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How to track down the perfect developer

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But for every top-tier developer that might vie for a Sara Lee project, there's a dozen or more poseurs in the business... Developers Have any stories about finding your developer? Share them.: While there's no secret equation to finding a Web developer, there are basic strategies that can help reduce the time and cost of your search, and cut the risk of hiring a developer that's ill-suited to your company's needs.

Cliff Kurtzman, president-CEO of Tenagra Corp., Houston, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Internet Developers Association, says the two most important things when beginning a search are to go online and check out a developer's sites and then talk to references.

"A lot of companies that are out there today are simply Web page companies," he says, and if you're a big company using the Internet to communicate with your client base, it's important that the developer is able to execute a business strategy.

HAVE THEY WON ANY AWARDS?

"If you're doing electronic commerce, you want someone fluent in running and handling secure transactions," Mr. Kurtzman says.

But how do you find a developer to fit your needs?

Web site awards were the first thing Kim Wagner, recruitment coordinator at Automotive Dealers Marketing, Los Angeles, turned to in her search for a Web developer.

To begin her search for a company to build the association's $300,000 database-oriented site, which would link car buyers with car dealers, she sent out Requests for Proposals to over a dozen companies that had won Clios or other Web awards.

But ultimately, she says, it was the RFP replies that spoke for themselves. "There was a huge variance," she says. "Some really thought about it; some were boilerplate responses."

CHECK REFERENCES

ADM narrowed it down to three candidates, and finally singled out CyberSight, in Portland, Ore. "We were really impressed," Ms. Wagner says. "They put on the best dog and pony show."

A more traditional method of checking references turned out to be key for Dave Widmer, project manager-systems development, Sara Lee Corp., Chicago.

After lining up four top-tier potential developers for the corporate site, Mr. Widmer says he called their clients, who "were fairly candid" and told him things "that we wouldn't have gotten from the developers."

Mr. Widmer finally recommended Chicago-based Streams Online Media Development because "they had the most original proposal that was custom-tailored to us."

But for every top-tier developer that might vie for a Sara Lee project, there's a dozen or more poseurs in the business, which is something Bell & Howell, Skokie, Ill., ran into with its initial search.

TOOK ONE MORE TRY

Mack Reynolds, president of the Reynolds Marketing Group, oversees site development and maintenance for Bell & Howell, which has evolved from making movie projectors to microfilm and mail processing equipment. In 1995, Reynolds interviewed a half-dozen developers whose names he'd culled from the business press.

"I discounted four or five because they didn't display a sense of urgency about us," Mr. Reynolds says, noting that they'd fail to return phone calls or proposals.

He chose a developer whose service began to disintegrate after a year. "While the creative product was good in the beginning, as the service fell off, so did the execution," says Mr. Reynolds, who's been happy ever since he switched to New Media Marketing, a local developer he met through the Publicity Club of Chicago.

"Part of it is age-related," he says. The president of New Media "has been in the work force awhile" whereas the other developers "didn't have a lot of business experience."

CUTTING-EDGE VS. BUTTONED-UP

At the same time, going with the most business-savvy developer isn't a guarantee you'll have a Web site that gets noticed. There needs to be balance, says Sal Abramo, manager-electronic marketing at Hewlett-Packard Medical Products Group."Sometimes you're trading cutting-edge for buttoned-up," he says. Going on HP recommendations, Mr. Abramo says he choose Red Dot Interactive, San Francisco.

"It's a word-of-mouth reference thing," he says. "They are really on the ball and understand where we're going strategically."

In addition to the basics of a strategically-targeted site with well-written content, Mr. Abramo says, you need someone who's going to look after it. You should hope your developer is "not just a bunch of kids from Stanford writing code -- and there's a lot of them out there."

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