regular check-ins. Matuson suggests a manager checking in with a hire after 30, 60 and 90 days, just to ask what changes they might suggest and allow them to ask any lingering questions in a low-pressure way.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.