Ten Questions to Ask When Hiring a Development Shop
Interviewing a development shop for your digital project can feel like a nerve-racking task. But it doesn’t need to, as long as you’re equipped with the right questions. Here are the top 10 things that we think should be on your “stuff to ask” list. This list should help you avoid the first mistake in a web project, aka hiring the wrong shop.
1. How long have you been in business?
This question should give you an idea of how long they’ve been at it, and how many successful projects a shop has completed. Everyone needs to start somewhere but is your project something you want to put in the hands of a group without the experience required for it? If this is a critical project you may need the confidence a veteran team can provide. If you have a flexible budget or timeline, it may be a good time to try out a newer shop, they just may surprise you, plus you might get somewhat lower rates.
2. How many developers will you assign to this project?
This affects how long things will take, and can also give you an idea of where you stand priorities-wise with your prospective dev shop. If they can only commit one or two developers on your project, you may be a very small fish in their client pool. It’s not a bad thing, but it can impact your timeline. On the flip-side if a shop promises too many resources, they could be taking you for a ride, or at least creating inefficiencies. Typically an agile web app team might warrant somewhere between 3 and 9 members, including a project manager/lead.
3. How familiar are you with XYZ technology?
If you have specific technology needs for your project or are looking for specific integrations for your project, you will want to ask about those things. Do a little research beforehand so you can get a good gut feel from the prospect’s response on the technology. Ask a deep question that you know the answer to. If they are honest about not having much experience, this may not need to rule them out, but you need to be thoughtful about any such decision.
4. Have you completed any projects similar or with similar requirements to this one?
You are looking for familiarity with your vertical with this question. It's not a deal breaker if they haven’t worked in your industry, but it gives them a leg up since they have more built in knowledge. Knowledge of your industry is always a major plus.
5. What is the methodology for your process?
The first thing you’re looking for here is just that they have some intelligent sounding response which doesn’t seem to be made up on the spot during your meeting. Process is hugely important for successfully projects, so you want somebody who realizes that and has been thinking about and refining it for a long time. If you want to throw around some jargon, ask for their feelings on “Waterfall” versus “Agile”. Waterfall involves substantial upfront planning, sometimes to a fault. Agile involves iterative sprints, in which planning is spread out over a serial process interspersed with periods of heavy development. Waterfall is historically common for very large corporations and government agencies. It has more fixed bids and hard-set timelines. Many agencies will likely be using an agile style. Agile’s iterative process allows for new features to be discovered throughout the process and can have many advantages for efficiency and nimbleness. Often times in reality things end up being a hybrid between agile and waterfall processes. At the end of the day, you need something that works and that is consistent with your internal need.
6. Who is going to be our main contact?
Will they be a sales/account person or will they be a technical resource? Account managers can be great, but they usually lack the context or knowledge to explain what is going on with your project. In many cases, they will just say what it takes to make you happy. You need a contact that can have a frank conversation about where scope, budget, or timeline needs to change. Avoid a shop that does not have a technical person who is involved in the project as at least one of your primary point persons. In can be very helpful this person is also the project manager.
7. Will this project be done entirely in-house or are there any third-party vendors we need to be aware of?
This is a very important question to ask if the prospective shop’s main focus isn’t in development. Often times they don’t have the in-house resources to build much beyond a brochure style website. Sometimes they will tell you that they have an in-house development team, even when they intend to hire contractors. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you should make it clear that you want transparency about who is working on your project. It can be helpful to ask to meet the entire team who will be working on your project. This can be fine if they have a good partnership with a development shop but avoid a shop that tries too hard to hide this from you.
8. Is your team able to support the project after completion?
A shop that is unwilling to provide continued support for their product can be a red flag. It may indicate that they don’t have confidence in the stability and scalability of the code they write.
9. What is your disaster recovery plan?
This is good to ask an shop that will be part of your long term support and/or hosting solution. Website goes down, gets hacked, is unavailable, what are the proposed action steps? This will give you insight into the experience of the shop. If they can easily go through the steps of their disaster recovery plan without hesitating, that is a good sign.
10. What happens if the project runs over budget?
This is admittedly a loaded question. There are many factors that can cause a project to go over budget - but generally speaking with a good process, the proper tools, and savvy people it shouldn’t usually happen. So the purpose of asking this question is to gauge the confidence level of the answer. If they get cagey and defensive, that is a good sign that their projects often go over budget. A calm and thoughtful answer shows that they are confident enough in themselves, but also transparent enough to have an honest conversation about the possibilities.
Not all of these questions apply to every project or prospective vendor. But it should be a good start, especially if you are hiring your first development shop. This list is provided to help you weed out fly-by night shops and to match you with the right fit for your project. We want to see better built applications on the web - that’s a win for everybody.