Engineering Onboarding Programs - Getting Up To Speed

Getting new hires productive as quickly and smoothly as possible is one of the most important jobs for an engineering leader. Too often this gets left to chance or to a “sink-or-swim” philosophy, even at larger companies. Speaker Peter Kinmond’s talk outlines why it’s important to create and refine an engineering onboarding program and explains how to design one from scratch.

This is the sixth of a twelve-part series covering the sessions from Calibrate, an engineering leadership conference held September, 2015 in San Francisco.

Q. What type of company most needs an onboarding program?

A. Any company with a fast-growing engineering team gets the most obvious benefit from an onboarding program since the initial effort pays for itself each time a new employee joins. In our case, we doubled our engineering team in a short time and onboarding was a way of ensuring a pleasant and consistent initial experience for our new hires. Any company that brings on new engineers could benefit from thinking through how they want those first days and weeks to go.

Q. For anyone who’s thinking about starting an onboarding program, what’s the best first step?

A. Asking newish engineers “what do you wish you had known on your first week?” is a great way to get inspired and think of some obvious initial sessions. Another good source is to look at your product and architecture diagram and think of what parts should be known by all engineers. Starting out small and building is a good way to get a quick win which helps other people see the benefit of onboarding and doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Q. Your talk focuses on the story of building the engineering onboarding program at your company (Sharethrough). Is the advice transferable to other situations and companies?

A. I tried to balance general advice which would be useful to everyone with stuff that was specific to our experience building an onboarding program. Hearing the specifics for one example is useful because it makes it concrete and less intimidating - “hey, that company did it, and it doesn’t seem too hard”. I’d encourage cherry-picking parts from a bunch of different onboarding programs which make sense for your company and discarding anything that ends up not working.

Q. Any other advice for people considering creating an onboarding program?

A. While developing the onboarding curriculum, it really helps to work with at least one other person. You’re trying to distill a lot of information into a cohesive and unified view, and it’s easy to get caught in the weeds. In our case, I developed our onboarding curriculum with our technical recruiter Jaclyn, who helped give it shape and who had some excellent suggestions.