Companies invest a lot of calories into recruiting and hiring engineers. We obsess over helpful prep information, interview questions, and timely follow-up emails. Creating a great experience shouldn’t stop once someone's accepted an offer, though. The time right before a new hire starts and their first few weeks are just as important, if not more, in shaping how engaged and happy they’re going to be on your team.
The challenge is there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to onboarding engineers. Managers and team leads have to identify what a new hire needs to be successful based on the team culture, dev process, and that individual’s learning style. Not surprisingly, getting someone up to speed is hard and making sure they’re engaged and comfortable while doing it is even harder.
We wanted our tech leads to have the chance to learn how other organizations are tackling these challenges, so we hosted Tech Talk at Night: Tech Lead Edition last week where engineering leaders shared their best onboarding practices. Robby Grossman (Director of Engineering at Wistia), Arian Radmand (Co-Founder and Director of Engineering at CoachUp), Robert Lacy (Principal Software Engineer at Demandware), Bryan Healey (Software Development Manager at Amazon), and our VP of Engineering Eric Richard talked about how they get new hires started, and some of the “aha!” moments they’ve had over the years. Check out the recording and key ideas below.
Starting Before You Start
A theme that was shared across the panel was doing as much as you can for a new hire before they actually start. Those few weeks, and in some cases months, between accepting an offer and getting to the office shouldn’t feel like a prolonged awkward silence for you or them. The key is giving them context without making them feel overwhelmed. Wistia has new hires sign an NDA before they start so they can get familiar with their tools and technology as soon as possible, and Demandware runs compliance onboarding training before employees’ actual start date. Robert added that having their laptop ready to go before they even walk in the door goes a long way in making their first day go smoothly.
We’ve sent interns and co-ops newsletter-type emails that highlight team announcements, fun activities, or big projects we’ve shipped since they accepted their offer, and we’re thinking of more ways to keep that dialogue open. Whichever way they work with developers before they start, all our panelists agreed that getting a new developer up to speed technically and culturally early helps ease day one jitters and gets them contributing to the code base faster.
Mentoring Can Be a Group Effort
Giving new hires advice, guidance, and feedback is a big job whether you’re running a big team or managing two developers. At Amazon, a huge company that Bryan described as a “humongous collection of a million startups”, once engineering orientation is over (where all new hires learn standards and best coding practices together), individual teams and team leads are responsible for mentoring the people on their team.
For smaller organizations, like CoachUp and Wistia, it’s helpful for newbies to go outside their direct team for guidance. Robby said that every new hire has a buddy when they first start who they can go to with work questions, cultural questions, general office questions etc. That person isn’t usually their manager, but a peer who can help them get unstuck. At CoachUp, developers are encouraged to “code with everyone to get to know everyone”. Different organizations and TLs have different ways of setting the tone for the player/coach model, but making mentorship easily accessible and readily available is critical across the board.
Giving Feedback Early and Often
New hires are going to make mistakes because, well, they’re humans. But when you’re new to an organization and trying to find your footing, missing the mark on a project or task is going to feel like a much bigger deal than it would a year down the line. Everyone agreed that creating an environment where failure isn’t a taboo is critical for those first few weeks. Robert says he likes to “make mistakes in front of people so they know it’s not a big deal.” That way, when they mess up, they don’t need to feel uncomfortable or intimidated to ask for help.
Robby made a great point about how important it is to give new hires negative feedback. Managers tend to want to give encouragement and hold off on constructive criticism to build up someone’s confidence early on, but TLs should be giving them "direct feedback, good and bad" as soon as they can. If you wait, “it’s more biting because they know they’ve been doing it wrong for a few weeks or months.”
Setting Up for Success
Mistakes are inevitable, and being new to an organization is always going to be tough in some ways. But TLs can make a huge difference in someone’s success by thinking through every detail early on and making sure they have the right goals and tasks; Bryan described the best project for new developers as deliverable, and “real world, but contained. It has to be something they know is going to actually be used.”
Creating those opportunities for new hires to have an impact from day one, making mentorship readily available, and providing them with context before they get their hands dirty can all make onboarding a little bit easier on you and your team.
What are some of your best strategies for onboarding new hires?