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Developer onboarding for new college grads

You just hired 10 new college graduates with software engineering degrees. In addition to HR onboarding—discussing company policies, how to enroll for benefits, where to park—how do you introduce these new hires to your software development teams? How do they learn your processes, tech stack, and engineering culture? We asked Erik Gross, Principal Consultant, Engineering Transformation at Pluralsight, to weigh in on these questions.

What do employers need to think about when designing an engineer onboarding program for new college hires?

Erik Gross (EG): Often, employers encounter unexpected surprises with this demographic group. Even graduates from top software development undergraduate programs sometimes are missing a basic foundation in how to build software. They may have “book” knowledge of the software development lifecycle, but they may not have practice in all the phases.

Also, they typically don’t know much about the different environments you need to stand up to execute a software project. They’ll need help understanding what a computing environment is—where the application lives as it goes through the development process.  

Where do they muck around and experiment? Where do they do formal testing? What’s the environment right before you go live? And finally, what is the production environment?

An effective developer onboarding program for new college grads will close these knowledge gaps so your new hires can contribute meaningfully to projects right away. In the absence of such a program, the new hire’s teammates end up answering all the questions not covered in your onboarding, which slows overall team velocity.

What other surprises do employers encounter when onboarding new software development grads?

EG: There’s one shocker I expect to see, but then every time I see it, I feel floored all over again. Many new college grads are missing some web fundamentals—networking basics, what the Internet Protocol is, and background in HTTP. They don’t understand the request/response cycle within HTTP or the difference between client-side and server-side applications. 

An entry-level back-end developer needs foundational knowledge in the whole front end, since the front end sends requests to the back end. Even the best computer science programs often do not cover these topics adequately.

So, how does a developer onboarding program fill these knowledge gaps?

EG: A well-designed onboarding program shows news hires how to be successful in your particular engineering organization and what to expect when they reach your team.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take very long to orient new college grads to the fundamentals they’ll need to succeed in their new role. They can quickly absorb what they need to know about the software development lifecycle and web fundamentals. From there, the onboarding delves into the particulars of your processes, tools, and tech stack. How do you create tickets? How do you track your work against a ticket?

Also, even if your new hires learned some principles of Agile project management in college, they’ll need to know what Agile looks like in your environment. What specific flavor are you using? No two implementations of Agile are identical.

Onboarding introduces the project and your code base. New hires learn that the code for an application will move through certain stages of development, beginning on the individual developer’s machines. Then, it moves into a central development environment they can use for experimentation. Next, it goes into a testing environment, then a staging environment, and finally into the production environment.

If new college grads understand this journey, then they know where to start as soon as they move on to their team. They understand how to find out what environments currently exist, what they are used for, and how to connect with them.

What are some common questions you hear from new software engineering grads?

EG: New college grads have some unique concerns that you’re less likely to hear from experienced hires.

First, it’s important to note that this demographic group may feel reluctant to ask questions. They have questions but are less likely to voice them.

In an academic environment, students sometimes feel unsafe raising their hand. They may worry about sounding stupid or unprepared in front of their peers. Some professors convey that they expect students to know the answer already or look it up themselves. These graduates arrive in the workplace uncertain of what questions are okay to ask. Instead of “ask when in doubt,” they often have the opposite reflex: “When in doubt, stay silent.”

As a manager, you want these new college hires to ask questions. You don’t want them making wrong assumptions or guesses that lead to avoidable mistakes. So, one important element in a strong developer onboarding program is reframing the importance of questions.

As an instructor, this is one of the most challenging elements of these programs. It can be hard to pull students out of their shells to build the habit of inquiry. These new hires need to know it’s the industry norm to ask questions, and that the people we view poorly are the ones who don’t ask . . . who aren’t willing to say, for example, “I’m not quite sure how X works.”

Becoming comfortable admitting a knowledge gap is a very tough adjustment for a lot of new college grads. One of the most helpful things you can do as an employer is give them a set of questions they can ask when they arrive on their teams. You want them in the mindset, “If I find out these three or four things, I’ll feel oriented.”

What’s the most common technical question you hear from new software developers?

EG: I’d say the most common questions are around version control. But I think it’s the “why” behind those questions that merits more explanation. Many new hires fear making on-the-job mistakes. They worry they’ll break something. They wonder what to do if they make a mistake. How do they recover?

The best onboarding programs anticipate questions around version control and include a whole module on the topic. Your new hires may have experimented with it in college, but they want to know what it looks like in the real world. When they master it, they feel calmer and more confident about their ability to contribute meaningfully as soon as they get on the job.

What other fears do they express?

EG: When you’re walking into the unknown, the mind can go into overdrive thinking about what-ifs.

No engineering manager would say, “Hey, we're going to give the new college hire the architectural responsibility on an application.”

But many new hires are uncertain what will get thrown at them. They worry they’ll be asked to design an entire application right out of the gate, and they don’t feel as if they know how to do that. It helps to provide examples of the types of things they might be asked to solve in their first weeks on the job.

For example, you can let them know that they may build a specific feature, but they only have to make it work. They don’t necessarily have to worry about choosing the absolute best algorithm for accomplishing the task. Does their feature work and meet the basic requirements?

Once they’ve gotten to that point, a more senior developer can then come in and say, “Oh good, you got it working . . . let’s look at it together . . . here are a couple of places where you could tweak this to be more efficient (or more in line with the standards we use for application development).”

An effective developer onboarding program shows the types of work new hires will be doing and types of tasks they won’t have to do right away. Having a picture of what the job looks like—what it involves and doesn’t include—helps reduce anxiety so that new hires feel calmer and more confident as they arrive on their teams. You want their self-talk to sound like this: “Phew! I won’t have to design the entire architecture of the computer program and implement it from scratch.”

How do new grad onboarding programs affect career trajectory?

EG: Last year, one of the employers where we delivered an onboarding program estimated that the curriculum accelerated new college grads’ careers by about 18 months (as compared to earlier cohorts who did not have the program).

In my opinion, the biggest factor in this number was quelling imposter syndrome. New hires had been afraid to work on some assigned tasks out of fear they would do it wrong.

No reasonable development team is going to say, “Oh my word! I can’t believe you did it that way.” Or, “Are you the most stupid person on the planet?” But that’s a concern that may be lurking in your new college hire’s mind.

By dispelling these concerns in your onboarding program and providing a clear picture of what the job will actually entail, new hires begin their work confidently instead of with hesitation. They are able to go grab a task in a proactive way instead of waiting for instructions. They know they’ll be able to do a decent job and that the team has their back.

They’ll be many months ahead of peers who haven’t received this strong foundation. In organizations lacking this type of structured engineer onboarding, it takes a lot longer for new college hires to develop this same level of confidence.

Do these developer onboarding programs help in recruiting candidates?

EG: Computer science undergraduates often have their eyes on the biggest names in tech—Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and so forth. In reality, though, nearly every employer needs tech talent. If you’re in an industry that’s not top of mind as a technology employer, a good developer onboarding program coupled with compelling recruitment advertising can help you stand out from the crowd.

Remember, even students from top engineering schools can feel uncertainty when stepping into their first post-college job. Will they have what it takes to succeed? Will they be able to do the work right away? Unless someone has interned with the organization they’ll join post-college, they’re walking into the great unknown, which can be scary.

Anything you can do as an employer to alleviate that fear gives you a competitive advantage in recruiting.

You can say to candidates, “You may not have thought of us as a technology company. Well, not only are we a tech company, but we also understand how to get a person up to speed in a technology role. We know that you know your computer science stuff, and we’re not worried about that at all. What we’re going to show you is the actual practice of how software is made. We’ve got a program that will give you doable work right out of the gate. You’ll have a chance to contribute right away and know that your contributions are valuable. We’ll set you up for success for this job and your career. We’ll get you into the tech industry on really solid footing.”

That’s a compelling message for a computer science grad.

Interested in learning how other organizations are onboarding new software developers?