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Straightforward Interview Questions to ask Web Developers

POSTED 10/28/2015
By Lee Bob Black

In May, SkilledUp published findings about Web developer job satisfaction related to a market research survey of over 300 Web developers. Our friends at Creative Bloq published a sister piece about Web developer skills.

As part of our research, we spoke with two Web developers, Paul Boag and Jacob Gube, about challenges they faced every day. During our conversations, it sometimes felt like we were interviewing them for a job. With that in mind, we’ve put together this short list of nontechnical questions that hiring managers can ask coders.

(For technical interview questions to ask Web developer candidates, check out our lists for HTML, HTML5, CSS, Swift, JavaScript, Ruby, and Ruby on Rails.)

Ask: What are some of your best soft skills?

It’s difficult to nail down an all-encompassing definition of soft skills to satisfy everyone. Soft skills are generally thought of as being synonymous with people skills. Think of them as personal attributes that relate to an individual’s ability to interact with others.

When hiring developers, Paul Boag — who is not only a Web developer but also a digital user experience consultant, author, and speaker — looks for the following:

  • Problem solvers: People who seek to solve problems with the minimum amount of effort. They don’t design overly complex solutions.
  • Good communicators: A developer has to work closely with lots of different specialists who don’t necessarily understand what a developer does. It’s important that developers can clearly communicate their role and their perspective on a problem.
  • Obsessional tinkerers: A developer should always be experimenting, learning, and trying new things.

When hiring developers, Jacob Gube, a front-end developer who writes articles and guides for Six Revisions, looks for the following:

  • Willingness to learn: Web developers will continually find themselves outside their comfort zones. And when they finally become comfortable with their skills, the entire technology landscape changes, and they will have to learn new concepts, techniques, and best practices to adapt to the new environment. People who have a never-ending desire to improve themselves will do extremely well in this work.
  • Passion: People who love what they do will be more dedicated, will take longer to tire of the day’s work, will go the extra mile to get the job done, and will have great pride in their work.
  • Great communicators: The best developers have excellent interpersonal skills. They can convey their ideas and concepts in ways their clients can understand. They get along with people, they can motivate their colleagues to achieve better work (often without realizing it), and they’re just awesome people to have around in general.

For more perspective on what soft skills every developer should have, read Chris Meier’s article about nine soft skills:

  • Communication
  • Listening
  • Adaptability
  • Teamwork
  • Attitude
  • Work ethic
  • Judgment
  • Critical thinking
  • Ego management

Ask: Who do you follow?

This isn’t a question solely about what Tweets your job candidate retweets, or what Facebook updates they like. This is about what programming blogs they can’t wait to read and what code repositories they keep track of.

“There’s a lot to be learned from those working on the cutting edge of Web development,” Boag said. “Many of the techniques they discuss are not immediately applicable on commercial sites. But they ensure you always keep your eyes on the horizon.”

Ask: What’s hard about coding?

In a way, this is a variation of the following standard, albeit clichéd, interview question: What are your weaknesses? Both questions dare the interviewee to talk about what holds him back and what he’s not good at.

Boag said it’s sometimes difficult for him to balance pragmatism with quality. “There are so many different ways of solving a problem,” he said, “and it can often be hard to tell what is the most appropriate solution in a given situation. Should you be spending time and effort producing high-quality code that is easy to maintain and offers outstanding performance? Or should you be taking a quick and dirty approach that gets the job done and keeps costs down?”

Ask: How do you balance client needs, which often need to be addressed quickly, with writing reliable, readable code?

The quicker a Web developer writes, the quicker updates can be released to clients. But this comes with a trade off: the risk of releasing untested, buggy code. Asking a Web developer about her decision-making about delivering what clients need “yesterday” will reveal a wealth of information about her. If she’s willing to go the extra mile to make clients happy, then great. But if this comes at the expense of undocumented code, improper naming conventions, and so forth, then that’s another story.

Boag said, “One of the biggest dangers of a Web developer is to get distracted by the latest fad or technique. You always need to consider long-term sustainability and the need to make your code as accessible to as many people as possible.”

Ask: Do you think Web developers need college degrees?

Of the Web developers we surveyed, 81% said they hired on skills, not education levels. Furthermore, 72% said that a computer science (CS) degree isn’t necessary to go into Web development.

Web Developer Skills vs. College Degree

Source: 2015 SkilledUp “Web Developer Survey”

Boag, a self-taught Web developer whose been programming since the 1990s, said a computer science degree is not necessary to succeed in Web development. “Most talented Web developers I know have no formal qualifications,” he said. “It’s about the quality of your work, ability to operate as part of the team, and working methodology that matters.”
Gube, who regularly takes Treehouse, Code School, and Codecademy courses to brush up on techniques or to learn something new, also said a computer science degree isn’t necessary. However, “it can definitely help, especially with fundamentals and advanced programming concepts,” he said.

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