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Onboarding new engineers is always a challenge. But in large or growing organizations, it can be even harder.

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When new starters join the team, they have a lot to learn. How can you bring them up to speed as quickly and efficiently as possible, while making sure they feel comfortable and included, often within a remote environment?

As part of our series on managing your people as your business scales, LeadDev brought together a group of senior engineering leaders to discuss how they approach onboarding at scale, what their biggest pain points are, and how they’re finding potential solutions.

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To kick off the session, Austin Bagley, Senior Developer Advocate at Pluralsight, gave a presentation on his research into the key behaviors that lead to onboarding success. His team spent three years looking at thousands of companies across more than one million data points to understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to onboarding. Here are his key takeaways.

  1. There’s a surprisingly large gap between new starters and full onboarded folks in terms of delivering value: Ramped engineers contribute a whole 40% more impact to the codebase. You can hire talented people, but they need to understand the context, and how the team functions, in order to perform – which means you should be investing as much into onboarding as you are into talent and hiring.
  2. It takes companies on average six to seven months to onboard an engineer. In the bottom quartile of companies, it can take as long as a year. And in the top quartile, it can take just three to four months. Onboarding efficiently saves a lot of time (and money!).
  3. These companies in the top quartile had something in common: New starters received more meaningful feedback. Where new engineers were working on PRs as part of a team, there were 42% more review comments in top-quarter orgs, compared to the rest of the orgs in the study. And in each of those comments, there were 65% more words. Making sure that new folks are supported through the coding process like this makes a big difference.
  4. The research also showed that teamwide investment is critical. Companies that facilitated peer-shadowing and pair and mob programming earlier in the tenure of new engineers were able to onboard folks faster. Giving newbies face time with senior and mid-level engineers helps to show them the way things should work. It’s an investment to pull valuable folks off projects, but the costs are outweighed by the benefits of onboarding groups quickly.

Group discussion

Next, the group came together to discuss their own experiences of onboarding at scale. They shared the major pain points they’ve experienced when introducing new folks to large companies, then worked together to generate ideas for potential workarounds. Here are the challenges and solutions they came up with.

  1. Understanding the company ecosystem

Problem: Helping new engineers to understand your company ecosystem is difficult, especially in a large organization with multiple microservices, or if you aren’t delivering a well-defined product. How can you train people on team structures, who does what, terminologies, different products, and the wider context?

Solution: Try creating an ownership spreadsheet that clarifies who owns what across the business, from microservices and third-party services to monoliths and apps. For example, who owns the contract with Zoom, or YouTube? What are their contact details? The idea is to empower new starters to connect with the right people to answer questions and fill in knowledge gaps. You could also create a ‘Who-should-I-ask-about’ Slack channel where newbies can find out who to go to with their burning questions.

  1. Sharing legacy knowledge

Problem: Once a company has scaled, it generally acquires a fair amount of tech debt and legacy tech. If only a few employees have knowledge of certain legacy systems, sharing this information can be really difficult – especially in a remote work environment where more knowledge lives in individual’s homes.

Solutions: It’s really important to make tribal knowledge less tribal. Documentation is critical so that information is readily available for new engineers. Invest your teams’ time in making this documentation clear and accurate; it will pay off in the long run.

To help share inside information, you can also create an engineering answer sheet based on the most common questions asked by your new starters. You can even automate this, by using an app that goes and fetches the answer for someone when they type in a question. And don’t forget to ask new hires to note down what’s missing, as they have the best knowledge of its usefulness.

  1. Working remotely

Problem: Lots of things are more difficult in a remote environment, from asking questions to working across time zones. In remote and asynchronous environments, it can be difficult to provide people with enough contact. How can you make sure they have everything that they need to onboard virtually while having visibility over their progress?

Solutions: You could try creating digital access bundles with all the information a new starter needs from the first day (for example, set up Slack and JIRA) to the first 30 days (for example, complete secure code warrior training). You could use a simple kanban board to lay out tasks and initiations so that folks can log in and get started straight away, without waiting for in-person direction. This way, managers can keep track of progress, and spot if someone is stuck and might need assistance.

  1. Managing expectations

Problem: New people move at different speeds, but when a group starts on the same date, it can create an expectation that everyone should be performing as quickly as the top engineer. This isn’t fair, or helpful; often folks who are slower at the beginning can go on to become high achievers.

Solutions: It’s important to address this bias early on, so make sure you call it out and educate existing team members on the potential trap. Try communicating the norms and expectations of the role on day one, both to the new starter and their surrounding team.

  1. Onboarding a large number of people

Problem: Managing large groups of new starters is a challenge. Should you stop the world and onboard 200 people? Or should you do it in a more meaningful way and try to stagger this? How can you make the experience as personal as possible?

Solutions: You can split large groups into subsets of people that you onboard at the same time, to make the experience more personal and positive for new starters. On the other hand, if staff capacity is the problem, you can limit onboarding days to two or three per month to make sure folks are available to facilitate. It’s a tricky balance between what works for the company and what benefits the candidates, but if you have the resources, use them to make your new engineers more comfortable. Onboarding is something worth investing in.

Automating processes is a great way to remove the pressure on facilitators. By creating a framework for people to self-serve (for example through preboarding and onboarding checklists, Slack information channels, and service desks) you can empower people to skip some of the human steps.

  1. Psychological safety

Problem: Starting a new job can be frightening. How can you help people to feel safe and comfortable? Onboarding relies on folks asking questions, but certain personalities may have a fear of raising their head. This can be especially tricky for diverse candidates who might feel they are representing an entire identity and don’t want to be seen as less competent or resourceful.

Solutions: If you have provided the right documentation, there will be fewer questions that need asking, which should help folks who don’t feel comfortable reaching out. You could also try implementing a buddy system, pairing new starters with a peer in their own team. This gives people an opportunity to develop a close-trust relationship straight away and means they should have at least one person they can feel comfortable going to with questions. You could also try assigning two buddies per new hire: One within their team and another from a cross-functional team, to help folks grow connections across the business.

Reflections

The group concluded that onboarding at scale isn’t easy, as it often involves a difficult balance between what works for the company short-term, and what benefits the new engineers. But bringing folks up to speed quickly, efficiently, and in a way that promotes psychological safety serves everyone in the long term – including the company. By investing in onboarding processes – both with your budgets and your other engineers’ time – you can make sure your new starters have access to all the knowledge and people they need to quickly become core members of the team.

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Episode 04 How engineering leaders at Apple, Facebook, and more create adaptable teams
Learnings from 'Managing your people as your business scales'
Episode 06 Learnings from 'Managing your people as your business scales'