How to rapidly onboard new teams: Part II


This post focuses on steps to take during the first 3 months of forming a new team.
It is the second post in the “How to onboard teams” series which covers lessons and techniques acquired from ramping up many teams. 

The First 3 months of onboarding

Structured Onboarding

An excellent onboarding experience gets the team up and running quickly. Do all you can to smoothen the experience: set up hardware, provide clear onboarding guides and progressively expose the team to more challenging tasks. Some initial handholding is inevitable; however, invest heavily in making a structure of ramp-up tasks that eventually leads to independence. 

You want the team to be ready, prepared and comfortable tackling significant and ambiguous tasks after onboarding.

Build a structured onboarding plan

  1. Collate the most common tasks that all engineers do regularly. This effort should culminate in a checklist of tooling, processes and practices that newbies need to master to become independent.
  2. Curate this checklist by talking to veteran engineers or observing them work. Aim for spread over depth since the goal is to rapidly acclimatize the team to the new environment, i.e., tooling, processes, and practices. Ideally, after completing the listed tasks, an engineer will have developed an intuitive sense for approaching problems and delivering value in the system. Examples of such tasks include:
    1. Completing a Pull Request
    2. Deploying changes to production
    3. Shadowing folks on live site duty
    4. Running tests (unit, component and functional)
    5. Analyzing logs in production
    6. Updating documentation
  3. With this list of things to everyday tasks, set out to find enough work items for each category; for example, collate bugs, minor changes and small features. The primary goal should not be the impact of the features; instead, the goal is to get the team ready to tackle more significant challenges. For a new team of 6 with a distinct 5-item checklist, aim for about 35 ramp-up items. Ensure new hires can complete the selected items by postponing items requiring specialized skills for post-onboarding. This backlog provides everyone with precise onboarding tasks and a completion timeline. The expected completion timelines provide good stepping in points for folks who get stuck.
  4. Track progress as a team: Celebrate onboarding progress as a team – that boosts morale, builds momentum and facilitates inter-team collaborations. Commemorate ‘graduations’: when people complete the boot camp and are ready to take on more demanding challenges.
Example Onboarding Tracker View

Tailor Training (by leveraging the Skills Matrix)

Training is important! You wouldn’t expect anyone to run a marathon without training, so you should not expect newbies to solve tricky tasks without the necessary skills. I have seen several newbies flounder because they were thrust into intense experiences before mastering the right skills (i.e. sink-or-swim).

A good training program provides a roadmap for addressing the gaps exposed by the skills matrix. This skills acquisition process positions the team for long-term success and facilitates a deep bench.

A skills matrix is a table showing the skills needed for a specific area and the team’s current capabilities and interests. A well-prepared skills matrix simplifies aligning abilities and interests to opportunities; furthermore, it is a valuable tool for identifying the crucial areas needed for a well-rounded team.

A high-risk area for the team is an area where you rely on a few people to get critical tasks done. If only one or two experts exist, it is essential to start training more folks to smoothen succession planning. Furthermore, those SMEs can pivot to newer areas.

There is a reason why several professions require a lot of training before certification; leaders have to ensure their team is well trained. Identify training gaps by seeking feedback and measuring outcomes, then plug the gaps. 

Ratchet it up slowly

After newbies graduate from boot camp (i.e. complete the onboarding checklist), gently ease them into more challenging tasks. Find experiences that offer safe real-life tests to accelerate mastery further. The first exposure to a significant task might trigger an avalanche of apprehensive questions:

  1. I have never done this before.
  2. What happens if things break?
  3. I do not know how to do this.

These are all valid questions, and it is imperative that you listen carefully, take notes and then respond to every single concern. It also helps if newbies pair up with experienced team members during these first experiences (this might not be possible if the entire team is new).

Also, make yourself available for questions and tell the team to feel free to reach out if they have questions. Some of the newbies might hesitate to reach out (probably because they do not want to bother or feel shy about asking folks); to mitigate this, consider reaching out to check in infrequently. That way, you build the bond and quickly address blockers and remove frustrations or provide alternative routes if they are getting blocked.

The effectiveness of the training program determines the performance of newbies at this stage. If multiple newbies struggle with basic tasks after the boot camp, that signifies an ineffective training regimen.

Focus more on the desired outcome – the more important measure is the effectiveness (how good the graduates are); do not prioritize the training regimen’s efficiency (how many people graduate, how long it takes to graduate) over its effectiveness.

Ramping Up Scenarios: A framework

There is no single optimal onboarding style. Ramp-up techniques are either effective or ineffective. The following section posits a framework for possible onboarding scenarios, and upcoming posts will layout applicable techniques and strategies.

The four possible ramp-up scenarios for new teams are listed below:

Product MaturityTeam Experience
NewJunior
NewSenior
EstablishedJunior
EstablishedSenior
Team vs Product Maturity

Note: Experienced engineers also require some time to ramp up in a new environment. The difference is that their ramp-up would be faster.

The next post in this series will delve into what strategies work best for each scenario.

FAQ

  1. How to prioritize training in the face of pressing business needs?
    1. I have run into this; do the business deal and shield your team. 
    2. There are times when circumstances require prioritizing business priorities. Options for such rare cases (in order of preference)
      1. Delay the requirement till the team ramps up.
      2. Find substitutes for that pressing need (preferably experienced hands).
      3. If applicable, quickly design new ramp up schemes tailored to that business requirement. 
      4. Push out some onboarding aspects if the ask requires specialized skills. Timebox the effort and immediately pick up after the business need is met.
  2. Will everyone onboard at the same time and speed?
    1. There will be some variability in the completion rates. It is also common for new hires to have staggered start dates over a time window. The completion estimates help with setting expectations on how long it should take. If multiple people consistently take longer than expected, you might want to review the boot camp’s effectiveness.

Resources

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