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Think globally, hire locally

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Every time I get involved in helping someone hire a developer for a business Web project, I have to go through a debate over whether to search locally or just go "virtual" and find the best available regardless of geography.

You'd be surprised how many people will tell you that because the Internet connects us all, even small to midize businesses can work just as well with someone 1,000 miles away as they can with a company down the street.

Unless you're a Fortune 1,000 company, don't listen to these people; they are wrong.

I've worked on half a dozen medium-level business sites, and in every case where the developer was long-distance, things went sour. Here's the advice I give now: If at all possible, hire the best developer you can find within driving distance. Or accept the frustrating fact that you will never have as much control over the site as you will want.

Granted, big companies working with very large budgets and having offices in numerous cities can make almost any arrangement work. But be forewarned: As a general rule, if you have a branch office in the same city with your developer, that branch office will eventually be running your Web site. Proximity is power.

That's because no matter how good groupware technology gets, people still communicate better face-to-face. Sometimes the changes you want in a site are subtle and emerge only after a lot of give-and-take and trial and error, with everyone bitching at everyone every day until the right solution pops up. But it's the person arguing right in your developer's face who will have the most say, not the person communicating by e-mail.

It also seems true, at least in my experience, that developers who are far away are more likely to drift off task before you think the project is completely done. You're looking for the final touches on this tool or that template, and they're already off and running with a new account (a local one, of course).

That kind of frustration is far easier to deal with if your developer is close by, which means hiring locally can also be important for your own mental health and stability.

I realize there are a lot of other issues mixed in with all this, including how rapidly your site is growing, how fast your developer is growing, and most importantly, whether your developer is also hosting your server and providing your Internet access. If they are, then my advice to look locally first goes double. It's bad enough to wait on design work; it's excruciating to be chasing a long-distance fix when your whole site is down.

In fact, let me add that whether you hire locally or not, always make sure you pay periodic visits to your Internet provider's headquarters. I once had the pleasure of being shown my server, a nice Silicon Graphics box, in my developer's office. And directly above it, on ceiling hooks, was a 10-speed bicycle. Our entire Internet business was dependent on those two hooks holding fast.

It's this kind of thing that led to my own personal definition of what local really means: When things go wrong, you want them close enough that you can get your hands around their throats within the hour.

David Klein is associate publisher-editor of the Ad Age Group. He can be e-mailed at dklein@crain.com.

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