As seasoned developers, I'll be the first to admit I’ve written my fair share of spaghetti code. As most good developers will tell you, they’ve spent years honing our craft to make sure it's a thing of the past.What happens all too often though is designers often get stuck in, learning just enough to be dangerous and unwittingly become ‘cowboys’. 

To be clear here, it’s not their fault. I once had a manager who referred to it as “unconscious incompetence” - you don’t know what you don’t know. A developer may have the best intentions, but when your business’ day-to-day operations are potentially at risk you should know what you're getting in return for your money. We've compiled this list of 7 questions you should ask a web developer before hiring them, in the hopes of de-risking that decision for you.

1. Do you custom design websites or use pre-made templates?

There are hundreds of "developers" and agencies out there who just on-sell templates. They log on to themeforest.net, buy a $20 or $50 template, slap your logo and some stock photos on it and send you a bill for $499+GST.

Who can blame them too? Templates are cheap and fast to implement. But when you couple a template site with an inexperienced developer, things unravel quickly.When you ask the developer to add some custom functionality as the project progresses, you'll end up with a slow website that takes 20 seconds to load and is a mess of 50+ plugins.

Not only that, but you run the risk of having 250+ other websites look exactly like your one, which could hurt your brand.Good developers know when to use a plugin, and when (and how) to go edit a couple of lines of code to get the desired result, without negatively impacting your website's performance and security.

2.  Do you handle all development work in-house?

This one seems trivial, but a lot of companies nowadays outsource their development work to India or the Philippines. It's cheap, the websites or apps work, so who cares right?

The issue here is security. If an agency does little or no work in-house, they are unlikely to have the skills required to audit the subcontracted work properly.

What this means for you is that the possibility exists that a back door is added that you don't know about. They could potentially mining your business' or customers' data. Or it could be the downright malicious stuff like ransomware and credit card theft.

On the other side of the coin, the developer may not have the skills necessary to counter an attack. They may not be able to weed out malicious code after an attack, rendering you defenseless, unrecoverable and out of pocket.

3.  Do you use your own proprietary Content Management System (CMS)?

This is one of the biggest red flags when you're looking for an agency or a developer.

A seasoned pro will know that you don't have to reinvent the wheel, and if you do, it's unlikely to be better than something like WordPress or Silverstripe. A CMS like WordPress has thousands of developers working on security, performance, bugs and new features. There is zero chance a bespoke CMS or "website builder" made by three people is going to top that.

A custom CMS is a sign that a agency is either trying to make money via locking you into a platform, or that they just don't know any better.

4.  Can you talk me through your design/development process?

This one seems trivial, but it's a good way to figure out if a developer or agency is just going to "wing it". Good agencies and developers have good processes.

They will be able to tell you - on the spot - about every step of those processes, what you can expect, and what they will expect from you.Good process is a sign of experience, while no process could cost you time and money in the end. Fail to plan, plan to fail and all that.

5. Do you use code review and/or version control?

Even mid-level developers use tools like Git or SVN every day to manage changes in their work and help keep them organised.

Version control lets developers save their work in useful "chunks" like features and patches. Add on code review between colleagues and the quality of the code they produce increases significantly.

If an agency doesn't use version control at the very least, it sends up a huge red flag that indicates inexperience and/or disorganised workflow.

6. What contingencies do you have in place?

Even the greatest developers know that sometimes software fails. Those great developers also know that with a good plan of action and contingencies in place, you can react quickly.

Most marketing agencies will have no contingencies in place, and instead will rely on their hosting company's support to sort it out.

A good developer or agency will have redundancies in place and monitoring and alarms to warn and alert of issues before they happen or just after.They will also have a plan for almost any scenario. They will know how to deal with sudden spikes in traffic, maintenance and even attacks.

7. How do you measure success/results?

Your website is a sales tool, and a good agency knows this. "Cowboys" rely on the churn-and-burn method - get as many clients through the door as fast as possible.

It's a great way of making a lot of money fast, but a great agency or developer will know that the relationships you form with clients are the real value.

If a developer or agency tells you they "just do websites/design", it could be a sign that they don't know what they're building, just how to build it.

Understanding a client's vision is key to the success of any design project. If you know what you're trying to achieve from a strategic and business point of view, you'll design/develop in that general direction.

Conclusion

When you're looking to hire a developer or agency, there are a lot of things to consider. Above all else you should consider your business. Good developers charge premium because they are good at what they do. Paying a little extra for a good developer could be the cheapest decision you make this year.

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If you're looking to hire a developer or agency, at Bitlab we offer vetting services where we help you find the best candidate for the job. Drop us a line at hello@bitlab.co.nz today.

About The Author

Drian Naude

Technical Director at Bitlab. Drian writes about engineering, management and a little design.

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