How to Make Onboarding Engineers a Competitive Advantage

By Ben Jackson    |    September 12, 2017
onboarding stairs


See if this sounds like your organization: When a new team member joins, someone shows them the ropes. They get a passcode to the office, the lowdown on lunch, access to some tools, and a crash course on the dev environment.


Congratulations — they’re now on board and ready to start clearing tickets!

If that sounds about right, then you might be doing onboarding all wrong.

“Most small companies that I talk to don’t really have standard operating procedures for bringing in new hires,” says Benjamin Jackson, who advises high-growth startups on design, technology, and the employee experience through his company For The Win. Before setting out on his own, Jackson served as the Director of Mobile for Vice and led iOS development at the New York Times.

“Of course most will have a checklist for things like email and Slack invitations, but they don’t take into account things like building culture, relationships, or any of the things that lead to employee success.”

Not having a clear strategy for onboarding leads to frustration for new employees. They will go into uncertain territory sooner than later. And this leads to frustrations for companies, too—because a frustrated engineer is going to start looking elsewhere for jobs.

So alright, the best practice is to have a strong onboarding strategy. Jackson was generous enough to share his expertise with us so that you can improve your company’s onboarding for the sake of all current and future employees.


Onboarding starts with first contact


The first misguided assumption about onboarding is that it begins on the day they show up for their first day on the job. In Jackson’s view, that’s way too late to start the process.

“Really from the moment you initially reach out to a candidate, you’re onboarding them into your organization,” he says. “That is their first experience with your company.”

employee handbook


Austin Frazer handbook, design by Felt Branding

We all judge books by their covers. Justified or not, that first experience will set the initial tone for your company’s entire relationship with candidates. You can either wow them, or you can lose them. So even though you’re far from setting up passwords or filling out W-4s, treat potential candidates like they’re already one of your own.


“All of those things help keep people from getting cold feet,” he says, “but they also give people a head start so when they do walk in the door they can spend the first day getting things done.”


Then, Jackson says, keep up that relationship for the transitional period between hiring a candidate and when they begin.

“This is the thing that often gets most overlooked,” he says. “It’s not just a candidate experience that counts, but also the preparation prior to the first day.”

employee handbook valve

A spread from the Valve’s handbook

You’ve wined and dined a candidate who agrees to join your company. But before jumping ship, they’ll put in their two to four weeks notice. “That is a great time for candidates to get cold feet,” Jackson notes.

It’s also a great time for another company to swoop in and sweep them up with an offer letter and more thorough coaching before they even walk in the door. That other company is using an effective onboarding process to make a more thorough, transparent offer.

So keep up your genuine efforts during that transition period. Jackson suggests welcoming your new hires in whatever way is true to your company—invite them to a social event with your team, or send them information they can read to ramp up before they get to the job.

“All of those things help keep people from getting cold feet,” he says, “but they also give people a head start so when they do walk in the door they can spend the first day getting things done instead of reading your code guidelines.”

Developer-specific onboarding

Jackson’s pre-employment onboarding advice is applicable to just about any new hire. Engineers and developers, though, are often a particular breed. We work some of the oddest hours, with enormous variance in our most productive times. That means that engineering teams don’t all function under the standard 8-5 paradigm. And it means your organization’s culture is critical to communicate during the onboarding process.

“I think that setting expectations around availability and interruptions are especially important for engineers,” Jackson says.

Here, you’re aiming for that critical harmony between productivity and communication. Make sure you set clear expectations for all employees, incoming and current, around the juxtaposed values of respecting your peers’ time (by responding to them quickly) and respecting uninterrupted focus time.

“Have clear policies about those things that you put forward to people when they first join the company,” Jackson recommends. “And set guidelines not only around response times, but also escalation policies.”

You’re aiming for that critical harmony between productivity and communication.

Setting these expectations explicitly is even more important for distributed teams. It helps when everyone understands the expectations around availability—and the permissions around unavailability.

If you don’t already have these expectations formalized in writing, seize this opportunity to codify your culture. That action alone can strengthen the relationship you have with your existing teams, too. Done well, you will also end up with a killer employee handbook.

employee handbook 2

FAQs from the Big Spaceship Employee Manual

An employee handbook?

Yeah, yeah, we know. There’s hardly a more boring text on the planet than your typical employee handbook.

That’s why Jackson suggests having an atypical employee handbook.

“I think that treating the employee handbook as a legal or an HR mechanism is missing half the point,” he says. “There’s a missed opportunity for a lot of companies to reinforce their culture—through the content, what they choose to put in it, the voice and tone, the design.”

But don’t just hand the handbook to a new employee and expect it to do the heavy lifting. Remember that the human-to-human channel of information is by far the most personal.

Now, employee manuals aren’t exactly sales pieces. They are about setting expectations. You still have to acknowledge all those legal and HR expectations in there. “But you can set expectations that are wholly unrelated to the minutia of policy,” Jackson says.

(He also pointed us to some well-designed employee handbooks: Austin FrazerBig Spaceship, and Valve.)

So once you’ve got an employee handbook that articulates your cultural experience, don’t just hand it off to a new employee and expect it to do the heavy lifting. Remember that the human-to-human channel of information is by far the most… well… personal.

employee handbook 3


A spread from the Valve’s Handbook for New Employees

“The research that I’ve read says that mentoring is one of the most guaranteed ways to increase someone’s chance of success,” Jackson says. So get your current employees involved with onboarding the newbies. They’ll feel more ownership in the process and give new engineers a real person to turn to in those crucial first weeks and months.


Onboarding never ends


In a sense, mentorship allows you to continue onboarding your current employees by incorporating them into a culture of onboarding.

“This is a continual process,” Jackson says. “Onboarding doesn’t stop after day one or day two or day thirty. And it’s not like you design your onboarding and then never have to revisit any of that stuff ever again.”

employee handbook bucket list

“Bucket List” from the Big Spaceship Employee Manual

If onboarding is all about making employees feel welcome, informing them of expectations, and giving them the freedom and the ability to do the job they’re good at—that’s a pretty healthy and transparent culture to foster.

“This is a continual process. Onboarding doesn’t stop after day one or day two or day thirty.”

And this approach to onboarding doesn’t just make your company a cool place to work. It’s an actual edge in the marketplace for developers.

“Having a culture where onboarding is valued and constantly maintained is a competitive advantage,” Jackson says.

In other words, if you don’t have a strong onboarding culture and process in place, you might want to consider hopping on board already.

About the author

Ben Jackson Principal at For The Win NY