How To Hire a Developer When You Are Not Technical

Try these five best practices out in your next set of interviews and you will see how easy it becomes to tell the great developers from the rest.

June 30th, 2017   |    By: Irene Ryabaya

Have a great startup idea? Great! Now you need someone to build it.  If you are not technical and don’t want to learn to code, how do you hire a great developer to build your MVP?

For many people the process of hiring the first tech person to build your early-stage startup can be very intimidating but it doesn’t have to be. During my time coding risk systems on Wall Street, I interviewed hundreds of developers for a spot on our team. Below are five things to look for in a promising candidate.

how to hire a developer

1. Look For a Person Excited About Solving Big Challenges.

Ask your candidate what was the biggest challenge she faced in her last few projects. If the answer involves anything about finishing the project on time, dealing with difficult clients or having to rewrite “crappy” code, you can end the interview right there. These all are issues developers face, but the best ones take all these in stride.

You want to hire a person who is excited about solving really hard problems for your business, so what you are looking are answers like “we got 10,000 users in one day from an article and it was a challenge to make sure our back end could handle it. This is how I made it work…” or “once we finished the Beta we realized we completely misunderstood our target user and I had to completely change the database structure. This is how I got a new version out in two weeks…”

2. Look For Technical Answers To Product Questions

Tell the candidate about a problem you are facing with your app or website and ask her to propose a technical solution. If this person starts telling you what features to add or improvements to the design, ask her for an answer only a techie can give. While it’s important to have a business minded developer who understands your customer, in a small startup, the product is the founders’ job. The technical talent you pay for should be exactly that – technical.

The technical person you are hiring needs to worry about setting up your database and maintaining your servers to make sure you can scale, building a code base that is very easy to change when you learn what your users love and hate about your MVP and helping you decide the best way to build a great product quickly and cost effectively. A great answer could be “Building feature A is really easy for me but feature B is actually quite technically challenging. Here is a way to do a version of feature B which is quick for me to code and might feel the same to your users.”

3. Look For Simple Explanations Of Technical Concepts

If you candidate gives you a technical answer which sounds like gibberish, ask him to explain it to you in layman’s terms. You want a person who can communicate very complex technical concepts easily so you can make informed decisions as the founder. I’ve often had to act as “translator” between brilliant developers and clients because, despite both parties being smart, they simply weren’t speaking the same language.

Since your early team will be small, you need a person who can both do the coding, and explain to you what he is building, and why, in a way that allows you to make intelligent decisions for your growing business. You can hire the kind of brilliant developers that only know tech speak once you have a CTO to do the translation between you two, but don’t make the (very common) mistake of making that ‘tech speak’ person as your first hire.

4. Look For a Person Comfortable Writing Code On The Spot

Ask your candidate to write a very simple algorithm right in front of you. This is critical because, when you have a bad bug and you are losing users, you need it fixed FAST; you need someone who can work under pressure. Great developers think in code and can fix bugs quickly, while mediocre ones will need to run and rerun their code to check what it does, wasting your time and money.

My favorite question has always been asking a candidate to write code to produce the Fibonacci sequence and then explain it to you. A great developer can do this in three different ways in minutes and a mediocre one will struggle with various buggy versions as you watch. You can get the right answers off the web to check the result or save the paper and have a techy friend review it with you after the interview.

5. Look For a Person Who Wants You to Talk To Her Clients

Great developers are proud of their work so I highly recommend you ask each promising candidate for references at the end of the interview. If they can’t connect you with at least one happy client, this is not the right developer to hire.

When talking to past clients, ask them what the hardest part of working with this candidate was. If she clashed with a past client, assume the same is likely to apply to you. Ask also, what is the worst part of the product now that it’s been a few months or years since it was finished. If other developers complain that her code was hard to work with or clients complain that the app was unstable, the one she builds for you will likely be, as well. Weigh this feedback heavily.

Try these five best practices out in your next set of interviews and you will see how easy it becomes to tell the great developers from the rest.


About the Author

Irene Ryabaya

Irene Ryabaya is an accidental feminist and the co-founder of Monarq - the funding focused incubator for gender diverse teams. In a past life she coded risk systems on Wall Street, traveled around the world and now spends all her time hacking the gender ratio in tech and startups. Follow her on Twitter @IreneRyab.

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