An effective onboarding process involves several levels to ensure a new hire is fully integrated into the team and wider company.
Each level should build confidence and set expectations with the new employee, laying the foundations for how they are to scale the organization.
In 2019, I surveyed 30 engineers working at 20 different companies from an engineering organization I am a member of called /dev/color. These engineers had worked at early-stage startups and Fortune 500 companies where none of the onboarding processes were created equally. This was much due to the complexity of the organizational structure and the value that the organization had put behind onboarding.
From the results of this study, I developed an onboarding framework that covers the essential department levels your process should comprise to ensure the best environment for your new hire to succeed. In this article, I will examine each of these departments and their role in depth, as well as discuss processes that will enhance each level to create the best possible onboarding experience.
Firstly, a committee should exist to provide value during the onboarding process, with the goal of making sure employees are set up for success. The onboarding committee should also share responsibility for building the ways departments and teams work together to get the new hire productive.
The onboarding ‘curriculum’ for each department level should be led in two ways: by a volunteer cohort of current employees, and by an executive sponsor or manager. The cohort’s responsibility is to provide the learning materials for the new hire to align them with the department and decide how these materials should be communicated and presented.
The executive sponsor or manager is there to oversee this process, helping to mitigate blockers and provide insight into hiring trends over the year. Providing insight into hiring trends helps the onboarding committee decide how they will need to manage their processes as it relates to specific hiring seasons. An example could be having a higher than normal amount of apprentices that start in the fall and winter, so you may solicit volunteers to have a previous apprentice cohort help onboard the new cohort. This chaining of cohorts is valuable due to shared experiences.
This is where new hires should be provided with the essential tools to perform their job as an engineer in your team. They should be given the information that enables them to understand the inner workings of the software development life cycle, as well as guidance around ownership and readership. This session should focus on ensuring a working environment setup is supplied to coworkers. For more details on effective environment setup, take a look at this white paper: page 57 shows a useful diagram of almost everything to consider in a development flow. This may not be the responsibility of the onboarding committee to design, but they have shared responsibility in creating ways new hires interact with the environment.
This session should be delivered by employees who are closest to the product and work with it day-to-day. This builds understanding around technologies used from the perspective of your end users – both internal and external. Mainly, this session is a checkpoint to field any questions regarding product investments in the organization and outline any roadmap items that the company will focus on for the remainder of the year.
Infrastructure and incident management onboarding
Issues are inevitable in any company. New hires should have dedicated time to ask questions and understand the impact to the business when services are unavailable. When an issue does occur, employees should know who to seek for expertise in a certain area or ways to contact support with a vendor as well. It is essential that new employees know the best way to communicate incidents and maintenance across the company. They may also need a holistic view of the procedure that happens if something is not behaving as intended. The new hire can be informed at this department level of how to reach out for change management and support for issues that may happen outside of their domain. The outcome of this session should result in some fixed time for the new hire to shadow an experienced employee who currently deals with incident management.
New leaders can come from internal or external hires, but in either case, they may need an introduction to other leaders in the organization to become familiar with cross-functional domains. New tech leads may also be involved in multiple product onboardings to increase understanding of how decisions are made and how their expertise may get leveraged in those areas. This helps them to increase collaboration with different teams and therefore build trust in the organization.
The way leaders are looked at for contributing to an organization might differ from the majority of the organization in terms of the skills needed. These skills may have nothing to do with development onboarding at all. This session helps provide a feedback cycle for leaders to meet each other and learn the company’s milieu. Therefore, it is worthwhile considering an engineering track or career path for tech leads in your organization. Tanya Reilly’s great article, Not all engineering leaders are engineering managers, discusses this in more detail.
What resources will help improve my department onboarding?
A roadmap in onboarding is the equivalent of a curriculum or course schedule at college. It defines what the new hire will be working on in each department and will help align the new hire goals with company goals. Questions from the new employee that should be answered by the roadmap include:
- What team am I on? What role does my team play within this department?
- Is there anything I should immediately focus on?
- What projects will I be working on right away?
- What is the project background? (History roadblocks, successes, pending ideas, etc.)
- Who will I interact with frequently and in what capacity? (Meetings, reviews, etc.)
- What does the weekly schedule look like? (Meetings where attendance is expected, etc.)
- How do we communicate? (Instant messenger, email, docs, etc.)
A rubric is useful for helping new hires understand expectations of the quality of their work learned around onboarding. Employees may judge their own work and accept more responsibility in areas they would like to grow their expertise in. Rubrics are useful assessment tools that allow new hires to take advantage of their time and progress from novice to advanced in a category over time. These categories may comprise the areas covered in the development session. Rubrics also help the onboarding committee determine what kind of content might need to get released in the sessions mentioned above for each section of the rubric. Check out this open source technical assessment rubric as an idea or template.
Code labs create a good way to internally source onboarding by incentivizing current employees to contribute to a lab-like environment. This allows employees to get hands-on experience with new technologies they are unfamiliar with. An example of a code lab would be deploying your application into an environment for the first time. Whether or not this is just a simple hello world service, it should objectively show how contributors are expected to write, test, review, and release. Creating a lab where it is possible to complete on the same day as the environment setup allows new hires to feel really productive and get a high-level understanding of what a typical day-to-day workflow is.
Dealing with onboarding really shouldn’t be bad. It typically smells when new hires experience tools and processes that are broken when joining and there is no one there to help facilitate questions they may have.
Allocating time and resources to provide these sessions to your new hire goes a long way. Hopefully, your company has the ability and culture to support either a volunteer-led or resource-managed onboarding team. (Here, we only discussed the context of having a volunteer-led committee.) The better the experience is, the more new hires will look forward to participating in helping the committee to provide the same experience for others. This setup is also a good way for employees to meet each other and work together in a context that may differ from day-to-day responsibilities.
A lot of companies only evaluate their new hires based on being able to submit a change in the first week. This first change shouldn’t be a one-off bug fix or lingering backlog ticket but something that ideally encompasses utilizing the full developer environment. Products and leaders need attention too.
Hopefully, this article will help you to create an effective onboarding experience for all. But if the structure of the sessions suggested above does not fit your organization, explore ideas to help accelerate the growth of new hires at your company through a fixed time range in the first month. The time and effort invested will be worth it.