Not a Developer? The Art of Remote Hiring – Starting Your Internet Business, Part 3

Not a Developer? The Art of Remote Hiring – Starting Your Internet Business, Part 3

In the 10 years I’ve worked as an online entrepreneur, I’ve never worked in the same city – let alone the same office – as a real bona fide backend developer… and I figured it was about time I shared what I’ve learned regarding how to partner, find, hire and develop your own remote development team. Read on.

It wasn’t, literally, until 2003 that I actually figured out how to edit HTML. Stress on the edit there, too – I never made it to actually coding the stuff and probably peaked somewhere in 2006.

Even worse for PHP and downright terrifying when it comes to databases.

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Ten years later, I’ve come up with the ideal hiring process!

I am, almost certainly, the least technically gifted WordPress company founder on the entire internet. How the heck did this happen? Well, it’s been a journey, through cajoling, begging and borrowing to constructing a pretty much systematic hiring process that we use today to put together some of the awesomely talented teams I get to work with day-in-day-out.

And in this post, I’d like to share that process with you the clumsy, sometimes painful, often illuminating and frequently intense means by which we arrived at it.

This is the third post in our five-part series about getting started with an online business.

Make the Effort, Contacts and Opportunities

Everyone starts somewhere, right?

Even if you’re the most talented code monkey out there, there was a day that you weren’t, right? And mostly you spent that time hanging out on forums, or their era-specific-equivalent. I know I did, and just in case I was about to forget it’s mostly documented here.

Which is fortunate as it clearly illustrates me desperately trying to help (that last one is particularly interesting to WordPress historians).

But the first steps, surely, of anyone without the skill set they require to get things done is to do a couple of things that I think I basically stumbled upon:

  • Find a place where people are working with the software you want to work with and hang out there, a lot
  • Really, really, give it a crack yourself and do so in a very public way… Put in the hours, make the effort
  • Help wherever and whoever you can
  • You’ll then be able to ask for help and meet people that can help you

And I was lucky enough to meet my co-founder Andrew there, without whom things might be a lot different because he knew, moreorless (which was a million miles away from me) how to code.

Now, you might have someone technically savvy to help you off the bat in the area you are interested in, that you can trust and you know wants to work on the same stuff as you. But you probably don’t. And you need them. Because this core person is the companion you need to take things to the next level.

Because you’re gonna need them for the next stage.

Waltzing / (in the Right Way)

One of the biggest problems (at least for me) in the early days when it came to finding people to work with was fundamental market economics.

I spent a heap of time desperately trying to find quality developers via the same forums I mentioned before, asking for recommendations and generally trying to find people (local folk were out of the question as I had neither an office nor enough money to pay anyone full time).

High demand + low supply = lots of dodgy expensive candidates…

… Which was terrifying. We went through absolute losers at an absolute rate of knots, while at the same time Andrew was far from able to effectively evaluate them as he was, more often than not, their friend.

But then enter the wonderful world of Elance and oDesk (both becoming Upwork) and down the line the Aussie… and the equation suddenly changed.

“BUT…” I hear you cry, “…you just end up with rubbish applications from dodgy firms that f*ck everything up!”

Not if you use the patented *Farmer Jobs Site Hiring Methodology™, which is as follows:

*not really patented

Step 1: Who’ll Come a-Developing with Me?

  1. Really work on a really good ad that describes what you are after and really sells your company to the potential staff member. Want an example? Check out our ad for support staff.
  2. Specify, very clearly, that you are only looking for individuals and not companies. I cannot emphasize this enough.
  3. In terms of cash, it’s up to you, but you’re not gonna get a decent developer for less than USD$15/hr @ 40hrs/week min. Just sayin’.
  4. There’s also another really neat thing you can do: Ask people, on application, to specify how much they are looking to make per hour in USD (or monthly, annually etc. Up to you). This is a great way to figure out if you are going to be able to come to an agreement or not down the line if things do work out, largely because a working arrangement has to be something both sides are happy with (and also, it allows you to judge their work against the value they put on it).
  5. Make it clear that you *will not accept any applications on that site* (say you are happy to pay and manage people though the site, but they have to go to the link provided to apply or they won’t be considered).
  6. On your site, don’t just ask them for a CV and intro, ask them to also complete a small task. In this case, we’re looking for a developer so let’s make it “Provide links to the source code of at least one plugin you’ve written” and “Tell us about a WordPress project you recently completed, what went well, what badly?” Make it exceptionally clear that if they do not provide these links, or answer the question in full, then you won’t get back to them.

Step 2: Up Jumped the Candidate

  1. Now, if someone has taken the time to come to your site and fill out your minor task and all that jazz, they are worth talking to and you have to treat them well (you would be amazed how many people screw up on this point). Send them a really nice email reply thanking them for their effort and letting them know about the next stages, which are: evaluation / free interview task / paid trial task / job, and ask them whether they are cool with that.
  2. Evaluate what they have done (this is where your core developer person comes in). As a rule I ask for a provisional out-of-10 rating at this point, based off a 5-10 minute stroll through the code they have provided. Pretty much anyone over 6 gets to go to the next round
  3. If they don’t make it, send them a nice email asking them to keep an eye open for future opportunities. This is, incidentally, also a good time to market your email list by getting them to subscribe ;)
  4. If they do make it, then set them up with a free interview task. I introduce it like this, paraphrased: “Rather than an interview that you’d prepare for, we’d like you to do a simple development task that should take you no more than 4-8hrs (unless you wanna do more). We’re giving everyone the same task. If you do it well enough we guarantee a paid trial task that includes a full interview.” You may have explained this in the first interview, too.
  5. Make sure this task is something your core person knows well. It can be something they’ve done, like adding a feature to a plugin, and be sufficiently challenging to not only evaluate their skills, but also evaluate their levels of keeness (we like keen).
  6. If they then complete this task, your core person should evaluate it in a bunch more detail (I usually say an hour) and provide written feedback and ideas that you can share with the candidate, as well as another score out of 10. Repeat #3 for anything under 6/10 but with many more thanks and much better feedback (these guys will often come back, too. Our current support manager tried 3 times, I think!). Anyone over 6/10 is , depending on cost, a serious prospect and you should give them a proper 1-2 week minimum paid trial task to see how they go.
  7. During this task you wanna pair them, as much as possible, with your core developer (or developers) and be checking in yourself. You should chat at length and get others to talk to them and as soon as you’ve figured they are a good fit and a talented developer… Hire them!


There’s probably a bunch of more subtle stuff about the hiring process that I’ve missed out here. Let me know in the comments if you have any specific questions.

But Please, Pay Attention to Your Hiring Page

Considering the above, you’re looking for someone or some people who are prepared to do a heap of work and put in a bunch of effort to join you in your quest to make awesome software.

Which is why you want your hiring page to be, basically, awesome.

It’s usually not a page that anyone pays that much attention to either; it’s really easy to overlook, but honestly you have to think of the page, and indeed the entire site (which is why it can be a good idea to have a dedicated site for this) as a critical part  of the process.

Looking for cracking designers (make it beautiful), great front-end developers (the code had better be just so), UX people (it’d better work like a dream)… If they see that you clearly don’t give a hoot about their area of expertise (and you really want people who are actually committed to their area of expertise), then they are a lot less likely to get in touch.

Also, words.

You can phrase your position description like 97% of all position descriptions: boring, detailed, dull and same-same. Or, you can make them stand out, catch people’s attention, by doing simple things like being entirely honest, writing like you speak, whacking up a video of you discussing the role or pretty much anything that helps the role stand out.

Give it a go, you’ll be surprised by the response.

Your Secret Weapon is Right in Front of You

And you don’t need to even spend a dime getting to your best candidates.

Because often they are right in front of you.

Either already actively using your product or engaging with what you do (I lose count of how many staff at WPMU DEV and Edublogs were originally users, suffice to say that it’s a lot) or they are subscribed to your email list.

BUT, and it’s a big but, they won’t know about the role unless you tell them.

So, fire up that email list you’ve “always been building” and promote the role to the people on that list. Encourage them to share it with friends and colleagues who might be interested in the role and even consider offering a “finders fee” (I personally wouldn’t bother if you have a big / engaged enough list, though).

They are already engaged with what you do, that’s half the battle. With a bit of luck you might not even need to bother with the job sites, although I’d recommend that you do because of the simple maths:

Your Demand + Large Supply / Farmer’s hurdles = Quality & affordable candidates

Good luck, and happy to expand on anything here or hear other advice in the comments!

This is the third post in our five-part series about getting started with an online business.

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