Hiring a dev team when you’re non-technical with Arian Mirzarafie Ahi
Ubiquitous platform technologies like WordPress open up a world of opportunities for entrepreneurs in every conceivable sector, yet even user-friendly tools usually require implementation and customization by qualified developers. In this episode with talk with Gun.io client, Arian Mirzarafie Ahi, a biologist and e-learning entrepreneur, about the difficulties of finding a great developer as a non-technical founder. Arian talks through the challenges, and the approach he took to overcome them so he could focus on growing his content business.
Ledge: Arian, thanks for joining us. Really great to have you on.
Arian: Thank you for having me.
Ledge: Could you give a little background, just your story, so the listeners could get to know you and where you’re coming from?
Arian: Sure. I’m the founder of The A Level Biologist – Your Hub, which is a website for A Level biology students, primarily targeted at students in the United Kingdom. Since 2011 it’s been inspiring over five generations of life science students in the UK and collaborated with schools and teachers.
The A Level Biologist is the first, best and only A level biology hub in the world.
Ledge: Excellent. You’ve got your pitch down. I like that a lot. That’s good.
Arian: I couldn’t miss the opportunity, could I?
Ledge: Absolutely! I should state for the record that you are a client of ours at gun.io, and that we’ve shared a lot of the stories that we thought would be interesting for the audience about your trials and tribulations, shall we say, of launching a technology business, working with remote developers.
You’re not a technical founder, you’re a scientist and an educator. That’s really important because there are a lot of people who need these enabling technologies for their business, and want to know better how to procure them.
If you could tell us some of those stories, I know there’s some good parts and some not good parts, but maybe distil down those lessons. There’s endless blog posts about how to hire a developer and all that stuff. I wonder what was true and what was not true, and the lessons learned that you could share.
Arian: Absolutely. You’re right, I don’t really have an actual technology background. I started my website myself on the old Google sites and I was focusing on the content and it was a multi-year process. I was always interested in tech but at a sort of amateur level.
I remember when I was a kid I actually used MySpace and I wanted to get my custom themes, so I’d go on these websites and you get the code, you see what the theme looks like, and you just have to add it to your profile.
I wish this wasn’t a true story but I wasn’t really aware of the fact that I could select the code and paste it into my profile. So I took a piece of paper and I wrote down the code on one page of A4 and then the second page of A4 and I thought if I get one of these characters wrong it’s not going to work. After a while I discovered copy and paste, so my world changed.
I was just always into just trying things out and just figuring things out. I thought, I’m going to do this. It was easy enough because it was just focusing on building the content. After a while, I realized that it became really popular and I thought, okay, this could actually be a real legit thing.
The problem was that I picked pretty much the worst possible host that ever existed in the old Google sites because there was absolutely no customization available. There were no options for anything. I couldn’t do anything. I remember I added some ad blocks and then after a while they decided they were not going to allow that anymore. There was just no way for me to do anything.
I had affiliates approaching me to put their content on my website and there was very limited potential for what could be done.
Then I thought, I didn’t want to have affiliates anymore, I wanted to do my own thing and customize it the way I wanted to and not rely on affiliates for anything and realized that I couldn’t do that on that platform. There was no easy migration tool either, so it was going to be a really arduous, manual thing that needed to be done on over 500 pages and it’s still a working progress.
My experiences with working with different people, the main thing was I thought this sounded like something that should have been relatively straightforward and doable, and it turned out to be verging on impossible. To me it just seemed like, ‘This is straightforward enough. What’s so difficult about that? I see loads of websites everywhere, this is clearly doable, it’s real, it exists. Why should it be so difficult to achieve that?”
Unfortunately, in my experience with the different developers that I’d worked with, there was this lack of being able to gauge whether they would be able to accomplish those various tasks. With the worst ones, there was a sense of them wanting to tell me that they could do it even when they couldn’t and weren’t going to and wouldn’t do it. I didn’t understand why they would do that because all I wanted was just the honesty of saying, “This can be done. This can’t be done. This is going to take a month. This is going to take a year,” and I just could not find that.
I was just getting increasingly frustrated with what seemed to be a huge swathe of very unprofessional experience that I found myself having. That was the negative side of it.
It was just not the fact of not making progress, it was also ruining the things that had already been okay in the past. It was a case of one step forward, ten step backs. Five steps forward, three steps back, and thinking, “Am I even getting anywhere with this?”
A lot of things that had to be fixed and then having to trace my steps back and think, okay, what was I going to do to begin with? What am I actually trying to achieve that isn’t just being derailed because of these issues?”
I’ve been able to clean up those issues now and also issues that I wasn’t aware of – the unknown unknowns, where there was this parallel staging site that hadn’t been taken down and then got hacked and I was like, “What is going on?” To find that, fix that, and then to focus on building the positive elements that are actually the main focus of the whole thing.
Ledge: It all comes down, it sounds to me, like you need to be able to evaluate the talent. That’s like any job, right? It’s just that if you’re hiring somebody in a space you understand that’s going to be a lot easier. You would know right away that I don’t know anything about biology.
Yet, I think we’ve been trained as entrepreneurs – because I’ve been in the same situation – we’ve been trained to think that somehow we can figure out how to hire talent of all varieties by just sort of gutting it out. Yet, with technologists I don’t think that’s the case.
I’d also say that there’s a level of… You can probably measure the professionalism of somebody, but the ability to do the technical things it’s very much like hiring a car mechanic or an engineer or whatever it is. I wouldn’t know the difference.
I imagine that’s really frustrating. How did you ultimately solve that vetting problem to get to the right place?
Arian: With the experiences that I was having, I trusted that those professionals… I trusted what was written on the tin. I thought, okay, well this is what it says on the label so that’s what must be on the inside.
I ended up opening the tin and thinking, okay, no, this is not what I expected. Opening another one, this is also not what I expected. But that process took quite a lot of time because I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt and give things a shot.
There was no way for me, in the beginning, to know that it was not going to work out. Later on I started having my doubts and I became more suspicious and less trusting but I would still think, okay, that was a bad experience.
After all of that, I started picking out these patterns and these trends of, if people say this or if I use this platform or if I’m having this experience, then that’s a red flag and I should trust that that’s a red flag and I should just save myself the hassle.
I thought instead of assuming that most professionals would definitely be able to do certain things, and it didn’t matter which one in particular I picked, I thought, let’s just say a lot of them are not going to deliver what I think they would. So what I’m actually looking for is a niche, a narrow segment of these people who are going to actually get this thing gone.
What I assumed was supposed to be relatively reliable and accessible and easy turned out to be unreliable and inaccessible and difficult. I specifically started searching for the highest level available with the most superlative terms. You know, the best WordPress developers for me in this situation. Really just searching for those apparently few people who can actually get the things that I envision done, as opposed to people who are just professionally essentially in a way lying to me about it, and I bumped into you guys. That’s where I got to.
Ledge: We should say we did not invite you on for a commercial but we appreciate that we are at the end of that Google search.
I think this resonates a lot with our own experience because we get literally thousands of applicants to our platform all the time, and I can tell you that last year less than 200 people were let in.
We go through these elaborate interview cycles, and reviewing code and code tests and reference checks to make sure that previous clients had a great experience with the person. That’s just a lot of work and I don’t know that there’s any other way around it.
In the same way no one has figured out how to stamp out startups and have them always be successful without a lot of work and experimentation, I think the same thing happens from evaluating technical talent. Not only do we need to understand they’re high-end professional and that they communicate well and all of those things, and that they have high integrity and character traits, we also need to make sure that they actually know how to write the code, because I can have high integrity and not be able to write code.
Of course, you would hope that the higher integrity person would come in and say, “I have no idea how to do that so I’m not going to take your money.” I don’t know, maybe it does take an intermediary to help out with that when the distance between your skillsets are so large.
Arian: Yeah, exactly. I think you’re right about those sort of different skillsets having to come together because I worked with people who nailed one aspect of it and just came across really well, but over time turned out to really not be able to meet the standards required for that work. Then the worst case scenario where they just don’t meet anything, where it is unprofessional, it’s not coming through with anything.
I would much rather have the job done and maybe not so much conversation or not so much explanation, because at the end of the day I need someone to do something that I can’t do. As long as they can do it, I don’t really care. I don’t really even need to know how they did it, but I can see at the end of the day whether it’s been done or not.
Ledge: Yeah. You’re in the seat of the entrepreneur. You want to grow a business. You want to make money. You want to serve your customers, launch products, and this critical element stands in the way because that’s your entire delivery mechanism.
It’s like if Amazon had no way to deliver product. It doesn’t matter how good your warehouse is, right?
Last question, let me ask you the flipside of the question. As the buyer of the technology, what have you learned to do better and communicate better? What have you learned about communicating your vision so that it’s not wishy-washy? The developers might say, “I don’t really know what a client wants because he or she can’t explain it very well.”
If you turn the lens on yourself as the buyer, what have you learned really works when you’re trying to communicate what you want?
Arian: Let me tell you, I have drawn so many schemes and diagrams and lists, and repeated them in different ways, and have tried to be so creative with communicating these various sometimes quite abstract concepts – especially for those things that probably have a right word for them but I wouldn’t know it. So, there’s a lot of situations of where I try to be as creative as possible with that.
Of course, working with different people, they have their own expectations and their own communication. I have to adapt to whatever they’re using and they also have to adapt to whatever I’m using. I’ve always been very flexible with that so that that doesn’t become a barrier.
What became a pattern over time, that I noticed in doing this multiple times, was that, even though I would have my own master plan of all the different things, I would have to just really expect that some of those would fall through, or some of those would be overlooked, or some of those would be misunderstood. Just have a very sharp focus on just one thing. Just one thing that was going to be the focus, and nothing else.
Then know what was going to come after that. Prioritizing also comes in. If my overall purpose was to change something up, but there was already a bug or there was already an issue that really needed to be prioritized, I would have to hold my horses and put that on a back burner until the most urgent thing actually gets fixed. Because I’ll be tempted to assume, oh, that thing will have been fixed next week or next month, but without it actually being done for sure I can never really rely on that.
I had to practice my timing and my prioritizing and expectations so that I would know, at this time this is what’s being done. Even though I would like ten more things to be done, this is what’s being done now and those other things are just going to have to wait.
It’s also good because it forces me to really prioritize, and it forces me to really think of all the practical things. Spend less time in the envisioning activity and more time in the reality of the present moment activity.
Of course, one hopefully treads into the other, like the color spectrum of yellow to red and so many different shades, that you don’t even notice the change. So, yes, maybe we’re doing something very tedious right now but after ten or twenty tedious things, all of a sudden that big thing has happened before you even realize this. That’s how I see it now.
I still have all those lists and diagrams of things but I mostly keep them to myself. I don’t necessarily share them because I think, well, actually maybe this tool for me, it’s more helpful than for anyone else. What I present to the other person is just a digestible chunk, a little step, a little shade on that spectrum rather than the whole picture.
Ledge: I love that. I don’t even know if you know this, but you’ve just articulated very much the central ideas of Agile. That’s what people have learned from doing. The experiential learning of software development is, you have to go in little steps and you need to have a prioritized list. Sometimes the bugs and what we could the technical has to rise to the top, because we have dependencies and we need to fix that.
On the one hand, I lament that you spent such a great deal of time, energy, and your sanity learning that, on the other hand I can tell you that those lessons will serve you well as an entrepreneur who will probably go on and do other technically enabled businesses, if not technical businesses yourself.
I think that’s really great for our technologist audience to hear. That sometimes we get trapped in the dogma of Agile. We start spouting out the rules as if they were always written in time, but these things were discovered by real people who were writing to achieve real results with software.
It’s neat to hear you say that, and I think as an educator it probably comes a little more naturally to you to spout that lexicon. Very cool to have your insights.
Give one more shout out to the website. Particularly, anybody who is a parent or student in the UK is going to care about this.
Arian: The A Level Biologist – Your Hub at thealevelbiologist.co.uk. The A level Biologist podcast is available on iTunes.
Ledge: The A level Biologist, thank you so much for joining us.
Arian: Thank you for having me.