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11 Questions for a Better Developer Onboarding Program

Created: January 11, 2021

Inspired by the Joel Test for better code, I've come up with a similar rubric for evaluating your Developer Onboarding program.

  1. Is your Onboarding program consistent and easily repeatable?
  2. Do you make new hires feel welcome before they start?
  3. Do you send them their paperwork before they start?
  4. Do you set up their systems and accounts before they start?
  5. Do you spread out social introductions over days or weeks?
  6. Do you include new hires in team discussions immediately?
  7. Do you start new hires on a training project that mimics normal project work?
  8. Do you provide technical skill training?
  9. Do you provide soft skill training?
  10. Do you pair new hires with a mentor who isn't their manager?
  11. Do you incorporate feedback mechanisms?

Provide a simple Yes/No answer to each question, and score 1 point per Yes. Naturally an 11 is the ideal. An 8 or better is pretty good. With less than 5, I'd have significant concerns about the stress you're putting on new hires, and I would not be surprised to see correspondingly high turnover rates among your developers.

If you'd like to share how your program scores with me, fill out this survey.

1. Is your Onboarding program consistent and easily repeatable?

To make it consistent, document the entire Onboarding procedure. Define and assign all responsibilities and the timeline of events from start to finish for a new hire. Do not lock the documentation down; keep it open to all employees, and encourage real-time edits so that it remains up-to-date. Likewise for relevant team procedures; document them, share them with the company, and encourage updates. The easier it is to update documentation, the more likely it is to stay updated.

Some helpful things to document:

  1. Onboarding Program tasks, expectations, and timeline
  2. Email Templates: Acceptance Response email, Day 1 Introduction email, Welcome Announcement email
  3. Employee FAQ: What is the pay schedule? What are the company PTO/leave/sick/holiday policies? What are typical/expected working hours?
  4. Who's Who?: Who does what around the company? Who can they go to for questions about certain topics?
  5. Timeline of Events with Dates and Attendees: 1 on 1s, team introduction(s), tours, demos
  6. Application Ecosystem: What are the applications used to run the business? How do they access them? Where can they learn more about the applications?

Read more about building a repeatable Onboarding program ...

2. Do you make new hires feel welcome before they start?

One of the simplest things you can do is to send a welcoming email response after they've notified you of their offer acceptance. Some helpful things to include in the "pre-boarding" email (or series of emails):

  1. Expression of genuine interest and excitement to work with them
  2. Agenda for Day 1, including start time
  3. Names and emails for important points of contact, especially for anyone they're going to meet on Day 1
  4. Reminders for any physical materials they'll need to have ready (e.g. voided check for direct deposit)
  5. Invitation to ask questions or start conversations before Day 1
  6. A quick summary of what the team is currently working on or what type of project the new hire will soon be involved in
  7. Expression of your feelings on why this person is a good fit for that team/project

Read more about welcoming new hires ...

3. Do you send new hires their paperwork before they start?

After you've excitedly acknowledged their offer acceptance, but well before their first day, send your new hire some or all of the relevant paperwork via email. Let them know they can gradually complete it leading up to their first day.

Keep track of any questions that come up regarding the paperwork, along with the answers, in an FAQ document.

Read more about avoiding paperwork during Onboarding ...

4. Do you set up a new hire's system and accounts before they start?

Provision all of their accounts ahead of time (email, chat, NetSuite, etc). Their accounts should be ready and waiting on Day 1.

Document the list of applications – both the cloud applications they'll be using and the installed applications.

If you purchase a laptop for your new hire, pre-load the laptop with the applications they'll require for their development environment. If you don't purchase for them, make sure to send them the list of applications ahead of time so they can download and install early.

Even if you're extremely flexible about what tools developers use, you should at least have a document describing your "recommended" setup. Share that document early with new hires so they can prepare accordingly.

Read more about system setup for Onboarding ...

5. Do you spread out social introductions over days or weeks?

When you hire someone, chances are that both of you are planning on this person sticking around for a while. There should be no rush in introducing them to every possible person or piece of knowledge they might some day six months from now possibly need.

Keep the required, formal meetings in the first week to the barest essentials:

  • Manager and/or Mentor 1-on-1s
  • Immediate team welcome
  • Immediate team standups/statuses
  • Immediate team problem-solving
  • Other important stakeholders gradually and only as necessary

Your job during Onboarding is to avoid inducing fear and exhaustion and instead build confidence and excitement.

Read more about social introductions in Onboarding ...

6. Do you include new hires in team discussions immediately?

Incorporate new hires into normal team discussions immediately; don't isolate them in some separate area of work for days or weeks.

Encourage questions – even if it's something your team has already hashed out. It won't hurt your team to reiterate their reasoning on past decisions.

Read more about incorporating team members early ...

7. Do you start new hires on a training project that mimics day-to-day work?

When it comes to Onboarding new hires, the closer the experience is to their day-to-day work, the faster they'll take up those processes, tools, and habits. The closer our Onboarding mimics the way the team works, the faster new hires will integrate.

"Training" project doesn't necessarily mean "fake", either. While it's irresponsible and counterproductive to throw them straightaway into a stressful project, it might be impractical and uneconomical to have them spend weeks on something that has no impact on the rest of the company. While I do typically recommend against using any client work as training – no matter how "small" – there are many other opportunities to combine a great training experience with something productive for the company as well.

Read more about the Onboarding Training Project ...

8/9. Do you provide access to both soft and technical skill training?

Soft skills and technical skills are called out separately in our framework because they are equally important and deserve equal status.

When I refer to "training" in this context, I mean Training intended to teach a new skill or knowledge set – an instructor-led video course, for example. With this definition in mind, I do not equate Onboarding with Training, and I actually believe Training to be detrimental early in Onboarding.

Proper training is all about building new skills, and new skills cannot be taught, absorbed, and applied appropriately within just a few hours, days, or even weeks of being spoken at. Training takes time to sink in and generally forces one to isolate themself in order to watch videos or consume material, and that isolation is devastating to the very early stages of Onboarding.

Training is extremely valuable for the continued growth of a team, and it is not something that should be limited solely to new hires or restricted to the Onboarding stage.

Read more about Training and Onboarding ...

10. Do you pair new hires with a mentor who isn't their manager?

Mentors help to drown out all the noise and maintain focus solely on the best next step on the path. Mentors provide the most timely answers, the most effective, personalized advice, and helpful encouragement when it's needed most. Having a real person there to listen, advise, and guide along the path is invaluable – particularly for junior developers.

Mentoring programs do not have to be intimidating or highly structured or formal, although they do benefit from investment and structure like any other skill or system. To get started, you only have to decide that mentoring is a priority for you and your team.

The crucial piece of mentoring is the close relationship it builds among mentor, mentee, and team. Mentors and mentees will be more invested in the team; mentees will more quickly establish social bonds and learn the ins and outs of their work, and the team will be more efficient, consistent, and productive for it.

Read more about Mentoring in Onboarding ...

11. Do you incorporate bi-directional feedback into your Onboarding program?

There are three important areas of feedback to consider during Onboarding:

  • How is the new hire feeling?
  • How is the process performing?
  • How is the organization performing?

Hold brief but frequent check-ins between manager/mentor and new hire; around 10 minutes on a daily or near-daily interval.

Use the opportunity to call out and coach through any bad habits or behaviours; right now is the best time to course-correct.

Demonstrate that you're available to the new hire, and continually provide them with opportunities to provide their own feedback. If they don't take that opportunity, that's fine – there will be another opportunity for both of you tomorrow.

Read more about Feedback in Onboarding ...

How did your program score?