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Should you hire a developer? Probably not.

I was just listening to This Week in Venture Capital, which is a great show for business even if you’ll never play in the VC world.  Mark Suster was interviewing Tracy DiNunzio of RecycledBride and talking about the challenges she faced when launching her business. 

The Problem

Tracy is a former artist, she has no technical background.  The business she wanted to build was a website marktplace.  She had a problem that a lot of entrepreneurs and small businesses face, how do I find a programmer and get this thing built?

Here are some of the most common approaches businesses take to solve this problem: 

  1. You can try to find a technical cofounder/business partner and convince them to work for equity. Hopefully their ownership stake is enough to motivate them to do good work.
  2. You can hire a programmer (either as an employee or contractor) and pay them out of pocket to do the job.
  3. You can outsource to India.
  4. You can work with an agency or custom software development house that will probably charge you a pretty high rate.

Tracy’s First Solution

So which option did Tracy go with?? Number 2, she hired her own contractor.  She found someone who seemed like they knew what they were doing, she paid them a lot of money, they spent a lot of time working on her website, and she got….. nothing.  She spent precious time, money, and energy on a contractor that she identified and hired and they produced nothing she could use.

I wish this was an uncommon occurrence.  But over the years I’ve seen many, many businesses who find themselves in a similar situation.  The business needs some software built.  They find a developer, either through a friend, relative, or their own interview process.  They hire that person, work with them for months, or in some cases years, and the result… frustration, a series of excuses and promises, and a lot of lost time and money. 

Why Does This Happen?

Why does this happen?  In most cases it’s simple.  Programmers are not commodities.  Programming is more art than engineering.  As a result, a good programmer is not 20% more productive than an average programmer, they’re 800% more productive.  And a bad programmer isn’t just 20% less productive, they probably will never ship code at all.  I’m not kidding there really is that wide a gap.

So there’s a massive difference between the output of a good programmer and a bad programmer.  Now here’s the really important part.  If your core business isn’t programming, you can’t tell the difference between the good programmer and the bad.  You just can’t.  They all know more about programming than you do.  They all talk in the same barely comprehensible tech-speak.  There’s just no way for you to tell them apart until it’s 6 months later, you’ve spent 26K on them, and they’re telling you for the 4th time that they’re really close and it’s just going to be another 2 weeks.

Tracy’s Second Solution

So back to Tracy.  She spent a lot of money and time on a developer that never produced, so what did she try next?  She went for the most expensive option, she hired an agency. 

Now on the surface this seems like the most expensive option, but I don’t really think it is.  To me, the most expensive option is the one where you spend your time, money, and opportunity and get nothing.  By that metric, the relatively cheap contractor who never produced cost Tracy much more than the expensive agency that produced a real website that she could build her business on (check out

Why was the agency option successful? Because they do development as their core business.  They can tell a good programmer from the bad, and they’ve already hired the good ones.  BTW, good programmers want to work with other good programmers. They don’t want to be the only developer working at a company that doesn’t understand programming.  That’s another reason why the agency will attract the cream of the crop, and your business will attract the… stuff that’s not cream.

The Take Away

So, to sum it all up.  Developers are not commodities.  You can’t buy one off the shelf and expect they’ll produce the same result as any other “good” developer.  If you don’t do programming for a living, and you decide that you’re going to trust yourself to identify and hire a “good” programmer, even as a contractor, you’re starting down a path that likely will end very badly. Remember, that the most expensive option is the one where you spend time and money and get nothing. 

In many cases, working with an “expensive” agency is your most affordable option.

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