Blog articles

The onboarding process for experienced software engineers

January 04, 2023

The onboarding process can leave a lasting impression. Whether it’s a positive or negative one depends on your organization’s ability to meet new hires’ needs.

Table of contents

Onboard by experience level

An experienced software engineer holds different onboarding expectations than a new-grad software engineer. Understanding this distinction and tailoring your engineering onboarding to match shows new hires that you value them, their success, and their relationship with your organization.

In this guide, we share tips to help you onboard experienced, or senior-level, software engineers. After all, you hired them for their extensive experience. Empower them to use that expertise from day one with an onboarding process that gets them contributing to the codebase—and your team—faster.

What is onboarding? The big picture

Onboarding is more than paperwork and processes—it’s fully integrating someone into your organization. It includes completing new hire paperwork, learning organizational values, gaining familiarity with the tech stack, and partnering with a mentor. And that's in just the first few months. 

In other words, it equips new hires for long-term success in their role, their team, and your org. Effective onboarding is crucial for every role, but especially for senior level software engineers who are expected to hit the ground running.

Quality engineering onboarding also matters for other reasons. It improves value, satisfaction, and, ultimately, retention.

Hiring software engineers: Pre-onboarding considerations

Hiring managers and HR professionals tend to drive the onboarding process. But success also depends in part on the new hire. So, how do you identify the right candidates before you reach the onboarding stage? It starts with the software engineer hiring process.

Look for flexibility

Experienced developers prefer certain tools, programs, and processes. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when a team member is too rigid, it can create unnecessary friction.

When hiring software engineers, look for candidates who are open and willing to consider new ways of working—team members willing to acknowledge that the tools and processes they prefer may not work in new environments. 

Consider the difference between coders and developers

If you want someone who can help you identify gaps and deliver strategic features, you’re looking for a software engineer who can execute a vision. They’ll bring their senior-level experience, time in the industry, and software development skills to the table to drive improvements and innovation. They aren’t just an experienced coder who wants to write code; they’re a developer who writes code to deliver business outcomes. 

To understand if a candidate possesses this strategic focus, ask interview questions like “Have you ever identified a project need in the company? If so, how did you go about implementing it, and what was its impact?” 

Someone without that strategic vision may respond, “I added these features to the project because it seemed like fun.” In contrast, someone focused on the bigger picture may say, “I contributed to these features because they’re essential to improving the user experience and meeting client needs.” 

Closely examine a candidate’s attitude towards work. Do they simply complete their assignments, or do they seek out meaningful work on their own?

Work with your HR and recruitment teams

Build bridges between your recruiting, HR, and tech teams to ensure everyone understands the hiring criteria. All too often, HR teams, not engineering managers, write software developer job descriptions. This can lead to technical errors, such as job descriptions asking for seven years of experience in a tool that’s been out for only two years. 

If an engineering manager reviewed the job description, they’d have caught this mistake and raised questions, like “Why did you think that experience level was necessary for this role?” Engineering hiring managers need insight into how hiring works, or the onboarding process will suffer.

Perform post-mortems

Despite your organization’s best efforts, you may still hire candidates who aren’t a good fit for the role. Though unfortunate, it provides an opportunity to refine your hiring process. 

For example, say you’ve hired a promising candidate. After six weeks on the job, they’re still doing work most people complete within the first three weeks. If you let them go and handle it as a one-off instance, it will happen again.

You need to perform a post mortem to understand what happened and why—another reason why it’s important to partner with your HR team. Together, you can uncover the answers to questions like:

  • What happened during the hiring process to cause this?
  • How do we make sure we vet candidates better? 
  • How do we work together to ensure there's not a mismatch between the job description and what the hiring manager needs and wants?

Building an onboarding checklist for senior software engineers

Experienced software engineers typically want to hit the ground running. Use these tips to build an onboarding checklist that helps senior developers make an impact as soon as possible. 

Prep equipment and permissions before day one

For senior engineers to dive right in, their equipment should be prepped and ready. The moment you’ve decided to hire someone, start a work order with your IT team. When the new engineer receives their laptop, all they should need to do is log on and change the password.

To that end, make sure they have the correct permissions to access the following information before their start date:

  • Source code
  • Development environment
  • Test environment
  • Staging environment
  • Production
  • Relevant database servers

Provide instructions for setting up the local development environment

Software engineers can’t start building without a properly configured local development environment, including code editors, tooling, and local web and database servers. And without a well-documented procedure, new engineers can waste weeks trying to set up that local development environment correctly. 

This can lead their team members to form negative impressions of their new peers: “Why is it taking them so long? It didn’t take me that long to set up my machine.” If you don’t have step-by-step instructions that explain how to set up the local development environment, create them. Include troubleshooting tips, such as “If you see this error, then you did this step incorrectly. If you can take this action, you should be good to go.” 

If you already have instructions, revisit them regularly to ensure they’re clear and up to date. 

Clear documentation helps new hires onramp quickly. But it’s also a handy resource for anyone on the team. If someone’s laptop crashes or gets stolen, they’ll have the information they need to swiftly restore their local development environment.

Encourage team bonding

The faster someone feels like part of the team, the faster they’ll start contributing. Make an effort to include new team members as soon as possible. Get lunch as a team or develop an activity to create that team identity. Team bonding also gives everyone a chance to learn about each other’s personalities and work styles, which can reduce future friction.

Provide swag

Company swag can’t make up for an ineffective onboarding process or unhealthy work culture, but it’s an extra way to show appreciation and strengthen that sense of team identity. Some companies provide gift cards to company swag stores so new hires can pick out items they’ll actually use.

Create a mentorship program

To get new hires up to speed as quickly as possible, consider starting a mentorship program. Create a list of volunteers and pair one mentor with each new hire. They’ll be the new hire’s main point of contact throughout onboarding—someone they can go to with any questions, roadblocks, or concerns. 

Keep in mind the time and energy required to be an effective mentor. During the new hire’s onboarding process, reduce the mentor’s workload. If you don’t, you’re essentially telling them to work overtime, which can lead to unhealthy cultures and suboptimal mentorship experiences. 

Share the big picture

Developers don’t just write code. They write code that creates products, services, and experiences. Make sure new hires understand how their role fits into the big picture. For example, can they see how the feature they’re working on will help the company compete against a main competitor or allow them to enter a new market? 

Experienced engineers in particular need this insight. They’re better equipped than junior engineers to make meaningful contributions to the organization—and it’s this organizational knowledge that opens the door to those contributions. Ask program managers, project managers, or other team members with these insights to educate new engineers about the product, company, and industry. 

Communicate onboarding velocity with other teams

During onboarding, the entire team’s productivity may drop as they help new developers get settled. Engineering leaders need to continually communicate with other leaders to address changes in velocity.

Otherwise, these leaders may raise concerns, like “We just gave you new personnel. Why aren’t we seeing an increase in productivity?” Clearly explain that to onboard a new software engineer and transfer critical knowledge, productivity may dip temporarily. However, this will ultimately enable the new hire to get up to speed (and start contributing) faster.

Manage expectations

Managers may expect experienced software engineers to understand, or quickly learn, certain tools or topics. But that isn’t always the case. Mismanaged expectations can cause managers to jump to conclusions about a new hire’s skills and ability. To prevent this, define reasonable expectations (not assumptions) and the reasoning behind them.

If a new hire isn’t meeting expectations, take a step back and look for the root cause. Are they struggling due to their ability levels? Or are they struggling because of poor documentation, inadequate onboarding, broken processes, or a toxic code review process?

Meet with the new hire to uncover their blockers and how you can help. For example, let’s say you have a new senior developer who’s spending a lot of time writing code. With a bit of probing, you discover they received a large project with ambiguous requirements. As a result, they’re writing more code and asking the program manager questions they need answers to before they can proceed.

Vague requirements can create friction for all of the developers, not just new hires. This is an opportunity to work with program managers to fix that process and streamline work for the entire team.

Foster psychological safety

Senior software engineers may find it difficult to ask questions. They don’t want to appear inexperienced. But even someone with more than ten years of experience will have questions in a new role with a new company. 

For example, you might bring in an engineer with a particular area of expertise, like Linux kernel. Setting up their local development environment may require them to draw on experience they don’t have. If you don’t provide instructions, check in on them, or offer an opportunity to ask questions, you signal that you expect them to have this knowledge. And if they don’t, they’re failing. This impedes success and can lead to feelings of isolation.

To avoid this, create a psychologically safe workspace where everyone feels comfortable asking questions. Build daily or weekly check-ins into the onboarding process to give new hires the chance to ask questions in private and receive guidance from their manager and mentors.

Explain the software development process

From ideation through development, testing, deployment, and ongoing maintenance, every organization has a slightly different software development process. 

When an experienced developer writes a piece of code or works on a feature, they’re proud of their work. They want to see it deployed in the live environment. When this doesn’t happen in a timely manner, or involves a poorly documented set of processes and approvals, they may become frustrated and disheartened.

Take the time to explain what these processes look like and the blockers engineers may encounter. Make sure you can answer these common questions:

  • What are the exact tech stacks used throughout the approval process?
  • How long will testing take?
  • How will I know if there are issues with my work?
  • What aspects require human approval?
  • How does automation play a role in each step of the process? 
  • Where do bottlenecks typically occur?
  • Who will deploy my work into the actual production or live environment?

The entire process can take weeks, or even months, in some organizations. If you explain your processes and the rationale behind them before your engineer submits code, they'll be far less concerned about the timeframe.

Leverage prior development experience

Experienced software developers have often worked in various areas. When they’ve entered a new role, that experience can get left behind. But managers can tap new hires’ past experience to solve emerging problems or assist with new projects.

For example, your company may want to start selling to a government audience, a move that requires certain certifications. Your new hire may have experience with those certifications and could be a mentor and resource for other people throughout the process. 

But if you don’t know about this experience, you can’t leverage it to help your team. You also lose the opportunity to further involve the new hire and enable them to make a difference. Worst case scenario, they may feel like you’re invalidating their past experience.

When you hire a new software engineer, find a way to catalog their skills. Encourage managers to communicate with new hires and provide opportunities for them to use their prior experience. “These projects are coming our way. These are the challenges in our organization. Has anyone done similar work before? Can you leverage that skill set here?”

Continue the information exchange

Even as the onboarding process winds down, continue to provide learning opportunities. This might include brown bag lunches or informal training sessions. Some teams ask everyone to prepare a two- or three-minute presentation about something they excel at or a new technology the team may want to use. 

When you include new engineers in these activities, you give them a chance to pass along their knowledge and further integrate with the rest of the team—and raise the competency level of your entire engineering team at the same time.

Hold a retrospective interview

Finally, hold a retrospective interview with senior software engineers once they’ve completed the onboarding process. Ask questions like:

  • What would your ideal onboarding process look like?
  • What do you wish your onboarding process had included? What was unnecessary?
  • Did you receive adequate support from your manager and team?
  • Do you believe your manager or peers held unrealistic expectations for you due to your title?

Use their feedback and various metrics to evaluate, iterate, and improve the onboarding process for the next hires.

Reduce ramp time for experienced software engineers

Unlike most entry-level software engineers, experienced developers are ready and willing to hit the ground running and contribute to the team as soon as possible. But they can only do so successfully with an effective engineering onboarding process that accounts for their unique needs and experience.

If this sounds like a time-consuming process, you don’t have to do it alone. Pave the way for success with onboarding solutions that feature customizable learning paths and reporting analytics.

Ready to enhance your senior engineer onboarding process?