A recent L&D Roundtable explored developer onboarding best practices. One of the takeaways? Effective programs for onboarding software developers and IT professionals have eight key elements as shown in the illustration below. Four of these elements take place sequentially. The other four span the entire developer onboarding process and beyond:
These developer onboarding best practices help achieve two overarching goals:
Boost retention by accelerating personal, cultural, role and team assimilation.
Ensure engineering excellence from new hires.
Take stock of each area. Does your organization have a well-developed plan for all eight elements? And for all work arrangements—in-person, hybrid and remote?
Here’s your developer onboarding checklist:
Element 1: Company overview
Often orchestrated by HR, the overview helps new hires understand your organization’s reason for being. Who are your customers? How do you add value for them? What is your company culture, and how do your cultural tenets play out on a day-to-day basis? What are your behavioral expectations?
Your goal: To show new hires the big picture—the vision of the “cathedral” they’ll be building. When done well, this portion of the developer onboarding process helps employees see that they are more than “bricklayers.”
Element 2: Technology immersion
Though it’s counterintuitive, sometimes you need to go slow in order to go fast. “Managers want their folks to start working. And engineers want to get their hands dirty, not sit in a classroom,” says Jennifer Silbermann of VMware. That said, software developers and IT professionals need a formal introduction to your company-specific terminology, technologies, workflows, business processes and tools. In the absence of this nuanced information, they may act based on their historical knowledge—what they’ve learned at other companies and in other industries. This can lead to on-the-job mistakes and expensive rework.
Technology immersion introduces employees to the actual type of work they will be doing for your organization. Ideally, it allows them to practice in a no-risk or low-risk way, where they can learn from mistakes before jumping into live projects. You want new hires to become comfortable with your tools, tech and use cases before they start tinkering with your code.
Of the developer onboarding best practices, this element tends to require the most time and resources. However, it enables employees to become productive more quickly. Both short and long term, this can save you money and headaches. It also helps employees feel more confident as they step into their new roles.
Element 3: Team integration
New hires need a clear understanding of who-does-what on their team. Who will they interact with on a day-to-day basis and how? Who is the best resource for particular topics if the employee has questions? The best developer onboarding programs include opportunities for formal introductions, job shadowing and/or peer mentoring, so that new hires feel like a valued part of the team from the outset.
Element 4: Ongoing education for developers
After the formal onboarding program is complete, new hires will still be on a learning curve. They benefit from ongoing opportunities to build their knowledge and skills, as well as encouragement to engage in continuous learning. Offering expansive education resources shows new hires that you care about their career growth, which improves retention.
Element 5: Culture modeling
Emphasize what you want employees to bake into their day-to-day thinking. For example, do you want them to step into the customer’s shoes in every decision? How and when do you want them to think about cybersecurity? And how do you help them practice this thinking so it becomes second nature?
If you want employees to embody a particular mindset, then executives, managers and team members need to model this mindset in their day-to-day actions. New hires will emulate what they see others doing. If your formal policies say one thing but your leadership is doing something else, your new hires likely will adopt the “something else.”
Organizations with the best developer onboarding practices tend to place a high cultural value on continuous learning. “It’s a brilliant catalyst when leaders are passionate about learning,” says Silbermann. “If I see my leaders making time and it’s a priority, I feel safe to make it a priority for myself.”
Element 6: Relationship-building activities
Developer onboarding best practices include activities that foster an immediate sense of community. Research shows that having a “best friend” at work can improve retention, employee engagement, productivity and other measures. Partner-based learning or a buddy system enables new hires to cultivate peer relationships quickly. The employees compare notes and learn from each other.
Element 7: Frequent check-ins
Designate a manager or mentor to check in with a new hire every day for the first week or two. As employees become more settled in their roles, managers can let more time pass between check-ins—but rarely more than a week.
Software developers and IT professionals need a regular opportunity to connect with their managers. These one-on-one meetings give employees a chance to ask questions, express concerns, share ideas and get feedback on projects. It’s a chance for a manager to acknowledge work well done and provide coaching where needed. New hires need to know what they are doing right so they can do more of it. Conversely, they need timely guidance on what they can improve, so they can modify an ineffective approach.
Element 8: Results measurement
Measure effectiveness in several ways and from several perspectives. Learner satisfaction. Knowledge gain. Reduction in job errors. Time to full productivity. Employee engagement. Retention.
Find out from hiring managers whether their newly onboarded tech employees are able to jump right into projects. If not, where are the gaps?
“Actively engage new hires in the betterment of the program,” advises Michael Kohanfars of Salesforce. “Find out from them what worked and didn’t work. Ask what they used and didn’t use.”
Tracking your results enables you to demonstrate the ROI of your formal developer onboarding initiatives. Further, these measures show where you can fine tune your program to make it even more effective.
Again, the goals of developer onboarding best practices include boosting retention and ensuring engineering excellence.
“Coming to a new company is hard…learning the right terminology and who to talk to…The investment you put into an onboarding program will make people feel taken care of and valued,” says Kohanfars. “It also helps the teams they’re going into feel less burdened.”
Don’t try to “boil the ocean,” though, advises Silbermann. When she first stepped into her role, she “tried to put too much” into her onboarding programs. “Talk to your audience and make sure you get to what’s important and what’s effective.”
Start with tightly-scoped developer onboarding initiatives to solve well-defined needs. Once you’ve implemented those and started measuring results, you can adjust your program from there—adding on as you have time and resources.
Interested in exploring how other employers are approaching developer onboarding? Or the differences between onboarding an experienced hire versus a new college grad? Or how to measure time to full productivity?
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