Hiring · Hiring engineers

How do you evaluate the technical skills of hires/co-founders in a field you aren't an expert in?

Robert Strojan Owner, Blackout Labs

October 1st, 2015

I have a problem that a lot of other founders here probably share.  I want to hire a web developer to help with a project, but I don't know enough about web development to confidently evaluate a candidate's technical skills.  I can ask for examples of previous projects, but I wouldn't know how big of a role the person played or if the implemented solution is efficient and well-architected.  I can ask for open source code examples, but I wouldn't know the difference between good code and great code in a language/framework that I'm not an expert in.

Have you also encountered this issue?  What approach would you recommend (or not recommend) for vetting a potential hire's technical skills in an area you're not an expert in?

Nicolas Borensztein Entrepreneur and Technologist, MBA Student

October 1st, 2015

If all you need is a "web developer to help with a project" that sounds like a consultant. On the other hand, recruiting a founder or early employee is much higher stakes. I agree with the general consensus: Don't rely solely on yourself evaluate people in areas where you have no expertise. Bring on some technical contact who's willing to put in a little time for you as a favor.Without skepticism from a technical interviewer, it'll be impossible to differentiate between a talented engineer vs a low-quality engineer who's good at BSing you.
That said, I even find it hard to tell just from a conversation: I find it's much more reliable to include a programming component. As an experienced engineer, my preference has always been for hands-on interviews. Give the candidate a laptop and an hour to concentrate on a non-trivial programming challenge, then have your technical team discuss their solution with them. What they're able to produce, along with how they discuss it, reveals a lot.
Programming skills aside, culture and experience are very important in picking a technical leader for the company. Do your own interviewing as well. In the end your opinion as the founder is still far more important.

Aleksandra Czajka Freelance Senior Software Engineer, Developer, Web Developer, Programmer - Full Stack

October 4th, 2015

I encounter this issue every day with potential clients either asking me the same question or trying to evaluate me. The short answer is, if you attempt to evaluate us on technical aspects, you won't know the results of your questioning. If I fail to answer a question of yours accurately, how will you know what that means? Does that mean I can't do the job you need? How do you know? What if I tell you your questions don't matter for what you need? How will you know if that's the case.

The short answer from me is always: hire on integrity. I wrote an article about this on my blog: http://thecodebug.com/vetting-a-technical-person/ 

Jennifer Esteban Owner at Vesino

October 1st, 2015

Great question. 

My best friend is a software engineer, so to me - he's overqualified for everything I need, so he's my go-to for all questions. This very issue for me actually prompted me to delve into web development and learn a pretty good amount, enough to know how it works (not how to do it myself). If you have your own company, I HIGHLY recommend understanding at least the basics of every department - otherwise you could lose control, not know your options, and waste valuable time and money. Now, if you're in a hurry - ask your professional circle what has worked for them and who they might know or who they worked with. If you have the funding for it, put somebody better than you in charge, someone with experience in. Are you building from scratch? Are you on wordpress? Are you making plugins? Are you building software? You need to know what you need first. 

Here was my mistake - I didn't know about certain issues to keep in mind at first. Site needs to be responsive, needs to translate well to mobile, needs to have ability to make different modificantions, needs to keep in mind the ability to support changes I know I'm going to want for the future --  I needed to know what my future plans would be, etc...  I had to gather what I needed, and then I sat down and had a consultation with different peple. I presented my issues, concerns, my wants.. They showed me options. If they present options and can tell you the upside and downside of something, great. If not, they might only know one way because they've only done it once - terrible investment. And to be honest, you don't always get what you pay for because some people charge more than the value they give. If you want a website that's going to work for you, that's going to handle the changes you're going to need to make, that's going to evolve with your company, you need a person who is capable of evolving. Sad to say, go with someone who does this for a living, who researches it, who lives it and loves it, and who knows and has the ability to solve problems. Don't be afraid of making mistakes because you're going to make them anyways... accept that part of it. But don't get stuck at the beginning either...

Lastly, I offer you... I have a huge contact list and am a full supporter of creating opportunities and connecting people. If you'd like to send me a message with what you need, I'd be happy to point you in a good direction. 

My 2 cents... Best of luck! 

Deborah Chang

October 1st, 2015

Find a currently very strong technical person and ask that person to consult with you by writing the correct job description, knowing where to recruit, and sitting in on conversations with you. Look for established managers in companies with a great reputation. It's easier to find the string technical person and manager by asking around if they already have great positions in companies.

Stephen Salaka Product Development Manager at Tsunami Tsolutions LLC.

October 1st, 2015

If you are just looking for "web development" you can usually find developers a dime a dozen on outsourcing sites, you might also want to reach out to companies that specialize in web development to get it working. If your project is highly technical, then you probably should invest in either an advisor or bring on a technical expert before going into the web development phase. Reach out to your network for assistance here. As far as assessing the skills - look at their previous work and see if this matches what you are envisioning your project to perform - is what you have envisioned more or less complicated than what was done. If you want to "verify" the skills you can always ask for references and talk to their previous employees/clients. Hiring "technical" candidates is no more complicated/risky than hiring anyone else. Do you think they can do the job? Have they sold you on their abilities? Give them a trial time frame and if they don't live up to your expectations then find someone else. Your next question might be - how will I know if the work they have done is good? And that goes back to the second point - if your organization does not have the ability to distinguish technical skill from non-technical skill, how are you going to be managing your cost effectively? It would save you a lot of hassle and trouble in the long run getting someone technical on your team rather than trying to wing it and see how it goes.

Mary Camacho Product & Develoment Management | UI/UX

October 7th, 2015

I would keep in mind that great code is also relative. What you should be concerned with is good architecture and effective results. I only say this because any really good developer will criticize their own code 6 months to a year after it was written because the technologies continue to evolve and they continue to become better coders. 

I do agree with several of the points made previously:

1) If you know someone that is great but not available - they can often be your litmus test for assessing another developers skills - I like to call that the technical interview. 

2) Business skills or domain knowledge is often just as important when it comes to designing well - so the business interview should focus on having that person describe how they have taken a business problem and solved for it with good design and development. They need to be able to translate your business needs to tech - so they should be competent and going the other direction as well. If not - you will run into more issues throughout the project.

3) A Web developer and a product designer and full stack developer may or may not all be the same person. Are you building your business marketing site or are you building a product? The terms you use to describe the person you want to hire can make a difference in cost, capability and orientation to solutions in general. 

I have hired a lot of developers and designers over the years for a wide variety of internal and customer based projects - would be happy to chat more offline about how I assess if you want to reach out. I'm not looking to be hired or anything - but have a bit of time if you need help in the coming week or two.

Best of luck!

Radek Krawiec Looking for marketing/sales cofounder

March 11th, 2017

Ask friends who have technical skills in this area to help you out. Don't just trust the impression the people make. Evaluating a persons technical expertise isn't easy for anyone not deeply acquainted with the given technical area.

Bob Smith Consulting to Boards, CEO's and Key Management Teams, Strategic Investor and Fast Growth Companies

October 2nd, 2015

If you create a listing of the Results you want to get from this person as well as the critical things they themselves must do or "own", you can have them do examples of these aspects and see the quality first hand.

There are two strategies that people are increasingly citing.  The first is to do Paired Creation, where you have two people work on the some Result, together at the same time.  It can accelerate turnaround and produce a better net effect.

The second is to set up a project that allows you both to experience each other for 60 - 90 days.  this keeps you both motivated to collaborate.

This kind of work is both Art and Science, so there are a lot of ways to interpret results. 

Many of the posts here reference talking to others about the person you intend to engage.   It is important to research your key people hires, so that you can make the most informed decision possible.   Hiring them is no guarantee.  It is very much like dating.  You check for chemistry, shared values, work ethic, interests, abilities style and direction.  In the end it is a relationship with you and them as well as a relationship with them and the company you are working to build.

Jerome Pineau Chief Digital Officer

October 1st, 2015

My 2 cents: word of mouth is your salvation. Surely in your network you _must_ have someone who know a great web dev talent.

Simon Effing Technical Advisor and Scala Developer. I build sustainable MVPs for lean B2B startups.

October 2nd, 2015

Find an engineer with a consulting and business mindset. Somebody with a proven track record of developing productive web applications that are actually serving some kind of business.
Start with a single person as CTO and hire junior developers when more manpower is required.

The business mindset is important because software development is a continuous process of decision making, therefore developers need a deep understanding of the underlying goal of their work.

The technology they use doesn't matter that much as long as they are masters in their preferred technology.
However, for serious web apps I'd recommend to avoid mainstream low-end stuff like PHP. These languages exist only because of their low entry barrier and will bite you when your project grows.