Need to hire a programmer? Make sure they have a good portfolio.

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Note: this post is written from the perspective of an employer.

With how important technology is in business these days, it's becoming increasingly common for small business owners to hire programmers. Whether it's for a small freelance project or a full-time engineering position, chances are good that you'll find yourself staring at a stack of programmer resumes at some point in your career. The problem is that if you don't have a technical background, it can be pretty confusing trying to figure out who the good programmers actually are.

Well worry not. Because you see, I'm a programmer. Many of my friends are programmers. Most of my classmates in college and coworkers at old jobs were programmers. I've been around enough programmers that I can offer a little advice for when it's time for you to hire a lovable tech nerd. If you have no idea how to evaluate tech talent, just ask to see everyone's online portfolio. The programmer with the best portfolio website (in your opinion) gets the job.

The reason this works so well for programmers is because any good programmer should be capable of creating a decent website from start to finish. That's probably the whole reason you want to hire them in the first place. And best of all, you can evaluate a portfolio website without any technical knowledge. If a programmer can build a portfolio that impresses you, then they'll also probably be able to build software that impresses your customers.

Here are just a few of the things you can get a feel for by looking at a programmer's website:

  • Technical ability - If you're hiring someone to build a website for you, then the fact they built one for themselves should be good enough. If you're hiring for a more advanced project, make sure the programmer's site demonstrates something that seems roughly similar to what you're expecting.
  • Design ability - Some programmers might say "but I'm not a designer". Well, most small businesses can't hire a designer and a programmer, so you'd better make sure you get someone that can do a little of both. Just make sure you like the way the portfolio site looks and that it's easy to use.
  • Writing ability - Communication is a big problem for a lot of programmers. If the writing on a programmer's website isn't clear, then chances are they'll have problems understanding the project specs and working with you throughout the process.
  • Initiative - You'll run into some programmers that don't have an online portfolio. There's no excuse for this. You want to hire someone that loves building software and that will take the initiative to make your project shine. If they weren't motivated enough to build their own site, then why in the world would you trust them to build yours?
  • Body of work - I don't know why I'm listing this last. It's probably the most important thing on this list. A portfolio lets you see projects a programmer has already worked on. This describes their experience in a way that no resume can. If you can demo software they've already built, then that's pretty much all you need to know

I'm not saying this is a foolproof system. A programmer might have a great portfolio and then end up being a horrible hire, but I think that the portfolio is by far the most reliable sign of their technical ability. It doesn't matter where they went to college, what their GPA was, what programming languages they use (unless your project requires a certain language), or how many years of experience they have. If the portfolio looks good, then it follows that the work they do for you will look good too.

Bonus tip: If you're looking to hire a full time programmer, you should try to hire them as a freelancer first. If they perform well as a freelancer, then bring them on full time.

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