9 Questions to Ask When Running a Reference on a Developer

by | Mar 8, 2019

Hiring the right developer is critical to the success of any digital product. Software developers have a wide range of competencies, so it’s essential to hire coders with the right skills, experience, and attitude to work well with your team and your business. Many talented developers will have long resumés and won’t be shy about having you call up former clients or employers, but asking reference questions poses its own set of challenges. If you’re thinking about hiring a freelance developer, read up on some of the pros and cons of the freelance arrangement. In this post, we’ll outline some of the important questions to ask when hiring a developer, as well as some general rules for running a reference on candidates with specialized skills.

When running a reference, it’s a good idea to adopt a conversational tone that encourages transparency and thoroughness, and it makes sense to keep reference questions open-ended. A reference is an opportunity to get authentic information from a primary source, helping you get a clearer picture of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. The technical nature of software development means these questions often need to be a little more specific than they would be for some other positions, but they perform the same fundamental function – helping you decide on the best candidate for your needs. If you don’t know what you’re looking for in a development hire, check out our quick guide to the different types of software developers.

When asking questions about a potential hire, you can often break down the criteria for onboarding into “soft” skills like flexibility, teamwork, and communication, and “hard” skills, such as particular platforms or frameworks that your app project may require.


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1. What role did the candidate play in your organization?

This is a relatively straightforward, non-technical question, which is why it’s at the top of our list. It’s more specific than simply asking about the position, because it prompts the candidate’s reference to consider their entire contribution to the team as opposed to their title. Additionally, asking about a candidate’s role in a previous engagement can help provide detail on their experience, giving you a better understanding of the candidate’s capabilities and strengths. If the candidate’s previous role sounds similar to your needs, it’s a sign that they could be a good fit.


2. What were some of the candidate’s accomplishments in your organization?

Asking this rhetorically positive question fulfills two main functions of a reference. For one, it encourages the reference to think and respond positively and qualitatively. By encouraging them to phrase responses this way, you’ll get a more tangible picture of the candidate’s abilities, making it easier for you to see how they might fit into your project. Second, it frames the reference in terms of deliverables, which are objective and observable, lending credibility and authenticity to the reference’s responses.


3. What challenges did the candidate overcome in the project?

Specific anecdotes are an excellent way to learn about a potential hire’s approach to their particular tasks. By asking about times the candidate struggled, you can also gain a sense of their problem-solving and analytical skills, which are especially fundamental to software development. A strong candidate with a good reference will certainly have examples of hiccups in the development cycle that they inventively resolved, so this question can also be useful for figuring out the referrer’s technical aptitude.


4. What were some of the candidate’s preferred tools?

Software developers have an extensive set of applications, frameworks, and development environments from which to choose. In the industry, these different tools are referred to as a technology stack. When you’re hiring a developer, you should make sure that they’re comfortable using the required software packages for your project. By asking which technologies they’ve used successfully, you’ll know if they’re a good fit for your project and gain a broader sense of the candidate’s competencies.


5. How did the candidate perform under pressure?

The development lifecycle can be unpredictable. Most software teams work with specific, rigid methodologies based around deadlines to get ahead of delays, bugs, and other complications. Before hiring a developer, it’s a good idea to make sure they’ll keep up with the pace of your project; in general, a developer that has performed well in critical situations will be a good hire.


6. What environment did the candidate work best in?

This question is good for getting a sense of the candidate’s preferences and where they fit into your team’s goals. If a potential developer prefers to work in quiet and isolation, they might not be a great member of a collaborative team, but could provide a solid contribution to a distributed development project. If the candidate’s environmental preferences match up with your team’s, they may be more likely to work well together right off the bat. Setting and surroundings make a huge difference in the software development lifecycle, so it’s important to take them into account in the hiring process.


7. How did the candidate work with team members and management?

Even if they’ll be working remotely, it’s preferable to find someone with strong team and communication skills, like being receptive to feedback and being open to ongoing communication and updates. This question should also prompt the referrer to give anecdotal evidence from which you can draw your own conclusions instead of a straightforward evaluation. The best answer to this also depends on your preferences and the nature of your project. If you’re just hiring one developer for a simple app, it’s probably less important than if you’re interviewing for a full-stack team.


8. Tell me about a project the candidate was involved in from start to finish.

By shifting the focus from the candidate’s qualifications to their work and achievements, this request encourages transparent answers. As opposed to providing evaluative details, the reference is more likely to be completely free of bias and give you a better sense of the candidate’s work experience. If the project they were involved in resembles your goals from a technical and logistical perspective, the candidate could have the ability to build on their previous experience to create an exceptional product for your business or project.


9. Why did the candidate leave this position?

This question can provide insight into the candidate’s general attitude and expectations. For many freelancers, they’ll have left a position when a task is finished, but if the reasons are more complicated, you’d likely want to dig into that back story, and even speak with that former client if it’s possible to understand what went wrong and how it was resolved.


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These nine questions are useful for gaining insight into a candidate’s work style, but they won’t necessarily tell you everything. You should generally tailor your questions for the specific position and use these as a guide; there are more general rules and best practices for references available online.

References can’t provide a complete picture of a candidate’s skills and experience by themselves. They complement the rest of the interview and hiring process by consulting an outside source, but the relationship that really matters is that between you and your development hire.

In addition to a thorough reference, it’s important to conduct a comprehensive interview that covers soft skills, hard skills, experience and preferences. An important part of hiring a developer is reviewing his or her code. You could do this by reading source code from a previous project if it’s available, or assign a case interview in which the candidate writes code from scratch. If you don’t code, ask a friend or associate with software experience. Evaluating a potential hire’s code is arguably the most critical and insightful part of the interview, and definitely shouldn’t be skipped.

If you’re looking for options and quotes for your development project, we’d be happy to connect you with an app specialist from the Hatch Apps team to learn more about your project. Schedule a time here.

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