• Jens Steppe

  • Team Lead

Onboarding to get happier people (and better code).

After a candidate has successfully navigated our selection process, everybody is happy; the new hire just scored a great new job, and Foreach has a terrific new employee. Our work is done here! Right? No, of course not. The next and arguably more important step is to make sure our new hire becomes a great team member, successfully integrated with the rest of the company. This onboarding process can mean the difference between having them quit after six months, or making them feel at home and unlocking their potential.

A Clear Eye for the New Guy (or Gall)

A few years ago, we didn’t really have an onboarding process. Integrating new people was done with little forethought and highly dependant on the team they ended up in and the mentor they got. Sometimes, this worked out great. Other times, not so much. This is not just a matter of not getting sufficient support. A mentor who really likes you and overestimates your skills can be just as detrimental as a mentor who barely looks at you twice. In both those cases, and in others where the integration doesn’t work optimally, we tend not to notice the important things, either good (untapped potential) or bad (not a match for the company culture). Two years ago we started creating an onboarding flow, to try and get a grip on the process and not leave it up to chance as much. But only recently has this really started to pay off.

 

The three tenets of our onboarding process:

1) making them feel at home

2) providing clarity

3) mapping their skills and knowledge

Making Them Feel at Home

This might seem really basic, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to imagine what it’s like for someone to start at the company you’ve already worked at for a couple of years. So we make a point of showing them around - where are the toilets? Where’s the kitchen? Where is the pool table? We also make sure their equipment is ready to go the moment they arrive and throw in a little present to show them we care™. On top of that, we try to schedule a team dinner within a few weeks of their starting date. Because good food is a great connector.

Providing Clarity

When you start working somewhere, there’s a long list of unknowns that might cause anxiety. Simply presenting a very concrete overview of their job environment and pro-actively trying to answer the questions they might have, can prevent a lot of unnecessary stress. This entails both basic knowledge (what’s my boss called? What project am I working on? Why is that developer shouting?) and the general schedule for the first weeks and months. A meeting with the Team Lead happens during the first week, after which they have a one-to-one with them every month.

Next to those perpetual check-ups, there are more extensive check-in and feedback moments after two, four and six months. The feedback here is meant to go both ways, so we can learn how to best accommodate one another. At the end of the six month period, we seek to actively reaffirm our hiring decision and ask the new employee whether they would still do the same. If either of us is not too sure about continuing, we have an upfront conversation about it to see if the situation can be improved, or whether everyone would be better off going their own way.

Mapping Their Skills and Knowledge

Every developer has a different skill set, different talents, and a different temperament. Working through a checklist of a broad range of tasks (from development tasks to writing a blog post), we create a profile as quickly as possible to help us make the most of their strengths and alleviate their weaknesses, and to decide what they’ll work on and who they’ll work with. We can also start drawing up a roadmap of training and courses tailored to their profile. The key here is to find a balance between tasks within their comfort zone and coaxing them out of their comfort zone. Leaning too much to the former will give rise to complacency or even, god forbid, boredom; going all-in with the latter means you will probably create someone who is constantly stressed out and on edge. Neither are places you want your employees (or yourself) to be.

The Sooner You Know

The first six months are a very important time in the life of a new employee. If they are well cared for, they will be happier, more confident and more productive, and the chance of them working for you for a significant time rises substantially. On the other hand, if they turn out not to be a match for the company, it’s better for everyone involved to know this sooner rather than after several years of diminishing motivation. While our current process does a much, much better job than our previous, virtually non-existent one, we are constantly seeking to improve and streamline it. Because the happiest developers write the best code.

Every new employee is unique, of course, so every onboarding is different as well. While we have our process at this point, it’s important to treat it more like a frame of reference than like a roadmap, and to remain attentive to the actual person’s needs, and not just to what you think the stereotypical new employee you wrote your process for needs. This requires empathy, a genuine interest in their well-being, and some experience in onboarding might also help. But don’t forget to let them know you’re available, and occasionally just straight up ask them what they need. Treating people like, well, people is a solid ground rule for pretty much everything.