Engineering onboarding

  Wynn Netherland • 2017-11-27

As an engineering team leader, your role in the hiring process doesn't end with an accepted offer. New hires need to be onboarded as productive members of the team.

Even with the best HR department, successful onboarding requires effort from the whole team. Here are some practical ways you and your team can onboard engineers with greater speed and success.

0. Before they arrive

The time to start preparing for a new team member is long before they join, sometimes before you have an actual name to plug into the org chart. Put some thought into what a new person needs to know and the people they need to meet in that first couple weeks, and start making a list of TODOs.

1. Assign a buddy

New folks benefit greatly from having a buddy throughout the process, and that is likely not their manager. There are exceptions — brand new or very small teams may have no choice — but in general, managers don't have the availability or the hands-on perspective new hires need. Where you can, assign a peer to be an onboarding buddy for new people.

2. Create a checklist

Treat an onboarding event like any other chore you'd track in your project issue tracker. Create a list of everything that needs to happen, who needs to complete the item, and share it with your new hire and their buddy. Task lists in GitHub issues are perfect for this. Provide context for each item on the list and link to any outside resources the new team member will need to complete each task. Be clear about which items are more time sensitive and try to give a rough time frame to have each item completed (Today, This week, Next week, etc.)

Make the issue available to the entire team so the buddy (and broader team) can help out.

Common onboarding tasks include:

  • Development environment bootstrapping instructions
  • A list of GitHub Teams to join
  • Requesting invitations to SaaS tools
  • A list of repositories to watch or clone
  • A list of people to meet
  • Links to resources to read or watch
  • Background reading about process or recurring meetings
  • Setting up regular 1:1s with a manager

Here's a sample format I've used with some success:

3. Aim for a quick contribution

Hopefully if you've put in the work to find and interview technical people, you've got a backlog waiting on them. That may sound obvious, but I've joined teams where my first assignment was to "sit tight" — once for weeks. Before a new team member reports for duty, compose a list of items that would help them contribute quickly.

Nothing makes you feel like part of the team faster than shipping to production your first week.

Most teams identify more work than they can possibly complete. As part of your ongoing triage process, make a note of lower priority issues that require little or no background context to complete. Tagging those items with a Good first issue label provides a backlog for new team members to get started quickly.

4. Be an advocate

With any new job, there's list of pay and compensation considerations that take up headspace. Seek to help new folks get their questions answered and any problems resolved, knowing their anxiety impacts the whole team. Don't assume they are having a smooth experience with HR. Ask them direct questions like:

  • Do you have your direct deposit set up?
  • Have you made your benefits elections?
  • Are you getting everything you need from HR?
  • Anything I can do to help?

5. Gather feedback and iterate

As new hires complete the onboarding process, gather feedback and suggestions for improving the experience for the next teammate through the door. Ask them to list what parts of the process were unclear or incorrectly documented and propose changes.

Better onboarding, better outcomes

The goal of any onboarding effort isn't simply to reduce the time it takes for a new team member to be productive in their role. The onboarding process shapes a new person's view of the organization, the team, and the individuals they work with. Turnover is higher among new hires, and successful onboarding can give them a greater chance to succeed.

Perhaps most importantly though, the onboarding process is a perfect opportunity to build trust, the currency of team productivity over the long haul.

Wynn Netherland
Wynn Netherland

Engineering Director at Adobe Creative Cloud, team builder, DFW GraphQL meetup organizer, platform nerd, author, and Jesus follower.