I love web developers. I love working with web development teams, I love arguing about strategy and solutions, I love that we speak the same language. I feel connected, comfortable, and energized talking implementation, solutions, and use cases. I work with web developers every day and after every software release, I am proud of the pages we launched feeling I played a little part in their accomplishment.
I am no longer a web developer, but I can spot a bad one a mile away. By the end of this post, you will be able to spot one too - at least up close.
Web Designer Vs. Web Developer
First things first - what is the difference between a web designer and a web developer?
A web developer makes web design a reality. They create back-end functionality and front-end user interface. They know and use programming languages like PHP, Python, Ruby and eat HTML and CSS for breakfast. Web developers usually curb web designers' enthusiasm bringing creativity in check with reality.
Make no mistake - you will need both web designers and web developers. I do recommend using an agency because they usually have both. That way, if the design is "out there" and developers complain, you can tell all of them to talk to each other and figure it out.
We are going to talk about web developers and not as much web designers. I am also going to focus on outsourcing web development to agencies. Dealing with in-house teams is usually pretty straightforward.
You and the web developer should understand and agree on the expectations. Do not leave the processes, interactions, deadlines, timelines, code of conduct to chance.
Read the Service Level Agreement (SLA) and Scope of Work (SOW) with great attention.
Do not accept any ambiguity around who owns what during or after the engagement. You should own your domain, your services (email, web hosting, backup, uptime monitoring, CMS, etc.) This means, you need to have "owner" access and your web developer should have "admin" access, which would allow him to administer your account, but not take ownership.
Another important account to own is your Analytics account, along with your paid search, social accounts, and any third party apps (for example, CrazyEgg, Unbounce, BuzzSumo, etc.) Even if your web developer sets them up for you, you should be listed as the owner. It is best that you keep track of all accounts you have and who has access to them and of what kind.
Communication is vital. It is often helpful to specify how and how often you and the web developer will be communicating, using which channels. Some people prefer phone calls; others - email or texts. Add milestones and checkpoints to projects with associated penalties if the deadlines are not met. Do not be surprised, however, if the web developer insists on accounting for times when you are not ready with content or decisions.
Read through confidentiality clause. It is important that the web developer will not disclose anything about you or your company without your permission. She should not use any data collected or accessible through the time of employment for anything but work product for you or your company. Even for an illustration for a blog post, with blur in place, they should have your permission to use the screenshots.
A couple of tips if you are just starting with your website. Your Content Management System (CMS) should not be proprietary. WordPress works for most. You might decide to pay for your own theme, but do not paint yourself into a corner if you decide to make a change later. Also, you will be limiting yourself to a few people who know this proprietary CMS, if you need to hire another web developer. This is one of the reasons I often recommend to go with a trusted hosting provider. Second main reason is security.
Of course, you can avoid all this by having your own legal documents that the web developer needs to sign. A quick consult with an attorney could save you many headaches later.
Is Your Web Developer All That?
Do not assume that your web developer knows what she is doing. I am sure you called their references and asked all the questions about what it was like to work with them. Trust, but verify.
Is the web developer technically competent? They might know HTML and CSS, but can they code by hand? Do they know how to register and maintain domains: registration, DNS configuration, email server setup, etc?
They also have to know basics of technical SEO - sitemaps, robots.txt, redirects, server responses (200, 301, 302, 404, 500 at least), how to check that the site is crawlable, knows how to read server logs, website loading speed, server up time, how to install analytics tagging, etc. More importantly, if they are not familiar with your framework and website platform, you are in for a steep learning curve.
"One trick pony" developer will not do you any good. It is possible that they would specialize in front-end or back-end development. But they should be able to do both. Front-end is more important since it deals with visitor interactions (downloading, filling out forms, signing up, filling out surveys, providing feedback, etc.) and user experience, graphical aspect of the site, and usability. But if back-end is sluggish and throws errors and monkey wrenches, the user experience suffers.
Avoid "the black box" developer - you give them a project, they disappear for a couple of months, and then come back with a result. Trust me, you are not going to like that result. Truth be told, I know several brilliant minds who do just that - disappear and come back with a masterpiece. These people are an exception, not the rule. Make sync-up meetings mandatory. Meet once a week or even several times a week at first. The more you talk, the faster you address problems.
Keep your eyes open for red flags. If the web developer you hired is unresponsive to your requests, it is not a good sign. Even if he is hiding from you because you keep micro-managing the project. Yes, believe me, you will micro manage. And yes, your web developer will get annoyed with you. But they should be able to either communicate better or adjust change management process. In some cases, your web developer might decide to work on a more interesting (read: high-paying) contract instead of your website. That is where clear deadlines and deliverables will be your friends.
Every project has a budget and pre-approved cost. If your web developer goes off and does unauthorized work, you will not be happy. Declare in advance that all extra work or change of scope needs to be approved.
Your web developer should be using analytics to understand what technology is the most popular on your website. He should come to you with suggestions on how to incorporate this information into website development. The web developer should be up-to-date on the latest trends and advancements. If he is stuck in the development style of the 80's, cutting off the mullet will not fix things. Get an innovator or roam the Internet with the dinosaurs.
Is training included in the contract? If not, you will be paying for every small change to your website. Who wants that? Insist that they train you on everything you or your staff can do without them, like posting blog articles or changing or adding pages. Know where header and footer reside and learn how to make edits to them. Your footer does not need to have a link to the web developer or the agency website.
Mediocre web developers do everything manually. Good web developers automate everything they can (reports, notifications, alerts, etc. but NOT page creation, link building or email outreach).
Run, if the web developer cannot speak your language. Nothing good will come out if you cannot understand a word they are saying. They need to be able to explain what they are doing on your level. When hiring, ask them to explain you something you already understand, like cookies, or browser cache. If they make little sense, throw a bunch of lingo at you, it is a clear sign you will be in a state of perpetual confusion while working with them. Bad deal all around.
Duck and cover, if there is no clear process. Web development is made for check lists, steps and processes. One of the most important ones is handling of bugs. There should be a clear process: what they need from you so they understand the issue and how long it will take them to fix it. What does "critical issue" mean to you and to them? Agree on the same definition. And while you are at it - what is "low priority"? How will they manage your website and requests? What is the response time?
Every self-respecting developer document their code. Of course, when you cut corners and rush, there is no time for comments in code and implementation documentation. This means, if you hand off the code to someone else, they will have to apply every cell of their brain to figure out what is going on. Be kind to your future self and insist on documentation. If I were you, I'd read it too for posterity.
We all know that cutting corners is bad. It is twice as bad when a web developer does it. Mainly, because it is hard to know right away that corner cutting is happening. Everything looks good even when the web developer does not use version control, does not do backups, does all changes on production servers, does not use formal Quality Assurance process. It is all good and dandy until it is not. The server crashes, the website gets hacked, a sneaky bug gets introduced - whatever - and you are paying through the nose to get it all back to a working order. Careless web developer makes everyone pay later, especially when they neglect or do not understand web security.
Does Your Web Developer Play Well With Others?
Any web developer should be able to work with other teams. We already discussed that she should be joined at the hip with web designers. Same should apply to your SEO, content producer, community manager, and, especially, analytics guy. All of them will need to request help from the web developer. Establish contact process and turn-around expectations for their requests.
If other team members deem the web developer unreliable, your website will suffer. Everyone, including the web developer, should be responsible for their deliverables, they should understand expectations, communicate well with others. Are they making everyone's life simpler or more complicated? If the web developer can only work on his own peg, there is no telling if it will fit in a hole that someone else is creating. Team collaboration is invaluable for success.
Finally, if your web developer turns out to be everything you do not want, seriously consider hiring a different one. There are plenty of excellent web developers you can choose from. There can be an end of your suffering. Do not bet your success on a dysfunctional relationship with a no good web developer. Find a better one. You will thank me later.
What Have We Learned?
1. Do not leave expectations unclear or undefined.
2. Do not be careless: own what's yours.
3. Do not assume the web developer or the agency know what they are doing.
4. Do not assume web development is too complicated for you to understand.
5. Do not be afraid to make a change.
How is your web developer relationship going?
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* Lead image adapted from y killerbetty21x