4 ways to improve developer onboarding

Tom Radcliffe
Airplane near the terminal image via Shutterstock

Employees today are most likely to leave their current job within their first two years and, according to a ​survey by the Aberdeen Group,​ less than one-third of companies have a formal onboarding process. In today’s high-turnover environment, onboarding is more important than ever, especially when hiring developers.

I know what you’re thinking–if everyone is job hopping, why waste time onboarding? Why put resources into someone who’s going to leave? Companies that commit to a formal onboarding process benefit from a 54 percent increase in new hire productivity. With all the job hopping that’s going on, it’s important to get your new developers up to speed as quickly as possible, so they can be as productive as possible before they leave.

And if they don’t leave, you’ll be even more glad you took some time to make them productive members of your team. The same formal onboarding process that makes new hires productive also gives your company a 50 percent better chance of holding on to them. Here are 4 ways to improve your onboarding procedures and boost your chances of retaining new developers, or at least increase their productivity while you have them.

Pre-board effectively

Pre-boarding allows you to get as much out of the way as possible before your new developer starts their tenure, so they can start contributing immediately. Have a current employee reach out to the new hire to go over the details of the first day, like where the office is, how to find the building, and so on. There’s nothing quite like the instant bond that’s formed when you get insider details from a company pro reaching out to you.

Also, have as much of the workstation set up as you can (including their network connection!). More importantly, try to get as much paperwork out of the way as possible. Have someone contact the new developer before they walk through the door and try to get as much login info, passwords, and paperwork done as you can. This includes making sure they have access to any important accounts like company email, GitHub, and so on.

If you can introduce the new team member to company-specific standards in advance, it will decrease the time between when they first set foot in the door and when they first offer meaningful contributions. Document a coding standard that new developers can use as a reference guide when they’re getting started. It’s even better if you’re using a standardized IDE with built-in coding standards and the ability to set and save team coding standards. This will drastically reduce the time it takes the hire to learn what writing code is like at your organization.

Create a mentorship program

Many companies make the mistake of simply walking away after the first day of onboarding, but successful onboarding programs are a much longer process. How long you need to stretch your onboarding process depends on several factors, like how green the new developer is and what

the company culture is like. Assigning the new hire a mentor is a great way to make them feel important and to lower the barriers to contribution.

In general, newer hires make better mentors. That certainly isn’t to disparage the mentoring capabilities of industry vets, but there’s a risk of burning out your more experienced talent. Newer hires have also more recently gone through the onboarding process themselves, so they’re more familiar with it than longer-term employees who haven’t kept up with the various improvements and permutations.

Whoever you pick as a mentor, make sure they’re prepared, know the codebase well, and know the goals of the project. Mentors need clearly-defined roles or you risk frustrating them more than you’re helping the onboarding process. Make it very clear to the new hire what the mentor is for – someone to brainstorm with? Someone to review their code? Be clear with your expectations at all times, or you risk wasting everyone’s time.

Set clear and reasonable expectations

Work together to build a roadmap for the developer’s professional progress: what their needs are, what they want to improve on professionally, and what position they see themselves holding in five years. Ask for feedback while you’re creating this list and make sure the developer is involved. This will go a long way toward providing a reasonable workload and setting manageable, but challenging, expectations.

Encourage your new hire to start contributing in any way they can. When they become more comfortable with the team and the coding standards, though, get your new developer working on code. Start giving them feedback as soon as they get going, and make sure you don’t let them fall into the shadows. Mistakes have a way of compounding themselves the longer you don’t address them so, even if it’s uncomfortable for the new hire, make sure you’re giving honest feedback about how they’re performing.

Negative feedback is also important. Hearing that you’ve been doing something wrong for six months, but didn’t know it, certainly doesn’t feel any better than getting corrected early on. Version control can protect you from some of the risk you’re taking, but realize that everyone makes mistakes, and that’s especially true with someone who’s unfamiliar with the company. Be glad they’re learning, and foster that learning process. Give them a series of small projects so they can finish them more quickly. This will help them learn the company infrastructure and feel like they’re making meaningful steps toward becoming an integral part of the team.

Document everything

Aside from protecting everyone’s sanity, the stronger your documentation is, the easier subsequent onboardings will be. Make sure your documentation is organized; the idea is to save time! Updating your docs piece by piece will save you a great deal of onboarding time in the long haul.

As far as what to include in your documentation, take a look at anything you’ve had to repeat to multiple hires. You can treat your docs as a kind of internal FAQ for your team, use it as an opportunity to impress company culture on them, or both. It can be a home for common bug fixes, a breakdown of company healthcare policies, or a list of who to contact for after-hours help. Talk to your team and see what frustrations they’ve shared and how that can be mitigated in the future.

You’ll have to tweak your onboarding process to fit whoever the new addition is, but also keep in mind that great developers aren’t made solely at their jobs. Encourage your new hires to explore a variety of online and offline resources, learn new languages for fun, and generally expand their skillsets based on what they’re interested in. Let them explore where their interests take them and you’ll all benefit greatly from the new knowledge they bring into the company.

Tom Radcliffe
Tom Radcliffe has over 20 years experience in software development and management in both academia and industry. He is a professional engineer (PEO and APEGBC) and holds a PhD in physics from Queen’s University at Kingston. Tom brings a passion for quantitative, data-driven processes to ActiveState.

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