Want a great developer? Stop obsessing over resumes and share a falafel

Torri Donley

If you Google “freelance developer vetting process,” you’ll be bombarded with more than a quarter million results. Quite a few suggestions out there… Most of the advice follows the same general themes: These screening tips are all useful, but something important is missing: the “Falafel Test.” Let me explain. Businesses […]

If you Google “freelance developer vetting process,” you’ll be bombarded with more than a quarter million results.

Quite a few suggestions out there…
Quite a few suggestions out there…

Most of the advice follows the same general themes:

These screening tips are all useful, but something important is missing: the “Falafel Test.”

Let me explain.

Businesses can’t afford to be wrong when it comes to hiring developers. Sinking precious time and hard-earned money into finding a freelance developer — who turns out to be pompous, with poor email etiquette — is devastating. It’s like ordering that “perfect” pair of jeans online, only to discover that they’re itchy and ill-fitting.

Make no mistake: quality is crucial.

But writing great code is only one aspect of an all-star developer. I know you may be skeptical about that idea (please don’t close this tab), but give me a few more seconds, and consider this:

Experience and skills are just the starting point.

You need a human being.

A human being you actually look forward to speaking with and who can restore your faith in freelance developers.

But as many project managers find out the hard way, a resume doesn’t always convey this sought-after humanity.

That’s where the “Falafel Test” comes in. Here’s what it is:

The Falafel Test is an informal 30-minute meeting where you and your prospect enjoy a falafel — virtually or not — before you mention a single line of code. Startups tend to put the cart in front of the horse when hiring developers — but the Falafel Test keeps the cart right where it’s supposed to be: safely behind the horse.

Mmm… falafel
Mmm… falafel

So, what exactly can you learn from a Falafel Test, a Pizza Test, or a Taco Test (depending on what food you like)? Moreover, what are the top developer traits that are often conveniently edited out of resumes?

Let’s take a look.

What does the developer do when they’re not building websites?

Remember the addictive smartphone game, Flappy Bird?

I once worked with a developer who coded his own version of the game, but with dinosaurs instead of birds — just for fun.

The game was hilarious (and equally addictive as the original).

Credit: Flappy Bird
Credit: Flappy Bird

You’re probably thinking, Who cares? That has nothing to do with building websites.

But side projects like these are often a window into a developer’s willingness to take initiative.

You might worry that building an app on the side would distract the developer, but truthfully it’s a sign that the developer is hungry.

Getting to know what a developer does with their free time can also tell you a lot about their depth of personality. Hiring great coders is important, but you also want to collaborate with interesting people, too.

You might be torn between two equally qualified candidates. But if you discover one is planning to run across the country or start a cooking channel on YouTube, you know who’s going to get the nod.

Do they truly understand what your business is about?

Freelance developers often fall into a habit of saying “yes” to working with businesses they don’t truly comprehend — understandably so. They want work, and don’t want to disqualify themselves with the slightest indication that they don’t know what they’re getting into.

But the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality almost always fires back on both parties.

Trust me.

The blame for this communication gap usually falls on the developer, but in reality, it’s a two-way street.

As a project manager, you must realize that your developer is going to have a tough time reaching their potential without a close grip on your startup.

  • Do they understand your brand values?

  • Are they familiar with your tone of voice?

  • Can they define who your target audience is?

If not, you’ve got to bring them up to speed before you bury them in work.

Freelance developers need to understand code and the nuances of the business they’re contracting for — something that can only be ensured via a face to face conversation over, say, a falafel.

How’s their email etiquette?

Now let’s say you’ve covered the first part, and you think you’ve found your dream developer.

They have all the skills and experience to make them a perfect fit for your team.

But you start exchanging emails… and something is wrong, very wrong: their emails look like they’ve been sent by an angry fourth grader.

Maybe they take too long to respond; maybe their emails are riddled with typos; or maybe they’re just downright rude. Contrast these two responses to a Falafel Test invitation:

ok what time? and i am recieving payment for the time right?

Hello! I’d be honored to join you for a falafel. I’m excited about getting to know each other. What’s a good time/location that fits your schedule?

If your “dream candidate” sends curt, erroneous emails to you — the person paying them — how do you think they’re going to interact with other team members? A developer might be able to write pristine code, but if he or she can’t write a coherent email, you’re in for big trouble.

Vetting the email etiquette of your candidates isn’t about being a grammar stickler. After all, they’re writing code, not novels. It’s about ensuring they can deliver clear messages and participate in nuanced discussions without sounding foolish — something you need to find out sooner rather than later.

Are they a honey badger?

Let’s take a moment to discuss a skunk-like mammal called mellivora capensis, otherwise known as the honey badger. Wait what, from falafel to honey badgers? Yes, but I promise it makes sense.

These animals are thick-skinned, literally.

Honey badgers can survive arrows, spears, and even snake venom. But they’re not just tough — they’re also cunning. Honey badgers are one of the few animals that use tools to get what they need.

Your freelance developer needs both of these traits — thick skin and a nimble brain — to thrive. But those can’t be conveyed in a resume or portfolio. Sure, they might describe themselves as “open to criticism” or “a quick learner.” But the only way to find out for sure is to sit down face to face and justify those descriptions.

First things first: your developer needs to check their ego at the door. Ask them to tell a story about a time their work was challenged, and how they responded. If you sense that he or she is easily offended by criticism and thinks their way is the only way, move on.

On the other hand, your developer needs to be quick witted. Startups are known to pivot on a dime, and the developer must be able to pivot just as quick. To gauge this trait, ask what they do to stay cool under pressure or how they manage frequently-changing requests.

Great resumes don’t always beget great developers

As a startup founder, your to-do list grows longer by the minute. As deadlines loom, you might be tempted to jump the gun on hiring developers.

Of course, freelancers are a lifesaver when you get a sudden influx of work or if you can’t squeeze a full-time developer into your budget. But while freelancers can keep a business lean and nimble, it’s important to understand that hiring them is more of an art than a science.

Many of the online platforms that match freelancers with businesses see developers as commodities. This creates the illusion that every full-stack javascript developer would mesh well with your culture, or that any WordPress developer can comprehend your startup’s goals.

However, as we discussed in the examples above, that’s far from the case.

Hiring a developer based on their resume alone is like buying a car without taking it for a test drive. Both decisions require you to consider nuances that simply can’t be accounted for without a real-life interaction.

It just goes to show: a falafel can be the difference between a successful startup launch and a web development nightmare.

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