Interview questions for hiring a software development company

You don’t need a degree in computer science when hiring a software development company. It’s simply a matter of asking the right questions—and paying close attention to the answers.

A high-quality software solution can make a tremendous difference in the way your business operates. Good software erases inefficiencies by creating better solutions to daily frustrations. It also frees up time, so you have the space to explore new ideas and initiatives for your business. In short, the right custom software solution opens up huge new possibilities for success.

IF you choose the right development team

Here are several questions to ask when interviewing companies for your next custom software development project.

Tell us about your project management philosophy.

Custom software development projects are complex and rarely unfold exactly according to plan. Timelines and budgets can change. Unexpected slowdowns or hiccups can occur at a moment’s notice. Good project management is vital to maintain progress and strong communication, even when the unexpected occurs.

But project management is not simply a matter of getting things done. It’s an incredibly nuanced and valuable skill that takes time to develop. Good project managers are masters of finding and defining clarity, even amid chaos. Project management is about staying nimble and finding creative solutions to maintain momentum. It requires strong leadership and communication skills and a team PM culture that embraces fresh thinking and flexibility.

Ideally, you want someone who is passionate about good project management and has a clear strategy in place. They should talk about how they stay focused and help you keep a clear head when things change unexpectedly. If they seem disinterested or directionless when talking about project management, reevaluate.

Also, listen carefully for signs that the whole team is on board with their approach. In some cases, that enthusiasm doesn’t extend any farther than the leadership team. Look for a software developer whose entire staff cares deeply about good work, strong collaboration, and the end user experience.

What’s your approach to problem solving?

For millennia, the horse-drawn carriage was a perfectly satisfactory vehicle for moving people and cargo from one place to another.

Of course, horse-drawn carriages were not without their problems. Horses are living creatures that need to eat and sleep. Navigating a carriage over certain types of terrain was cumbersome and risky. The ride was bumpy, but it was the best system available. Manufacturers only sought to mitigate these “systemic” issues.

We needed a better system.

If humans only thought about problem solving on a small scale like this, we’d still be riding around in horse-drawn carriages. But someone had the audacity to dream bigger and look beyond the problem to the opportunity.

Today, we drive comfortable, climate-controlled cars to the store and back in minutes. And we have those big dreamers to thank.

This opportunistic approach to problem solving is what you should look for in a software development company. Any development team can make software, but the best are creating elegant solutions to business process problems.

Truly exceptional software development companies will work with you to dig deeper into your business. They dig into the details—even some that may seem irrelevant—in order to map out a solution that delights.

Listen carefully when you talk to potential software development partners about problem solving. If they just fixate on running bug reports and the like, they probably don’t have the capacity to think bigger. You want someone who sees problems as possibilities, not just a series of milestones.

What’s your process for understanding business models?

A flair for problem solving often goes hand-in-hand with strong business acumen. In other words, you want a software development company that understands how your business works.

Here’s an example. Your business may process massive quantities of inventory on a daily basis. You’re primarily looking for a better inventory management system, but you’re also on the hook to send daily inventory reports to regulatory agency for compliance.

A run-of-the-mill software development company will just build you a generic inventory management system. Whereas a great software development company will ask you questions about those compliance requirements, such as, what the reports look like, what data you need, and why.

They will then build a system with a turnkey reporting function that will create those reports for you in a few clicks. A developer who understands your business model will address issues adjacent to compliance reporting, as they strive to make things easier and faster.

Every business has its own challenges, but the punchline remains the same: You want a software development partner that will learn the ins and outs of your business model before they start writing code.

Tell us about the people you work with.

It’s hard to fake a healthy culture.

When you hire a software development company, you are at the mercy of their commitment to investing in and developing their talent.

A good software development company understands the importance of hiring great team members and invests accordingly. Get them to describe how they find and develop the right people. Allow for a little humble bragging when they describe how they work to keep their people engaged and happy.

Of course, “company culture” can be a nebulous concept. Some companies think it’s just a matter of free snacks and foosball. Employee satisfaction is the product of respect, flexibility, encouragement, and other concepts that are much harder to quantify than salary.

So how do you evaluate the culture of a software development company? Here are some clues:

Do team members seem like they really care about your project? Are they asking thoughtful questions that indicate depth of thought about your situation?

Do they seem like the kind of people who are pleasant to work with?

What’s their body language like? Are they leaning forward, looking you in the eye, and responding with nods and gestures when you speak?

Paying attention to the verbal and nonverbal signs, will give you a good sense of others’ engagement level: at least, enough to trust your gut.

How do you handle security concerns?

You’d be surprised how often companies don’t think about security until the project is nearly complete. They end up treating it like an add-on feature at the last minute. This causes major problems in the final stages of the project, from user interface disruptions to security gaps.

Security should be part of the conversation from Day 1, so those features are fully incorporated into the final product. This ensures seamless integration of every feature and a truly secure product. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about how—and when—they handle security concerns.

Once you trust that the company takes security as seriously as you do, ask about security testing. A good software development company will have a plan in place to test every feature of your software for vulnerabilities. They should use a combination of manual methods and automated tools to ensure a comprehensive sweep.

When in doubt, remember this: Be wary of a company that brushes off your concerns about security. If they treat it like an issue easily addressed at the last minute, they may not be the right match.

Do you consider yourself a leader in the software development industry?

It’s one thing to be a great developer, but it’s another to be a leader.

Serena Williams is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. She didn’t earn that title by learning to play every sport. She mastered the art and science of tennis.

There are plenty of athletes who can jump into a pickup game and do great. But they can’t compare to Williams, Michael Phelps, and other genuine leaders in sports.

Similarly, there are thousands of companies making software—even good software! However, truly great software is the product of a clear vision and mastery of a handful of markets. A jack-of-all-trades software development company will always struggle to get up to speed with unfamiliar industries and applications.

These companies—the ones that stick to a clear path—are the true leaders. They’re the ones paving the way forward and setting the example for the industry. If you want excellent software, created by the best of the best, you want these guys.

Of course, excellence and humility often go hand in hand, so you’ll need to read between the lines when asking this question.

Some companies will be open about their thought leadership activities, while others will be a bit more bashful. Pay attention to whether they come across as generalists or demonstrate specifically what they do best.

You might also check their website and social media platforms to see if they’re sharing thought leadership content. What they say publicly can tell you a lot about their values.

How fast can we turn this around?

This question is a little sneaky, but the point is critical: have a conversation about quality.

There’s a common quip in the business world that asks: “Fast, cheap, or good? Pick two.” This is true of restaurant meals, home improvement work, or hiring a software development company.

In simple terms, quality takes time. Great software companies know that quality suffers when things move faster than adequate care and attention allow for. Cutting corners or skipping steps always comes back to bite you.

Hire a company that’s in it for the long haul, and strives for mastery of their craft. Look for a commitment to next-level quality.

There’s another layer to this: Great software companies aren’t ashamed to ask for more time. Some are so fearful of losing leads or clients they’ll promise the moon—and fail to deliver. But the leaders know their best clients will wait for a truly great product.

The above question—“How fast can we turn this around?”—can tell you a lot about a company’s philosophy. If the timeline sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Listen for a bias toward quality over speed.

The question behind all the questions when hiring a software development company

Even if the initial project only takes a few months, you want a company you can turn to again and again. Plus, you’ll likely need their help to refine your software over time as you make adjustments to your processes and business model.

So treat it like any other hiring process. This means:

  • Spending time with those who will be directly involved so you can gage aptitude and personality fit.
  • Asking for references from their current customers.
  • Talking openly about the budget to ensure financial compatibility.

Due diligence is key to ensuring the right match from the beginning. By taking the time to find the right match, you’ll have years of successful collaboration ahead of you.

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Getting to FileMaker

I had just graduated from college. A friend and I were running a recruiting startup out of our living room. We had a good working relationship and an effective division of labor: he handled sales and most of marketing so the company would have money. I tackled our backend systems so we could deliver on what he sold. There was a variety of data we had to track: relationships with customers, relationships with universities, relationships with and statuses of applicants, etc., and it was up to me to figure out how to make it all work.

There was, however, one small problem: I had no formal background in technology, software, or information systems management. I had a music degree. But when you’re working in a two-person startup, “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. The solution: “I’ll figure it out.”

We settled on using the Airtable platform. Airtable is about as basic a relational database platform as can be found: it looks like a spreadsheet but functions like a database. It allowed us to create robust (enough) relational databases for our needs. With a pre-built UI, cross-platform support, and the paucity of prerequisite knowledge about primary and foreign keys, ERDs, join tables, SQL or any other coding language—even knowing what the word schema means—it fit the bill, enabling me to put something together quickly without embarking on a lengthy expedition up a steep learning curve. 

A few years later I found myself at another growing company in desperate need of a systems overhaul. Once again, the answer was a relational database. But this time I knew what I was doing. I had been around the block a few times. So I thought. I was soon to discover that this block I had been around was a very small one.

FileMaker was the platform I hoped existed but wasn’t sure did.

Airtable is great for what it is and for what it claims to be, but proved inadequate for this new set of needs. We needed a solution not for a company of two people sitting in their living room, but for a team of nearly twenty people out in the field, some of whom were decently computer-literate, and several of whom struggled with anything that, to quote Captain America, “seems to run on some form of electricity.” We needed a system that provided six key features: 1) the ability to organize and relate our data, 2) the ability to control access to data on a per-user basis, 3) the ability to embed business logic within the system rather than in the brains of individual users, 4) the ability to automate workflows, 5) the ability to present only relevant data to the user in an easily-digestible format for each type of record, and 6) the ability to run reports on that data. 

Airtable was able to meet only the first of those requirements.

Despite how much I may personally enjoy the discovery process, I do not advocate reinventing the wheel, and so I began looking for a piece of existing software that could meet our needs. However, like many businesses, that piece of software did not exist, leaving me with two options: build a custom solution myself, or let the company flounder in its current disorganization. Realizing the later was not a viable option, I committed to building something myself. But I had never built a piece of software before. I didn’t know there was a difference between Java and JavaScript, how to pronounce “SQL”, and had never even heard the phrase relational database. I didn’t know what SQL or HTML stood for, and had never heard of CSS. (I did, however, know how to use the <body> and <p> tags in HTML, though that didn’t help much.)

That’s when I found FileMaker.

…I had actually found an ocean.

FileMaker was the platform I hoped existed but wasn’t sure did. Here, in FileMaker, I found a platform that would enable and equip me—someone with zero coding experience—to develop a custom app that solved our unique business problems, have it work on a variety of operating systems, and allow me to deploy it to a team of people without any prerequisite knowledge of setting up a server.

FileMaker transformed how we work. The process of invoicing clients, for example, used to take four full days each month. It now takes fifteen minutes. Processing payroll used to take one to two days every two weeks. It now takes five minutes. Putting together a list of our current clients used to take an hour. It now takes ten seconds. Calculating our net revenue over a given time period used to take hours. FileMaker gives us that report in less than thirty seconds. The inefficiency of some of our previous processes meant that our team oftentimes didn’t even record certain types of data. FileMaker not only provides us easy access to data, but has allowed us access to data we previously weren’t even collecting. It has freed up our time, allowing us to better serve our customers and to expand the number of services we offer.

Discovering FileMaker was like discovering a kiddy pool—easily navigable with water no higher than my knees—only to realize later that I had actually found an ocean. The barriers to entry were low. The learning curve to get an initial workable solution up and running was minimal. I didn’t drown. In fact, even after deploying my first solution, I still thought I was in the kiddy pool. But the longer I was in the FileMaker world, the more I realized what was in my hands. After about a year of self-taught development, I attended my first FileMaker DevCon. 

A game changer. 

It was here that I discovered businesses who weren’t just getting their feet wet with FileMaker. They were scuba diving. The power and potential of FileMaker were far broader and significantly deeper than I ever realized. I had seen FileMaker as a fun set of tinker toys. This was no set of tinker toys. This was real, powerful stuff. 

And that, I think, is the beauty of FileMaker. It doesn’t require you to know how to swim to get started. You can make something meaningful and useful, even as a novice. But when you’re ready to go deeper, to do more, to expand your toolkit, FileMaker is there to deliver. There are great depths out there, and FileMaker allows you to explore them along the way—without being stuck with an unworkable solution in the meantime.

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A Solution That Delights

For over two decades, Nations Home Warranty has provided residential warranties for unexpected home appliance repairs to home buyers and sellers. In 2016, Nations launched a new marketing strategy offering home warranty contracts to listing agents at no cost, positioning Nations to continue the coverage with the new homeowner when the house sells.

When a search that normally takes 10 minutes is turned into a click of a button, the time it saves is worth its weight in gold.

The Problem

To effect their strategy, Nations receives daily emails from the North Texas Real Estate Information System (NTREIS) containing listings across 48,000 square miles, over 6,000 real estate offices, and 30,000 Multiple Listing Subscribers (MLS) in North Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan Area.

In the beginning, this immense amount of continual information had to be manually, painfully processed. Every listing in every email was checked against Nations’s database to determine if the listing was in the database, and if it wasn’t, each new listing was added manually, requiring the entry of 19 individual, critical datapoints.

The Solution

Veronica Anzaldua, Nations’s database manager, needed help to alleviate this agonizing process. For each email, four things had to be done: 1) extract relevant data from the email, 2) identify data to be updated, 3) update the existing listings in the database, and 4) create new records when needed.

Using PHP and FileMaker, Harmonic Software Production Studios created a tool to sift incoming emails, even when those emails contain more than one listing.

The Future

Today, the automated handling of inbound NTREIS emails has enabled Nations to expand their free warranty program for listing agents. What was once an extremely labor-intensive, multi-hour undertaking is now effectively effortless. 

Veronica said it best: “When a search that normally takes 10 minutes is turned into a click of a button, the time it saves is worth its weight in gold.”

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Lynette’s Magic Shake Machine

Creativity is not an ever-flowing river of ideas and inspiration. As an undergraduate art student at Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas, Lynette Sykora, 22, began each painting assignment with an empty canvas devoid of color, texture and a story to tell. When challenged to create a collection of four, relatively large oil paintings, however, she was confident that her creativity would not be stifled by artist’s block — not this time.

Synesthesia: Cross-wired for Creativity

Why the creative confidence? In 2017, Lynette had been diagnosed with synesthesia, a neurological condition that affects approximately 13 million Americans. When stimulated by sound, her sensory “hearing” pathway leads to the involuntary stimulation of her sensory “vision” pathway. Lynette hears music and simultaneously sees the sound as colors and texture.

Priming the Pump with Music and Images

It takes time to prime the pump of creativity and stimulate the sensory pathways of a synesthete. It takes the random combination of music and images. 

“My father heads a software production studio in Dallas,” Lynette explains. “I told him what I needed and he asked a few questions.” Using FileMaker Pro 17, the Magic Shake Machine was ready in only a day. More importantly, it worked.

Music, Images and Aspect Ratios

The Magic Shake Machine selects random and uneditable recipes from libraries of music, images and aspect ratios.  Each unique combination would invade Lynette’s sensory pathways. The inspirational recipe for Lynette’s “Balloon Industry” included Chopin’s “Nocturne in E- flat Major, OP. 9 NO.2”, images of a cliff, whales and balloons, and a 1 x 6 aspect ratio. The rest was magic.

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Dallas to Denver on a Gallon of Gas

On May 14, 2018, over 200 students and 81 student-built vehicles competed in the 30th annual SuperMileage Challenge sponsored by the Minnesota Technology and Engineering Educators Association (MTEEA).  

The Challenge

A student-built vehicle, powered by a 2.4 horsepower Briggs-Stratton lawnmower engine, must travel a total of 36 miles using the least fuel possible.  

The Rules

Each team receives a bottle of fuel for six, two-lap runs, around a three-mile track. The weight of the fuel is logged by car number prior to each run, and again at the end of each run. To avoid disqualification, the average speed for each run must be between 15 and 25 MPH. The teams in each of six classes with the best 12-lap average mileage are declared 2018 SuperMileage winners. 

The Technology

For its first five years, the SuperMileage Challenge was managed on clipboards with paper and pencils. Technology was first introduced in 1993 when FileMaker 2.1 made it easier to capture critical fueling and timing data for the individual cars. Upgraded with the release of FileMaker 5, the tool has performed flawlessly for two decades.

In January 2018, MTEEA made their own commitment to technology, updating their software to take full advantage of the modern technologies, such as iPads, mobile phones, and web support to capture trackside data from officials during the competition.

The Leaderboard

Using FileMaker’s native JSON support, the SuperMileage Challenge app pushed live data from the event to an online leaderboard where anxious participants and families could see the near real-time status of their vehicle. The best single lap average on the 2018 leaderboard: 675.6 MPG — the distance from Dallas to the Mile High City.

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