A minimal set of skills for software development contractors

“Our company is specialized in providing professional software development for our customers”. That’s a nice statement to inspire your customers with. The only problem with it is: every contractor claims to be professional. You wouldn’t even get a project if you admitted to be “unprofessional”. But how can a customer, mostly unaware of the subtleties in the field of software development, decide if his contractor really works professionally? A lot of money currently spent on projects doomed from the beginning could be saved if the answer was that easy. But there’s a lower limit of skills that have to be present to pass the most minimal litmus test on developer professionality. This blog article gives you an overview about the things you should ask from your next software development contractor.

First a disclaimer: I’ve compiled this list of skills with the best intentions. It is definitely possible to develop software without some or even any of these skills. The development can even be performed in a very professional manner. So the absence of a skill doesn’t reveal an unprofessional contractor without fail. And on the other side, the clear presence of all skills doesn’t lead to glorious projects. The list is a rule of thumb to distinguish the “better” contractor from the “worse”. It’s a starting ground for the inexperienced customer to ask the right questions and get hopefully insightful answers.

Let’s assume you are a customer on the lookout for a suitable software development contractor, maybe a freelancer or a company. You might take this list and just ask your potential developer about every item on it. Listen to their answers and let them show you their implementation of the skill. In my opinion, the last point is the most crucial one: Don’t just talk about it, let them demonstrate their abilities. You won’t be able to differentiate the best from the most trivial implementation at first, but that’s part of the learning process. The thing is: if the developer can readily demonstrate something, chances are he really knows what he is talking about.

The minimal skills

The list is sorted by their direct impact on the overall development quality. This includes the quality perceived by you (the customer), the end user and the next developer who inherits the source code once the original developer bails out. This doesn’t mean that the topics mentioned later are “optional” in the long run.

Source code management system

This tool has many different names: source code management (SCM), revision control system (RCS) and version control system (VCS) are just a few of them. It is used to track the changes in the code over time. With this tool, the developer is able to tell you exactly which change happened when, for what version and by whom. It is even possible to undo the change later on. If your developer mentions specific tool names like Git, Subversion, Perforce or Mercurial, you are mostly settled here. Let him show you a typical sync-edit-commit cycle and try to comprehend what he’s telling you. Most developers love to brag about their sophisticated use of version control abilities.

Issue tracking

An issue or bug tracker is a tool that stores all inquiries, bug reports, wishes and complaints you make. You can compare it to a helpdesk “trouble ticket” system. The issue tracker provides a todo list for the developer and acts as an impartial documentation of your communication with the developer. If you can’t get direct access to the issue tracker on their website, let them demonstrate the usage by playing through a typical scenario like a bug report. At least, the developer should provide you with a list of “resolved” issues for each new version of your software.

Continuous integration

This is a relatively new type of tool, but a very powerful one. It can also be named a “build server” or (less powerful) a “nightly build”. The baseline is that your project will be built by an automated process, as often as possible. In the case of continuous integration, the build happens after each commit to the source code management system (refer to the first entry of this list). Let your developer show you what happens automatically after a commit to the source code management system. Ask him about the “build time” of your project (or other projects). This is the time needed to produce a new version you can try out. If the build time is reasonably low (like a few minutes), ask for a small change to your project and wait for the resulting software.

There is a fair chance that your developer not only talks about “continuous integration”, but also “continuous delivery”. This includes words like “staging”, “build queue”, “test installation”, etc. Great! Let them explain and demonstrate their implementation of “continuous delivery”. You’ll probably be impressed and the developer had another chance to brag.

Verification (a.k.a. Testing)

This is a delicate question: “Will the source code contain automated tests?”. Our industry’s expectancy value for any kind of automated tests in a project is still dangerously near absolute zero. If you get blank stares on that question, that’s not a good sign. It doesn’t really matter too much if the answer contains the words “unit test”, “integration test” or even “acceptance test”. Most important again: Let your developer show you their implementation of automated tests in your (or a similar) project. Make sure the continuous integration server (refer to entry number three) is aware of the tests and runs them on every build. This way, everything that’s secured by tests cannot break without being noticed immediately. You probably won’t have to deal with reappearing bugs in every other version, a symptom known as “regression”.

Your developer might be really enthusiastic about testing. While every developer hour costs your precious money, this is money well spent. Think of it as an insurance against unpredictable behaviour of your software in the future. Over the course of development, you won’t notice these tests directly, as they are used internally for development. Talk to your developer about some form of reporting on the tests. Perhaps a “test coverage” report that accompanies the issue list (refer to the second entry)? Just don’t go overboard here. A low test coverage percentage is still better than no tests.

If your developer states that he is “test driven”, that’s not a psychological condition, but a modern attempt to test really thoroughly. Let him demonstrate you the advantages of this approach by playing through an implementation cycle of a small change to your project. It may foster your confidence in the insurance’s power.

Project documentation

Every software project above the trivial level contains so many details that no human brain is able to remember them all after some time. Your developer needs some place to store vital information about the project other than “in the code” and “in the issue tracker”. A popular choice to implement this requirement is providing a Wiki. You probably already know a Wiki from Wikipedia. Think about a web-based text editing tool with structuring possibilities. If you can’t access the documentation tool yourself, let your developer demonstrate it. Ask about an excerpt of your project documentation, perhaps as a PDF or HTML document. Don’t be too picky about the aesthetics, the main use case is quick and easy information retrieval. Even handwritten project documentation may pass your test, as long as it is stored in one central place.

Source code conventions

Nearly all source code is readable by a machine. But some source code is totally illegible by fellow developers or even the original author. Ask your developer about their code formatting rules. Hopefully, he can provide you with some written rules that are really applied to the code. For most programming languages, there are tools that can check the formatting against certain rules. These programs are called “code inspection tools” and fit like hand in glove with the continuous integration server (refer to the third entry). Some aspects of source code readability cannot be checked by algorithms, like naming or clarity of concepts. Good developers perform regular code reviews where fellow developers discuss the code critically and suggest improvements. The best customers explicitely ask for code reviews, even if they won’t participate in them. You will feel the difference in the produced software on the long run.

Community awareness

Software development is a rapidly advancing profession, with game-changing discoveries every other year. One single developer cannot track all the new tools, concepts and possibilities in his field. He has to rely on a community of like-minded and well-meaning experts that share their knowledge. Ask your developer about his community. What (technical) books did he read recently? What books are known by the whole development team? As a customer, you probably can’t tell right away if the books are worth their paper, but that’s not the main point of the question. Just like with tests, the amount of books read by the average programmer won’t make a very long list. If your development team is consistent enough to share a common literature ground, that’s already worth a lot.

But it’s not just books. Even books are too slow for the advancement! Ask about participation in local technical events, like user groups of the programming language of your project. What about sharing? Does the developer share his experiences and insights? The cheapest way to do that is a weblog (you’re reading one right now). Let him show you his blog. How many articles are published in a reasonable timespan, what’s the feedback? Perhaps he writes articles for a technical magazine or even a book? Now you can ask other developers for their opinion on the published work. You’ve probably found a really professional developer, congratulations.

There is more, much more

This list is in no way exhaustive in regard to what a capable developer uses in concepts, skills and tools. This is meant as the minimal set, with a lot of room for improvement. There are compilations of skills like the Clean Code Developer that go way beyond this list. Ask your developer about his personal field of interest. Hopefully, after he finished bragging and techno-babbling for some time, you’re convinced that your developer is a professional one. You shouldn’t settle for less.

8 thoughts on “A minimal set of skills for software development contractors

  1. Like the list. Personally I prefer to ask questions like “Do you know Resharper/Coderush?”, “Do you know NCrunch/Mighty Moose?” “What are you using, what’s best?” And remember: Looking up left means lying🙂
    One thing regarding “Source Code Convention”. I would also mention “Code Quality” as a general term here, and static code analysis tools. They come very handy when checking conventions.

  2. Sometimes versioning does not work – especially if you’re developing extensions for a CMS, where you have to install extensions directly from the interface, and not just create files and then commit them to SVN.

  3. @cleancodestyle: Your questions are related to specific tools suited for VC and not applicable to general programming and software development. I don’t think this is what Daniel meant with this post.

    • Hi Matthias,
      you are partly correct with your comment. My list was meant platform and language agnostic, that’s true. But when the target platform is well-defined for both parties (like the toolset for VC), why not lower the level of abstraction and ask for specific tools. You can always proceed from these answers and ask for the more general approach. But when all you need is a VC clean coder, why insist on knowledge of other platforms?
      I have to admit that knowledge in only one technology stack will not be sufficient when working with us, though. This is where you are perfectly on spot.

  4. I assume that the majority of your readers are developers themselves. Thus I’m afraid the article won’t reach as many to-be-customers as it should. That being said, I really liked the list.

    In your experience, what percentage of customers do actually care for the technical aspects (code quality, unit tests) and not only the finished software?

    • Hi zillus,
      you are right, the target audience for this blog as a whole are developers. But if every developer reading this reflected on his work from the customer’s point of view, I’ve reached a lot of customers indirectly.
      As for the percentage of customers, I can only speak from my experience: Most will care over time. Not in detail and with the depth outlined in this post, but in consequence: You can modify the software without regression bugs years after the initial development? The software still runs with the new version of X? Even the most junior developer in the team can make changes to the software? Cost of change is still roughly the same as initial development? These are all aspects of quality work that customers do care about – years after the fact.

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