Web Performance Consulting: Five questions for Andrew King

In the past month, I’ve had three major corporations ask for my opinion about independent web performance consulting: What is it? Is it worthwhile? How do you find a good consultant? I decided to take these questions directly to one of today’s leading performance consultants, Andrew King.

In addition to authoring the book Website Optimization (O’Reilly, 2008), a must-have for any performance library, Andrew is also President of Website Optimization, LLC. His company has provided performance consulting and optimization for sites like AOL.com, Time Warner, and WhitePages.com.

1. First off, what’s the value in engaging an outside performance consultant versus, say, doing a performance audit internally?

An outside consultant has seen more sites and has a more global perspective than someone from the inside. When you hire an outside consultant, I’ve found that management tends to listen and act more to the recommendations as well (even though the recommendations from an employee on the inside may be just as valid).

2. Performance consulting is a relatively new and unregulated field. If a company is looking to bring in a consultant, where would they even start to hunt for one?

Good question. The Velocity conference is a good place to start. We both attended it this year. Many consultants attend this event. I’d look for people with experience and a history of publishing quality articles and books (and tools). Google the terms you are interested in.

3. What kinds of questions should a company ask a prospective consultant to weed out the unqualified candidates?

How much experience do you have? Who are some of your clients? Can you show us case studies? Do you optimize websites as well as analyze them for performance? Can you handle ecommerce websites? Windows? What specifically do you do for a performance audit or optimization (front-end or back-end)?

4. Is there a common process that consultants follow — or should follow — when conducting a performance audit? As a corollary to this question, is there a standard toolset that should go along with this process?

Well, there is a common process that we follow. :) If it is a front-end audit (80% of the performance problems are on the front-end, according to Steve Souders’ book), we typically use YSlow, Page Speed, and WebPageTest.org for metrics and then dive into the code for before/after recommendations.

We look at the (X)HTML, CSS, JavaScript, multimedia, and server settings for areas of improvement. Many times you can replace old-style techniques (JavaScript-based menus with CSS-based, for example) and eliminate code altogether. Lately we’ve been providing optimized files for audits, which makes it a bit of a hybrid.

For back-end performance audits, we have different teams for Linux- and Windows-based sites. We look at the server setup, middleware, SQL queries, caching, old modules or code, etc. We provide recommendations in a similar format to the front-end audits. We also do a hybrid audit that includes both front-end and back-end analyses.

5. Say I’m a client who has hired a consultant. At the end of the process, what should I expect as a deliverable?

For a performance audit, you should expect a detailed report with baseline performance metrics (useful for comparison after subsequent optimizations or audits), executive summary, web page behavior (waterfalls etc.), and actionable recommendations for improvement.

Thanks, Andrew! If anyone has questions for Andrew, ask in the comments.

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