Sr. Front-end Developer, 15+ Years of Web Development on HubSpot and Various CMSs
September 5th, 2019
Imagine this: your company hired an outside agency to redesign your website. It has just launched, complete with content produced by your team.
Now, you’re looking to hire an IT professional who will be your in-house expert on this website. You’re looking for someone who can troubleshoot, manage the site, make small changes, and be a go-to source for any site administration questions — even though they had no hand in building the actual site itself.
As someone who might not be familiar with the ins and outs of website development and design, how can you evaluate applicants in a skill you don’t possess?
You’re going to want this person to be able to complete all day-to-day tasks, troubleshoot user problems, and probably make small developmental changes to the site.
If I were in that position, I would look for (and ask) the following.
Question 1: What experience do you have?
This is fairly obvious, but the answers you’re looking for might not be what you’d think.
Yes, you want to look for what they’ve been doing and for how long. You want to see if they’ve been working as a freelancer or in a more structured environment. You want to know if they’ve been part of a team or have been flying solo.
You want to see if they’ve been involved in large projects from start to finish, as this gives you an idea of follow-through and a broad knowledge base.
In this role you’re hiring for, you want someone you won’t have to micromanage, and who will have a good deal of flexibility. When you work with something someone else built, there is a lack of control, in some respects. (HubSpot, for example, is very much a closed system. You can control many aspects, but there’s a ton of underlying functionality that’s is already in place. Wordpress, by contrast, is more open.)
Whatever the system, you want to make sure that this candidate is able to play nicely with others. Are they going to be okay coming into a system they didn’t design and help update it? Because really, that’s what you’re asking them to do. Making sure their experience and their temperament matches that scenario is essential.
I don’t think it is at all crucial that this person have a familiarity with your company’s content management system (CMS). Modern-day systems can have major differences, of course, but they are not different enough that an experienced coder or developer would not be able to move between several.
They might not be able to learn your CMS in a day or two — it will take a little bit longer — but a lack of familiarity with your company’s system should not be a deal-breaker for any candidate.
Wrapped up in your survey of their experience should be an evaluation of whether this person would be a good fit for your company culture or not. Have they bounced around a lot? Do their references speak to adaptability and a team-first mentality? If you hire this person, they will be doing a lot of troubleshooting and problem solving. Do they have the right temperament for that?
They will have to explain technical details to people who are not familiar with the same terminology. Will they be ready both to run point on any issue that arises and be able to help someone with a personal tech struggle?
You will need them to do both.
Question 2: Do you have a portfolio of your work?
Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it is essential. A good portfolio shows both that they can develop pages that function, but also that they can keep the user experience in mind as they do.
Now, this should be a portfolio of online work. It should be current. Outdated pages possibly mean that the candidate could struggle with modern software.
I would ask them what CMS they've worked in, which would likely be reflected in the portfolio.
As a manager or hiring director, I would look through the portfolio to see two things: Consistency and Variety.
I know those sound contradictory. Let me explain.
A website needs to be comprised of pages with consistent design elements that make the user experience feel unified and intentional.
At the same time, a portfolio should show a variety of elements that demonstrate a range of complexity and creativity. I’d go ahead and ask how they solved for some of the more complex-looking elements you come across, too. This will speak to their creativity when it comes to solving problems.
Question 3: How would you improve our site?
To me, this is a sort of gatekeeper question that conveys a few things.
First off, this makes sure the candidate has done their homework. You want to know that they’ve poked around and that they’re comfortable expressing their opinions.
Second, the best answers to this question exhibit a growth mindset. You should always be wary of people who believe that further growth is not possible. A good answer to this question would acknowledge the strengths of the site while also noting creative and well-reasoned suggestions for improvement.
Lastly, being able to critique any website shows that you have both an aesthetic and analytical eye. Maybe the candidate talks about color choice or navigability. Their answer will give you a sense of what they prioritize, what they notice, and how they approach improvement.
In addition to the questions above, I would ask them to complete two quick tasks that would closely resemble things they’d have to do on the job. More and more, applications are as much about skills as they are about knowledge and background.
Perhaps a candidate has an impressive resume and offers exceptional answers to the interview questions. Without a practical component, it can be impossible to know if you’re hiring a person who can actually do the work.
To me, it is the task-based practicum that has more bearing on their ability to be high-functioning team member, although the interview questions are also essential.
Task 1: Give them a simple module to build
Put simply, think of a module like a section. Say your website is hosted by HubSpot. For this task, the candidate needs to build a small sample section of a website.
When I interviewed at IMPACT, I was asked to build a sample page for a fictional client.
However, you might not need them to build an entire page.
Imagine that the various elements of a page are each discrete from each other. There might be a logo slider, a testimonial section, a CTA, and others. I would ask them to create something — or adapt something that’s already been created — that fits with the rest of the page.
It’s important that this module is reusable and that it will work across all different screen sizes. Although they will be making it for the particular page at hand, you want this to be something that can be used over and over so that, when they start working, they don’t have to build a new module every time they need to add anything to a page.
This is just to get a feel for how comfortable they are in the setup. Do they understand how modular systems work? Do they understand how to template files?
Then, ask them to explain their module to you. Knowing how important soft skills are, the ability to explain a complex process to novices — without sounding patronizing or impatient — will tell you a great deal about how they’ll fit in.
Task 2: Give them a problem to solve
Let me start by explaining some assumptions. For this example, I am imagining that the third-party that built your website is not readily available, takes too long to get back to you, or it is too expensive to have them fix minor bugs. You’re hoping this new hire can be the person to perform small updates, fixes, tweaks, and other issues that come up.
Accordingly, give them something to fix, and see how quickly and efficiently they can solve the problem.
For example, imagine that there’s a choice to center text inside a module. Normally, that would be done with a simple toggle. Imagine that that toggle is not working. Ask your candidate to figure out the problem and fix it.
For someone who understands programming, that should be less than an hour of work (assuming the third party built the site in a way that’s easy to understand).
In any hiring situation, the questions you ask candidates are supposed to reveal their aptitude, work ethic, collegiality, and poise. When hiring someone whose skills are particularly hard for you to evaluate, plan carefully.
If you have hired an outside firm to design your website — and now you need someone internally to drive the bus, so to speak, consider the questions and tasks I’ve outlined here.
As always, trust your gut. Trust references. And see how adaptable, affable, and knowledgeable your finalists seem. With good answers to these questions and efficient, accurate completion of the tasks you give them, a candidate can demonstrate proficiency for what the job description requires.
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