How To Hire a Programmer (Even If You Don’t Know Coding)

By September 23, 2015Recruiting Tips

You need a programmer to turn your idea into reality. You know what the application, website, online service should look like and how it’s supposed to work, but you don’t have an idea how to actually make it happen. Perhaps you’ve hired a programmer who doesn’t perform well, and you don’t know why? We admit it’s hard to find a developer who meets your expectations and perfectly addresses your needs.

Here are 7 hints on how to hire a programmer even if you don’t know coding:

1. Define what and who you need to hire a programmer

You know what you want to create – but do you know how? Unless you know coding, it can be tricky. The best thing you can do is to reach out to a friend or colleague who knows the world of programming languages. He or she will be able to tell you which language(s) and skills you should be looking for during the recruitment process.  If you can’t find anyone like that among your friends, it’s probably worth considering hiring an expert just for this task. An expert will also be helpful when you want to conduct a more technical interview.

2. Understand the programmer’s job

Matt Linderman wrote that in 37signals they have a policy that stands: “never hire anyone to do a job until you’ve tried to do it yourself first.” Of course it is impossible to learn (and master) every language or skill you need but even if you try to learn a bit about programming, it helps you understand the specificity of programmer’s job, which allows you to better manage such a person.

3. Ask the right questions

In “14 things that you should look for in a programmer” we covered a set of features, which the ideal programmer should have. If you ask the questions included in that article, the possibility of finding a great person to work with, is really high. Other than that, make sure to ask your candidates about:

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a) Their background – again, their answers will not only help you to get an understanding of what and how they gained their knowledge, but it will definitely also let you get to know them a bit and allow you to test their communication skills;

b) Time commitments – can they fully commit to your company? Or are you looking for someone part-time?

c) Working preferences – what working hours do they prefer? When are they the most efficient? Do they prefer working in the office or from home?

d) Leadership skills – how would they manage a team of programmers? Do they see themselves as project managers, developers or maybe – conveniently for you – both?

If you are looking for a programmer to replace someone else you can ask the candidates about issues their predecessors have met in the past. As Shahzil Amin wrote: “Their answers should be similar to the solutions you used, or better. If they can’t give a concise answer, that’s usually a good indicator that they are not the right person for the job.”

4. Make it interesting and clear

It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but nowadays there are 4-5 available opportunities for every programmer. You can imagine that when it comes to the really great programmers they know their value and if your position doesn’t sound interesting (and profitable), they won’t take your offer into consideration. You’re not the only one making a choice here.

Paul Graham once said, “Great hackers think of it as something they do for fun, and which they’re delighted to find people will pay them for.”

That’s why you should take the extra time to rethink your conditions and your proposal. Make your offer clear, succinct and exciting. Tell them what you expect and what you can provide them with.

5. Start small with “the version 1.0”

Derek Sivers created “the version 1.0” idea. The version 1.0 is “the bare minimum that would make you happy, and people would find useful. What are the three most essential features?  (…) Save the rest for later. No need to even tell people about the rest unless they’re really really interested.”

You don’t need to talk about every detail of your project and remember that even the best ideas have their different versions (for example Mac OS or Windows’ versions). Starting small is not unusual.

6. Portfolio

A portfolio is a must for most programmers. If they don’t have one, ask them for examples of their work. What projects are they most proud of? Do they contribute to open source? Their answers will reveal some aspects you are interested in. Matt Linderman wrote: “Though you may not be a coder, you’ll be able to tell if there’s some code there. And the fact that somebody is contributing something is a good start.” JohnPaul Bennett adds: “They will often program all day at work and contribute to the open source at night, for free! This makes open source programmers passionate about their craft. Also, keep in mind that someone who loves what they do tends to be more reliable and trustworthy.”

7. Test them

How can you verify if someone can code? Test them. Apparently there are many people who think they can code when, in fact, they can’t. To screen out such candidates, you can conduct a simple online test – “the goal is not to prove that the candidate is some kind of coding genius, but that they know what the heck programming is. Yes, it’s sad and kind of depressing that this is even necessary, but if you don’t perform this sanity check, trust me – you’ll be sorry” points out Jeff Atwood.

You can also implement a paid audition project where your candidates will deal with real life tasks.

It takes time and effort to find a good programmer, but it’s worth it!

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  • Joseph Graham

    You could have elaborated a bit more on point 7, since that is clearly the most important part, which consists of several steps:

    1. Ask for code samples of their previous work

    2. Do a filtering test, such as FizzBuzz, which is meant to filter out people with lackluster skills

    3. Now comes the testing part. DevSkiller, TestDome or whatever you prefer. There are many testing services online.

    4. Trial period, to see how the candidate preforms on the job.

    Also “DevSkiller” sounds like you’re killing devs. Just saying 😛

    • Thanks for leaving a comment Joseph. You can read more about testing developers in our article “Hit the bull’s eye with coding tests in natural environment”, where we elaborate more on this topic. Certainly we will write about it more.

      The problem with other services testing candidates online is that most of them look nothing like actual work. Most of them are one-pager solutions, not showing the whole file ecosystem of a framework. Additionally DevSKiller provides you with code review challenge, which is also a part normal day of programming work.

  • Experience is, what that needs to be remember while hiring a programmer. Hiring a good developer is a difficult task. I’m a senior developer and As a developer point of view, I will suggest you to ask some important questions to developer before hiring like

    Tell him write some code and review it
    Create a high level design for a small system

    Describe the development process.

    Thanks Jeff for the information.

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