You Found the Right Fit; Now Start Them on the Right Foot: How Onboarding Can be Painful or Powerful

Jonathan RauschCulture

It’s your first day at your new job. You show up ready to conquer the world. You meet all the new people, get all the paperwork done and sit down at your new desk for the first time. Unfortunately, where you would expect your computer to be, instead you find a variety of delivery boxes from Newegg and Amazon.

As much fun as it sounds for some people to spend their first day at a job assembling their computer and desk, it’s probably not what the employee was hired to do. No instructions, no guidance and no idea what to do next.

As employers, we invest significant time and money in finding the right candidate. We’ve convinced the candidate our company is the right fit, but when the employee shows up too many hiring managers do too little to help them succeed. At worst, new employees are thrown to the wolves to fend for themselves. It’s no wonder we hear stories of people walking out of their jobs a few days after they start.

Onboarding a new employee is as important as finding the right person. A great onboarding experience sets a strong standard of excellence for performance and is the first opportunity to model the behavior you would like your new employees to exhibit. And if you can help your new employee succeed quickly, it establishes a strong bond of trust.

Do others think a new employee is just going to just show up and start pumping out work? Nothing is worse than showing up as a new employee and realizing no one has a plan. So what should an effective onboarding plan look like?

Make the Emotional Transition Easy

A new employee emotionally starts the moment they accept the offer. We understand they have the tough task of resigning from their current job– and saying goodbye to their existing teammates. We keep in touch with them to provide encouragement and support while they break up with the unfortunate company who just lost them. We also make use of the waiting period (before their first day) to get the paperwork done digitally so the administrative work is mostly complete by the time they arrive on their first day.

While the employee is winding down things at their prior job, we are working hard to ensure everything is ready for them on their first day. In short, start with setup before they show up. Somewhere there is a list of everything a new employee will need to get started. This includes an email address, licenses, computers, monitors, various accounts for IDE’s, source control, build systems, etc. If you don’t have such a checklist, create it! We make sure the checklist is complete before the new employee shows up on their first day so they are not running around trying to get it done themselves.

Help Them Succeed Quickly

New employees can quickly drown in a sea of information. Find a place to collect all this information so the employee can quickly and easily reference it. We use their new email as a place to send their license information, meeting invites, company holiday calendars, etc. When a new employee boots that computer up for the first time and checks their email, they already have useful information waiting for them. We throw in an email welcoming them and letting them know just how excited everyone is to have them at the company. We also have a rich set of documentation in Confluence readily at the new employee’s fingertips.

New employees don’t want to make mistakes and want to feel successful quickly, so we break down their first few days into a checklist of things to do. Our checklist takes them from the login screen to code in production within the first two days. It includes steps to set up their computer, links to tutorials, documentation to read and who to reach out to for help along each step of their way.

Our onboarding checklist is not perfect. We iterate on it and make it better with each new hire. In fact, the best person to improve the checklist is the last person to use it — and we encourage all new employees to help us improve the onboarding experience. This is one of the most important contributions they make in the first few weeks.

Facilitate Relationship Building

While a checklist breaks inertia and helps move new employees down the right path, it is just as important that our new teammates start building solid relationships with their teammates. After all, software engineering is a team sport and relationships can make or break a team. Therefore, we involve the team in celebrating a new employee’s progress and helping them along the way. We want our new employees to feel certain they have everyone’s support in getting up to speed.

We use the checklist as an opportunity for new hires to learn something from their new colleagues. Need a walkthrough of our ticketing system? Katie would be glad to help. Want to know how we deploy our code? David is waiting to show you.

Accelerate Their Contributions

One of the best ways to build positive relationships on a team is to contribute to that team, but a new employee’s ability to help is usually limited by domain knowledge. We start our new employees on easier tasks that both help them feel successful while also building domain knowledge, and we grow their contributions as quickly as we can.

Where can you start? Most teams have a long list of bugs and small technical debt tickets. We sure do! These tasks aren’t meant to be challenging but they are perfect for familiarizing a new employee with the domain and familiarizing them with the process. Our team readily produces these small tasks weeks before the new hire starts so there is a nice batch of quick and easy work ready to be pulled. We even have a lane in our backlog dedicated to these tasks labeled “Opportunities for New Hires.”

Even though the first tasks we give to new hires may be bugs, technical debt or very small features, they are not random tasks. We have an ideal vision of what squad a new hire will be joining and what that squad’s needs are. Our engineering leaders have already met with the squad and have a mutual understanding of the squad’s gaps and needs. Therefore, the early tasks given to a new hire are aimed at building the skills needed to help that squad pump out new features faster.

Onboarding can be Painful or Powerful

To make it powerful, just remember:

  • Make the emotional transition easy
  • Help them succeed quickly
  • Facilitate relationship building
  • Accelerate their contributions

If you do it right, your new hires will be releasing code to production within a few days and promoting you as a great employer to their friends while your competitors are still fumbling over I-9 paperwork.