Making sense of web development without programming knowledge

If you have ever contemplated creating your own website or seriously following your app idea, and felt like hitting a brick wall due to lack of a computer science degree or coding knowledge, you are not alone. Just over a year ago, I had the idea of creating an online marketplace for small retailers, something I eventually abandoned in favour of my blog Shu’s Green Patch that aims to help and educate early stage founders. As I pondered over the prospect of creating an app or a website, I found myself fairly intimidated by the unknown world of web development. Contrary to my fears, my idea took me down a fascinating discovery journey into the world of software, UX (user experience), UI (user interface), wireframes, Agile and Scrum, as well as the people who operate within this space.

In some respects, software development is like hotel accommodation. There are a plethora of options available from simple cut-price alternatives to the very high-end offerings with top-notch service and quality. The best one for you ultimately depends on what you can afford based on a very careful evaluation of your personal goals and budget.

If you are very new to the tech world and want to build a website or a blog, there a plenty of off-the-shelf options available. If you have a Facebook or Instagram profile, or you write articles on LinkedIn or Medium, you technically already have your own corner of the cyberspace.

To take this one notch up, Squarespace, Wix and Weebly provide some fantastic templates for a wide variety of uses such as blogs, restaurants, online stores and event invitations. My personal favourite is Squarespace, as I prefer their minimalist and stylish themes with lots of white space, as well as intuitive navigation options and great video tutorials. The first home of Shu’s Green Patch for 12 months was on Squarespace and used the Native theme. I even used their free logo editor to create my first logo. The advantage of off-the-shelf websites is that you can get started under a couple of hours. You purchase a domain name from providers such as GoDaddy or through the web-builder itself (the second option is more expensive), sign up for the paid plan, and you are good to go. All these services provide hosting as a part of their paid plan which is always the simpler option. However, the downside of ease-of-use is the lack of flexibility. Beyond the choice of templates and very basic manoeuvring of objects, these builders do not provide very many options to customise a site to your specific requirements.

The next step up is WordPress which is the internet’s largest open source content management platform with over 74 million sites or 18.9% of all websites running WordPress (2014 figures). Although some might find WordPress intimidating, it can be mastered over a few weeks or months with some dedicated investment of time. Youtube has great tutorials one how to make simple websites on WordPress. WordPress offers hosting plans and themes, but most people tend to get those separately as that gives greater control over prices and terms. In another experimental site that I built on WordPress, I used BlueHost for hosting and ThemeForest by Envato for sourcing themes. For free DIY graphic design, Canva is the place to go for editing banners and images, while Logomakr will create a simple logo in minutes.

Tapping into the gig economy

Now let’s say you have a basic site up and running and you need a great logo or complicated customisations, and you don’t want to spend months on end glued to your laptop, you will probably need to some outside help. This is where online marketplaces such as 99Designs, Freelancer and Upwork come in handy. These marketplaces take advantage of the vast global pool of IT and web design talent and the price arbitrage that is possible if a business owner in the West outsources their work to nations of Eastern Europe and South Asia. While 99Designs is heavily focused on Graphics Design, Freelancer and Upwork can be used to hire a wide range of professionals from Web developers to copywriters to virtual assistants.

I love 99Designs and have met the cofounder Matt Mickiewicz in Melbourne in 2016. They take a contest approach to projects and each project, for example, a logo design is posted with an award inviting designers to make submissions from which the commissioning buyer picks the winner and pays the award. The logo for Shu’s Green Patch was in fact created on 99Designs.

While founders on shoestring budget can whip up something fairly cheaply through online marketplaces and overseas professionals, the level of quality and value isn’t always guaranteed. The barriers of culture and distance can also make it difficult to articulate the exact purpose and context of the project. However, in the preliminary stages when the budget is tight, online resources can provide an excellent avenue for creating app mock-ups or a simple site to test the market’s appetite for an idea. It is advisable to study the portfolio of any freelancer in some detail, preferably have a face-to-face call and work in small chunks before committing to a larger spend. Digital entrepreneur Chris Ducker’s book “Virtual Freedom” is a great read for anyone contemplating working with freelancers or offshore workers on digital projects.

Hire a local professional

Once you have some level of validation for the idea and are planning on getting a solid Minimum Viable Product (MVP), it is probably the best time to work with a strong web developer who can reliably transform the idea into a functioning digital offering.

When it comes to really skilled developers, there is a consensus that Melbourne does lag behind many global startup hotbeds such as California, Israel and Singapore in terms of the pool of talented developers that we have at our disposal. The few good ones tend to be in high demand given the recent growth in the number of startups. On top of that, new founders without a technical background often find it an intimidating prospect trying to distinguish between A star developers and amateurs. I spoke with Matt Duran of Melbourne-based Vokke Software Development for some tips on finding the right developer locally.

Getting to know local developers

Meetups are a great place to meet developers. Melbourne Agile and Scrum Group, Melbourne Web Developers, Angular Melbourne and Ruby and Rails Melbourne are very good starting points in getting a feel for the local web developer community in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.

Slack developer groups can also be a useful way for connecting with Aussie developers and getting technical advice on projects. However, some of the forums might require some prior technical knowledge to get the best use out of those.

As an alternative to cold emails, approaching developers through direct messages on LinkedIn generally give higher response rates and can help to screen potential candidates for a project.

Selling your idea

To attract the right talent who is the right fit for a company, having a clear idea of the objectives of the project and being able to articulate the vision, mission and strategy of the startup is important. This is what generates interest and helps a project stand out amongst a sea of startup ideas. While there are certainly development agencies that help with research, testing and validation of ideas and can help to grow and shape an early stage idea, having a plan around the project can work to your best advantage.

The Joel’s 12 Steps

When it comes to finally hiring a developer or a firm, asking a set of 12 questions devised by Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Stack Overflow, can be very decisive in evaluating whether a developer or agency is well equipped to produce good code for the project. The questions require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and Joel recommends a score of either 11 or 12 for best project outcomes. At least that is the theory!

So these are some of the tips and tricks I have identified for getting web development work done on any budget. Ultimately, the job of finding the right technical talent for a startup is very much a case-by-case scenario based on the specific needs of the project. Doing good research with all the numerous resources that the internet offers, getting to know the techies well and being able to communicate the needs effectively are the three most important takeaways that can maximise the chances of success in any web development project.

Originally published at on May 28, 2017.