“Hiring good developers is just like sexing chickens”

A memorable – if not a little disturbing – simile once used by an industry legend during his seminar.

Sensing the discomfort of the crowd, he frowned & bellowed, “Well, you know what I mean, right?” Not a clue, but you certainly have my attention… “It’s like being able to tell the gender of a baby chicken just by looking at it.”

Apparently it’s a subtle art (in the loosest sense of the word) developed with many years of experience, one you can attain to determine chicken gender, or, more usefully in our line of work, developer quality.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t know anyone that has the ten thousand hours required to master that skill.

Anyway, we’d prefer to hire whole coops, sorry, teams of developers for a number of reasons.

  1. The developers already work together so have a quicker startup time.
  2. Cross-functional teams will be able to fulfil all the roles required for project delivery – UX, development, QA, DevOps & so on.
  3. They usually have a project project manager, scrum master or coach who’ll take responsibility for helping the team organise their efforts, report on progress & deliver the project.

Hiring teams is a completely different proposition to a single developer – we can’t make them all do whiteboard interviews. Here are some of the things we look for & ask at Digital Village when hiring great development teams.

Show us what you’ve done (please)

Stand & deliver. We’re technology agnostic & focus on the best processes for delivering reliable value in. In short, we spend less time looking at tech teams work & more looking at the projects they’ve completed.

Are the projects ‘significant’ & did they challenge the team’s ability? ‘Significant’ is of course subjective, but we’re looking for teams with strong capability & ambition.

Are the projects accompanied by glowing testimonials? Unfortunately self-assessment can be a little, let’s say, biased from time to time.

Now let’s talk about it

A curated brochure of past products is nice, but we aren’t window shopping here. We need to dig into things a little (lot) more. A good ol’ fashioned interview with some representatives from the team is a perfect way to find out:

  1. What challenges the team faced while building one of their showcased projects & how they resolved them.
  2. What they enjoyed about the project. Seriously, we’re all supposed to enjoy this or what’s the point?!
  3. Which projects they’re most proud of & why (forgetting pride is of course a Sin).

Abiding by the old proverb, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” & without dabbling in amateur psychoanalysis, there’s a lot more you can take away from the interview.

Are they excited to talk about the projects? Do their eyes light up when explaining technical triumphs. Perhaps an eye-roll when describing the challenge of containing scope with an ambitious client?

Honestly, the last thing we want to see is ambivalence. We want to see anything to show a deep engagement with all the challenges (technical & otherwise) that arise during a complex project.

If they pass both stages with flying colours, hire them & give them everything they want.

Ok, just kidding. I’d feel very hesitant to hire a team purely on this basis. So, I hear you ask, what are the key questions Digital Village asks before engaging with development teams..?

How do they know they’re building (whatever it may be) correctly?

A simple yet serious question. How do they know what they’re building works as it should? It’s an opportunity to understand their practices, processes & also attitude towards producing quality software.

The answer, of course, should involve a seven letter word that causes more headaches than most: ‘testing’. But what kind of testing? QA staff are great & will pick out errors like a sniper, but automated developer tests are also important.

The bravest programmer you’ll meet (& the one you want to meet) is running a gauntlet of unit, feature & integration tests. “Does my change break anything?”, is just an automated test run away.

Adopting such methods allow teams to stride quickly & ambitiously because the safety net of automated testing is always waiting to catch them after a misstep.

How do they know they’re building the right thing?

At least this one’s simple… “it’s what the client asked for”. Get out.

Every project is a big investment for a client, so how can we be sure the investment is going to pay off?

At Digital Village we have a huge range of clients: start-up to enterprise, tech wizards to non-tech founders. With each client, we assume full responsibility for helping them understand if the proposed project is going to make their business more successful.

If not, we can steer them in a better direction even if it means having difficult (but always positive) conversations. Clients come to us looking for guidance & it’s fundamental to our service that we find the right solution.

So our question for any team is, “how will the client know if what they’ve asked for is what they really need?”

If they reply, “the client agreed to the specification, if the code meets the spec then they’re getting what they want,” they’re not the kind of team we personally like to work with.

I’d love to hear how the team proactively validates work delivered to a client, their strategies for eliciting feedback & how they manage that moment when a client says, “wait a minute, this isn’t going to work”.

So, where is everyone?

Long gone are the days of expectation & necessity for singular locations. We’ve worked with all kinds of teams: onshore, offshore & a hybrid of both. So far, we’ve found each model brings its own benefits & challenges.

If a team has offshore members, great! Some of our current teams that contain offshore members produce incredible results at a fantastic price-point.

Traditionally, communication is seen as a potential pitfall for offshore teams, but our success is due to amazing team leads who are responsible for communicating with project stakeholders locally & team members offshore… a conduit, if you like.

So let’s hear about who is responsible for communicating the client’s needs to the team & relays the team’s questions, concerns & suggestions.

What’s the silent killer of projects?

To be clear, I’ve never asked anyone, “what’s the silent killer of projects?”. One, because it’s over dramatic, & two, there are always symptoms.

I would love to know, however, what the team thinks is most likely to derail a project. Although answers will vary, if this were a game of Family Feud I’d expect “communication problems” to be a top answer.

As Bernard Shaw, a man that revolutionised comedic drama, said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

So what are their individual thoughts regarding communication? How could they be sure a client has understood them (& vice versa)? Perhaps most importantly, will they be willing to take on the commitment to communication that Digital Village does?

Dev teams are often missing one vital piece of the puzzle. The client. Now we aren’t expecting 40hrs a week, but we always try to bring clients & users into the project team. Invite clients to join meetings & the same communication channels as the rest of the team.

The last word(s)

So, a case study & an interview. We’re hardly rattling the established pillars of HR & recruitment with this one, are we? But what it all boils down to is can we answer the following questions with a reasonable degree of certainty:

  1. Is the team proficient enough to produce technically sound work?
  2. Do they care enough about their client to provide them with results that make them more successful & do it in a way that makes the client feel empowered during the process?

I’d be happy to work with anyone who can do that.

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The Gaddie Pitch

So, what do you do?

How many times this week has someone asked, what you do? How do you usually answer?

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