Ryan's Blog

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The Northern Ireland Web Development Industry

I had lunch with Mark this afternoon. Our conversation turned to the NI Digital Industry (web development in particular). I voiced my concerns with the way things appear to work currently, but I'm not sure I expressed my views accurately (I'm like that when I talk to people, writing it down is much easier for me). So here they are, some issues that I see with the way our web development industry organizes itself. Not terribly well-formed ideas, but up for discussion. Let's assume that a small business in NI is seeking to launch a new website. They've not got a massive budget and they don't have any personal contacts to go to (i.e. the business owner's son isn't a "Web Designer"). So they go to Google and search for "website development Northern Ireland"; maybe, if they're lucky, they stumble across Digital Circle. So how do you choose a company from the list of 36 million results returned? Well, they've no experience, nor any contacts, so it's down to how much they like the company's website, the cost they're quoted and any reviews or portfolio details they can find. They somehow shorten the list down to two, company A who are quoting £X, and company B who quote £Y, where £Y is a few hundred pounds less than £X. All things appearing equal they'll probably choose B. What they don't know is that Company B is actually a single guy (typically), not long out of University, working from his parents house skinning wordpress blogs. Company A is a small boutique agency who build superb websites. This isn't obvious until 6 months later when the site launches in a shoddy state, late and without some key features. Now, there are undoubtedly a lot of highly competent, very professional individuals-trading-as-business out there, but I feel this situation is detrimental for our industry, and here's why.
  1. Good companies charge less than they should because they're being undercut by less professional, less competent individuals
  2. Developers doing "homers" are less productive for their employers than they could or should be
  3. Developers end up being paid less than they deserve because employers need to maintain a profit margin
  4. Employers can't find decent developers because
    1. they can't pay them a competitive rate
    2. the developers are all working freelance and don't want a job that challenges them such that they need to give up the freelance work
  5. The lower end of the market turns into a race to the cheapest, which brings down quality and prevents ambitious companies from growing.
So, I'm arguing that developers doing "homers" are negatively affecting small web development agencies. But what about developers? Don't they benefit from doing additional work? Well, yes. They supplement their income, which is good because they don't get paid what they deserve by the agency they work for because the agency needs to reduce costs to make a profit from the projects they've under-quoted on (Spot the vicious circle?). They also get to work on interesting projects that they wouldn't get to do in their day job. However, maybe the agency owner wants to do the interesting project but is stuck doing smaller projects because they need the constant turnover to break even. Also, if a developer is working a normal 8 hour day, then going home to work another 6 hours on freelance work, isn't it possible that they're not at their most productive? Maybe they'd enable the agency to do the interesting work if they were able to work better during the day? (spot the other vicious circle?) And what about the industry as a whole? Surely an at-home developer is generating value for the economy, and growing the industry? Well, consider this. Most of the small web projects in NI come from NI based businesses. It's essentially moving money around the economy and not really generating new income (I'm not an economist) What we really need is Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), i.e. a business from outside NI spending significant funds in Northern Ireland. How many web development companies in NI are capable of delivering 6 figure projects? Now, there are other issues involved here:
  1. how can we help entrepreneurs working on their own grow their businesses?
  2. how can we help businesses find and recruit highly skilled staff (because getting good web developers is hard)?
  3. how can we help developers learn and develop "on the job" so they don't feel so much of a need to do additional jobs?
  4. how can we help small businesses move from producing small Facebook apps (not criticising!) to producing more valuable web applications (or in other words, how can we increase the wealth generation in businesses)?