Improving Your Engineering Team's Onboarding Processes

This is a guest post by writer Trevor Gilbert.

Getting onboarding right isn’t easy. Despite going through the work of interviewing potential employees, negotiating pay and contracts, and finally getting a signed offer letter, there’s still the chance things can go wrong.

A big part of this has to do with onboarding. If your onboarding isn’t successful there may be long term repercussions, lowered productivity, and then finally a scene of you saying goodbye to that once promising employee as they get frustrated and leave.

To help you avoid this, we want to talk about three things today. The first are the goals you should set for your onboarding, the second are the proven practices you can begin to put into place to ensure you achieve those goals, and finally to explain what you can work on over the coming months to improve your team’s onboarding processes.

Start with the Goals

In order to do anything right you need to know what you’re working towards. There are two high-level goals you should incorporate into your onboarding strategy — ignore them at your peril.

Goal 1: Increase Productivity Immediately

If you’re recruiting effectively then you’re probably saying “no” fifty times as often as you are saying “yes”. This is intentional: you only want to hire people who you think will make valuable contributions to your business, which means you need to look for the most productive people.

Unfortunately, much of this productivity is never realized due to ineffective onboarding practices. By just winging it you end up with new employees who aren’t sure what their jobs entail, how to do their work, or who to ask questions of when they run into trouble. Each of these major productivity sappers can be overcome by rethinking your onboarding processes.

Goal 2: Cut Long Term Attrition Rates

Let’s say that you manage to hire some absolutely wonderful people, they’re creating great code, and they are constantly trying to do more. Then, after a few months, it seems like they’ve started to burn out and you can tell that their extended lunch breaks are really just cover for interviewing with other companies.

Why are they leaving? It could very well be a broken onboarding. We say this because the first impression really does matter and your first impression could be leading people to not understand your culture, how you resolve conflicts between people, how to take the initiative on new projects, or how to advance in the company. If you don’t emphasize these points early, you may never get the chance to share this information with them, leading them to leave the company in frustration.

Best Practices You Can Use Starting This Week

Once you understand the goals you can start to implement some new practices that will help you increase productivity and decrease long term attrition rates on your technical teams.

Practice 1: Onboard People as Part of a Class

Instead of bringing on your new employees one person at a time, try to organize classes of people. This means that on their starting day, people will be grouped with 1 or 2 other people who are joining the company at the same time. This will lead to people getting answers to questions they were too afraid to ask, and will also allow you to dedicate more time to sharing information with the new team members. It’s a simple change, but be warned that it will require you to shift around your starting dates to make sure they line up.

Practice 2: Designate a Buddy for Every New Team Member

This practice comes to us courtesy of Asana, which puts a big emphasis on designating a buddy for every new member of the team. This has a big impact, since the new employee will know who to go to when they need an answer, they’ll have someone to show them around, and will have an instant connection with someone in the company other than their manager.

In addition, as the team at Asana points out,

“The buddy system also creates explicit opportunities for the new engineer to give feedback to the organization. New hires provide unique value: the ability to see the organization without the curse of knowledge. They cycle in new ideas and help prevent institutionalized biases. Valuing a new hire’s opinions early on sets the tone for their future contributions.”

Practice 3: Ship Something on Day One

Shipping code on day one (or during week one) is fairly well known at this point in the tech industry, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention it. Whether just updating the team page, fixing a typo, or making a change to the styling of a website, new team members feel more valuable when they are able to hit the ground running. In addition, it’s also a great way to show them what your deployment practices are, since they’ll need to follow them to get their code out into production.

Practice 4: Daily meetings with different teams to get them up to speed

The last practice you can start rolling out immediately is to set up a series of daily meetings outside of the engineering teams to make sure your new hires fully comprehend what’s going on at the company. Remember: they have no context from previous all hands meetings, new project announcements, or the years of work that has been going on.

We recommend setting up meetings with marketing, sales, operations, recruiting, and any adjacent engineering teams to make sure they’re getting as full a context on what’s going on as possible. This will have a big impact on their productivity, since they’ll understand how their work ties into the broader initiatives at the company.

Things to Work On Over Time

Beyond these practices, there are some things that you can build towards over time. These aren’t going to be immediate wins, but they are going to have the biggest impact over the years to come.

Start a Developer Bootcamp

This practice was popularized by Facebook and is still strongly associated with their onboarding. In a few words, Facebook has a Developer Bootcamp that helps get their engineers up and running as quickly as possible. It also helps in placing them with the right team and with full context of Facebook’s code base.

“The primary goal of Bootcamp is to get people up to speed on our all parts of our code base while promoting good habits that we believe will pay dividends in the long term,” says Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth, “such as fearlessly fixing bugs as we come across them rather than leaving them for future engineers. We have high expectations for our engineers and part of Bootcamp is making sure those expectations are met.”

You may not be ready to start an entire class right now, but you can begin to set up sessions for new members of your technical team to take part in before their first month is up. This can go a long way towards making sure they’re getting the context they need to be successful in their new position, as well as to make them more confident in making the decisions you’ve hired them to make.

Create an employee handbook

One interesting practice that has become more popular over the last few years is creating a very detailed and official employee handbook. One of the more famous of these handbooks is from Valve, the creators of the video game distribution software Steam. Valve published their handbook in full online, so you can take a look at it here.

There are a few advantages to creating an employee handbook. First, it sets down the rules of the company so that there’s no confusion in the months following about what is and isn’t expected. Second, there can be a mountain of information for people to take in during their first week so having a pre-written resource they can refer to is incredibly handy. Finally, the collaborative process of creating your handbook can lead to a better internal understanding about how your company works, what areas of friction exist, and where you can improve.

Regardless of which of these practices you decide to try out, we absolutely recommend you try at least some of them. Then, see which ones are helping you achieve your onboarding goals and look for areas for improvement. If you need any help, get in touch and we’ll be glad to chat!

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Posted by Kristen Gallagher

Kristen Gallagher

Photograph by Hailey King

Kristen Gallagher is the founder and CEO of Edify, a learning strategy partner that develops learning strategies and employee onboarding programs for high-growth technical organizations. Kristen has architected and delivered onboarding programs for companies bringing on just one person a quarter to 100+ people a quarter, in just one office and 13+ global offices. Her range of expertise in the science of adult learning, business strategy, knowledge management, and organizational development means that Kristen architects programs that are designed to evolve and scale with rapid changes.

At Edify, we believe that high growth doesn't have to mean high pain. We partner with you to build programs customized to your team to get your new hires up to speed faster and better - and help get them past those critical 6, 12, and 18 month marks. We do what few consultants dare to offer: we actually integrate your IT, HR, and Facilities teams to create a unified onboarding experience for both employees, managers, and administrators. We create onboarding experiences led by the new hire themselves - creating value for their development and their manager. We deliver value across the business by helping you create a business objective-focused and actionable learning & development strategy. We help you pinpoint the challenges your junior and seasoned, but unsupported, managers face in juggling people management and technical management, then we solve for exactly those challenges.

If you're tired of scrambling to onboard your new hires, struggling with the same-old, same-old management challenges, and looking to galvanize your team so they can meet the vision, it's time you looked for a partner like Edify!