The developer hunt: Recap from ONA14

Alley Interactive was at the Online News Association’s 2014 conference (ONA14)  this year — the premier gathering of digital journalists shaping the future of media. We were the only agency sponsor among a lineup of large companies, startups and universities on The Midway.

Director of Product Development, Josh Kadis, took to the Bullring on The Midway to discuss how Alley Interactive has worked to build and launch large websites for some of the leading publishers in the industry. He also spoke about the challenges faced by media organizations seeking to find and hire top developers.
Pairing up with ThoughtWorks Associate Consultant Program Head, Patrick Sarnacke, Josh made key points to an audience of producers, editors and newsroom heads:

1. Publishers are well-serviced by agencies. 

Don’t hire developers — hire a firm that provides developers. Hiring developers is difficult for any organization in any industry, especially small media companies with limited resources. A lot of smaller newsrooms and publishers are strapped for resources and small teams lack time for extensive training. Oftentimes building, paying for and retaining an in-house engineering team is more of a headache than a decision that will add value. 

.@kadisco says be realistic about what the people you hire can do because the person who can do everything is expensive. #ona14devhunt

— Heather Bryant (@HBCompass) September 25, 2014

2. If you’re thinking about hiring an in-house developer, you have to think about building a team. 

If you’re a smaller newsroom, you’re competing against organizations (startups to large technology companies) with a lot more money. You need to be able to inspire a candidate. Leverage your journalistic mission — it’s your advantage. Also, be sure advertising and editorial teams are on the same page as you’re building out your development team. 

3. Classic developer archetypes may not be what your newsroom really needs. 

Josh sees three developer roles and areas diverging, particularly in the newsroom, and this third developer archetype is especially valuable for media organizations. Josh calls it a “backend-of-frontend” developer.

There are developers who can “design-in-browser” (hybrid of traditional designer and traditional frontend developer) and there are backend developers (who can handle server-side code in multiple languages/platforms plus build and deploy tools to improve team efficiency). But you might actually be looking for someone who is “backend-of-frontend.” This is a developer who can build JS apps, data visualizations and integrate third party scripts — especially for ad products. They are also experts on using browser developer tools to optimize performance. 

4. Evaluate a developer candidate by closely reviewing their code. 

For most publishers with relatively small in-house teams, a developer must be able to step in and push code to production by day three. If you need to evaluate a candidate’s ability, just look at GitHub. Is the developer active in any open source projects? Did the developer include comments that make it easy to follow the code (is it well-documented)? Have other developers review their code samples.