Onboarding Developers:
9 Tips for a 90 Day Program

Run-through

By GITENTIAL TEAM

How do you feel about your process for onboarding developers? How do they feel about it? You can ask them. You can also examine your first-year developer turnover to get a sense of its effectiveness, too. In our last post, Why Software Developers Leave, we tackled turnover. About 40% of developers leave in their first year. Of these, 43% leave in their first 90 days. Plus, turnover for tech startups always runs high. So, let’s examine steps you can take when onboarding developers to help your them settle in easier and become more productive faster.

Since first writing this article, Gitential has started transforming its software development analytics into an AI-powered Digital Assistant for development teams. This is still in progress as of this update, but we’ve added tips on how AI can assist in the relevant onboarding activities that follow. 

1. Onboarding Developers Starts with Your Hiring Process

We constantly talk about the importance of due diligence when defining project requirements. The better your due diligence effort, the less likely you’ll face changes midstream. Due diligence also applies when hiring software developers. Established software development companies with 100 or more employees tend to have a good grasp of the hiring process. Companies of this size almost always have a Human Resources program, a dedicated HR manager and/or team.

The turnover issue, as identified in the statistics above, hits tech startups a lot harder than other types of companies. Why? Because often the hiring process is left to founders with great business ideas, but often little or no HR experience. Even if experienced, hiring or expanding a development team is a lengthy, labor-intensive process. This involves a large opportunity cost for startup founders. The process includes the posting of job ads, collecting and screening applications, setting up interviews, etc., over a 2-6 week period… for starters.

Considering today’s tendency to embrace more remote development, startup founders have a solid case to partner with IT staffing agencies. Selecting a staffing agency also requires a significant due diligence effort. But it is one that helps you “automate the hiring process” for many developers. This can work well for Lean Startups, but there are a lot of different strategies (and business requirements) to consider. 

Skipping line items in the due diligence for the hiring process leads can lead to hiring developers:

  • because “you like them” (for reasons other than their qualifications).
  • lacking the qualifications for the position you’re trying to fill.
  • not interested in the kind of software projects you’re engaging.
  • not aware of the flexibility often needed for intense startup scenarios.
  • with a history of job-hopping or a high chance of ghosting your offer.
  • obviously not suited to the rest of your team’s chemistry or culture.
  • unable to pass background checks required by your client.

All these reasons, and more, present an elevated risk of short-term turnover. By extension, high turnover can reduce the rest of your team’s engagement level with new hires circumventing your onboarding efforts from the get-go. 

How Can AI Help with Due Diligence in Hiring? AI can help companies with large development teams to vet the quality or skill of new hires by hiring venue and format. Do  newly hired graduates from a specific college, university or trade school perform better than others. That could be key if you need to hire locally. Do specific recruiters or agencies refer prospects that perform better? Note, this extends even more to vendor management for outsourcing with specific development agencies or augmenting your team with different IT staffing agencies. However, vendor management is it’s own thing.

2. Onboarding Existing Employees

What? As startups develop and add new programs, some fail to inform their existing employees of new perks or policies. When a new hire asks an existing team member a reasonable question they should know, but don’t – the team member may feel slighted. The new hire may get the impression that the company’s operating a few cards short of a full deck. Turnover in companies that let this persist will have a much higher turnover 35-50% or more. This is more frequently the case with companies lacking an HR program defining company benefits, policies, and processes. If your company adds something new – make sure everyone knows about it.

3. Onboarding Developer Checklists

No one’s “onboarded” more employees than the US military, excepting perhaps the Chinese military. They have in-processing down to a science, even if it’s a bit cold and methodical. Onboarding seeks to make adding new developers into a form of art, eschewing the coldness but retaining some of the method – i.e. Checklists. Checklists for everything – to include checklists for the checklists.

The meat and gravy of an HR program comes in making sure every team member knows your company benefits, policies, and processes. It’s generally HR’s responsibility to maintain a checklist in each employee’s personnel file that they’ve been briefed on benefits, workplace policies and processes. In the absence of an HR manager, this likely falls to the software engineering manager. 

If your eyes are glazing over, breath deep, relax – here’s a free Checklist template for Onboarding Developers that you can use.

Developer Onboarding Checklist

To do before Start Date:

● Welcome letter
● Review and send their signed contract
● Provide building access
● Add to team chat
● Add to project management system
● Have their computer and hardware set up
● Provide a resource checklist
● Provide account and login credentials
● Add to payroll
● Provide benefits package

Day One:

● Company Orientation
● Introduce to Team
● Introduce to other departments + Org Chart
● Software and project orientation
● Assign a mentor
● Define meeting schedule
● Establish expectations and performance review process

Week One:

● Assign first project
● Share SOP, coding standards, style guides, etc.
● Schedule 1-to-1 meetings with team members and mentors
● Identify and schedule extra training as required.

Customize the onboarding checklist for your company. You may bring on one or several developers at a time. You may be working remotely, out of a single office or on a campus with multiple buildings – or even their own zip code. Microsoft has a newcomer’s orientation day where about the only thing they do is go over benefits like stock options. For them, everything else in the “Day One” chart above gets done on day two.

4. The Org Chart and Company Climate

Tech companies and startups come in many shapes, sizes, organizational formats, cultures and climates. These issues can be the source of confusion, frustration, and apprehension, particularly as relates to:

  1. Freelancers joining large companies and developers from large companies joining startups can both feel lost – in the bureaucracy or a decentralized format.
  2. Practices vary, and it’s a contentious subject, but developers are expected to multi-task – and sometimes on different projects. They may need to support and report to a few managers.
  3. Culturally, Americans are often lax about coffee-talk or checking Facebook during work hours. German companies are known for running a tighter ship.
  4. Similarly, individually and culturally, managers have different expectations, mannerisms, and levels of directness. Does a “Sally, could you do this when you get a chance?” have the same implication as, “Joe, do this.”?

An organizational chart is absolutely essential even in a flat structure. It’s nice to have a picture of each team member, their name, location, email address, what they do, and a sentence or two about them. This is important in a work-from-home or telecommuting environment, too. Plus, it should extend to include your outsourced teams, freelancers, and partners. This shows your company is organized and has regard for its people to reinforce favorable early impressions.

Who do they report to? Whether your company is large or small, bureaucratic or non-hierarchical, newcomers need to know who they report to. If they’ll be supporting multiple managers or projects, which one has priority? If they already have their hands full, how do they handle another manager giving them another task? How can they say, “No”?

How Can AI Help with Org Charts? Well, AI won’t help with org charts per se, but it can keep you informed as to whether you have a healthy ratio of junior, mid-level, and senior developers – on a per programming language or technology basis. The distribution of developer skill and experience factors heavily into software development processes and training — from pull requests to mentoring. Many teams have a shortage of senior developers — as they’re more expensive and due to the global skill shortage. However, mid-level developers can take a significant load off their shoulders through a number of ways… one being in mentoring.

5. The Role of Mentors in Onboarding Developers

More than just a buddy system, mentors can have a super-sized role when onboarding developers, good and bad. Appointing one of your software developers as a mentor for a new software developer is a good way to give them some on-the-job-training (OJT) as a manager, too. That OJT means talking with mentors in advance to guide them on ways to provide positive reinforcement as they orientate their newbies to the company.

For this reason, it isn’t a good idea to assign individuals as mentors whom you believe are at risk of leaving the company on other than “good” terms. Even if they don’t mean to, their frustrations with a project, company policies, managers or other team members could be passed along to the newcomer. Loyal employees also are not entirely immune to letting their frustrations overflow in a close working arrangement.

So, a little bit of coaching can go a long way to help “new mentors” be more mindful of their role. Great engineering managers must learn the fine art of being honest while reflecting the best interests of the company in tough cases. It IS possible to be honest while providing a little bit of spin:

  • There’s often someone who is difficult to work with – instead of calling them a bad name, focus on what helps make it easier to work with that person.
  • They may end up working on a dead-end legacy, or boring project – focus on why it’s still important like it’s for a prized-client or it’s very profitable for the company.
  • Company benefits or wages might be lower than they may like, so instead focus on the main pros – startups as a true ground floor opportunity, telecommute flexibility has a solid dollar value of its own, company prestige or niche specializations.

By helping developers be good mentors, you’re helping them see the long-term view of your company – and potentially stick around longer, too.

So, What Role Does an AI-Assistant Have in Mentoring? Two Roles. The first is that AI can help you optimize mentoring assignments by skill, experience and language/technology – across your entire organization, not just on a per team basis.

The AI-Assistant’s second, arguably primary role, is as a “full-time advisor” for all developers, team leads, and managers. A newly hired (actually any) developer can ask it questions, receive answers supported by relevant data, and Next Best Actions. They can quickly discover the best person to help them with a specific coding issue or what steps they can take to reduce their code complexity or code churn, improve their test coverage, and the like. 

6. A Learning Plan

Companies can improve their retention by having a Continued Education Program. If you have one, make sure your new hires are aware of it and when they’ll be eligible to participate in it. Many companies reserve access to paid or compensated education programs to employees who have been with the company for at least 90 days. It gives your new hires something extra to look forward to while they learn how your team does everything. 

You may also have a lot of internal materials to provide new employees and team members, like:

  • Company-specific policies, security issues, emergencies, etc.
  • Project Management Software and Methodologies
  • Development Software, Licenses, Resources and Libraries
  • Intellectual Property – Proprietary Software, Hardware, Tools, and Techniques
  • Work Processes, Testing Requirements and Standards
  • Definition for “Code that is Good Enough”
  • Coding Standards and Style Guides
  • Common Bugs and Solutions
  • Types of Code Reviews
  • Software Development Performance Metrics and KPI’s
  • Extra reading material – company vision/mission, future of the industry, etc.

That’s a wide-ranging list. You don’t need to write a book for everything – merely define specific requirements your company has for each item. It can range from defining policies regarding access of restricted areas, chain of custody issues, to which style guide to use when writing in a specific programming language. Yes, it all sounds a bit obsessive, but companies with Standard Operating Procedures tend to perform a lot better than those without.

Your goal with onboarding developers is to help them feel comfortable in their new environment and make it easy for them to adapt to all that you define as best practice.  Something fairly simple like making sure everyone sticks to the same style guide and coding standard makes it easier for everyone to read code – for the life of the software. 

7. New Hire Expectations - Metrics and KPIs

Automated software development performance analytics can also help in onboarding developers. We believe that metrics are tools that can be used to help developers improve on their coding speed, quality, efficiency – and collaboration with others. If you can’t measure something, you don’t have much basis to define how it can be improved upon.

The Four Drivers of Software Development

1. Lead time
2. Velocity
3. Active days
4. Coding days
5. Puches per day

1. Churn
2. Defect ratio
3. Error count
4. Test volume
5. Code complexity

1. Throughput
2. Code efficiency
3. Utilization
4. Rework
5. Waste

1. Responsiveness
2. Receptiveness
3. Comments address
4. Review coverage
5. Unreviewed PRs

When software development metrics are transparent for everyone, it facilitates a push-pull effort. We believe nearly all developers want to continuously become better developers. When they see how the best developers on your team are performing, they will want to learn how. Concurrently, your best developers may see that a team member is challenged, and endeavor to find out why – and see how they can help.

However, it is necessary to also understand that metrics are highly variable from person to person and project to project. Over time (as measured in months), all of these metrics combine to form a meaningful average and trendline. There’ll be jobs that are harder and more complex than others, or involve less frequently used programming languages. In such cases, it’s expected that a developers throughput or coding efficiency will decrease. Even so, over time, all developer metrics should show signs of improvement. If they flatline or trend downward over a significant period of time, that’s a signal that a developer is challenged – for some reason. It’s the manager’s responsibility to find out why.

How Does the Transparency of Performance Metrics Help New Developers? This is a good one, useful for everyone involved in software development — Benchmarking. The ability to see how your performance compares with other developers and how you are improving over time is an important feedback loop. Gitential’s implementation of benchmarking enables comparisons by developer, team, project, company, and industry. 

Benchmarking is important in helping to set realistic goals — for the improvement of any development metric. Being able to see how much you’ve improved in your first 90 days on the job can boost a new hire’s confidence. The feedback loop is important for if performance is not improving, the engineering manager, mentor, and individual developer can take steps to find out why and what can be done to improve performance.

8. New Hire 90-Day Evaluations

When discussing developer performance metrics, evaluations are not far behind. This is your chance to discuss their performance metrics with developers – namely to identify and confirm their strengths and weaknesses. Both can be improved upon, suffice that you can use the initial data to arrange appropriate follow-up training or introduce them to a new mentor. The 90-Day Evaluation is important for a variety of reasons:

  • Managers who provide timely reviews are trusted more than those who don’t.
  • The 90-Day evaluation is like a Graduation Day – Congratulations, you made it!
  • An opportunity to see how they are doing, what they do and don’t like, etc.
  • Possibility for their first pay raise.
  • Access to additional benefits like accruing their first paid vacation days.

A significant part of a manager’s role is to make decisions based upon what is good for the company. This requires holding to a fair and consistent standard, and at times, making some hard calls – whether to keep developers or let them go.

AI Helps Provide Data-Driven Performance Evaluations – This issue is a huge one for a variety of reasons as we cover in Leveraging AI for Pay, Performance, and Promotions. “Performance Metrics On-Demand” provide companies with the ability to effectively evaluate cost and performance in an increasingly complex remote work environment spanning many countries and variable pay mechanics. Moreover, companies that make the effort to establish clear pay and promotion guidelines can offset the appearance of bias in their decision-making – otherwise made on more subjective considerations. 

9. Disciplinary Actions

Employee turnover is at its greatest during their first 90 days with a company. It’s a two-way street though. New hires will quit if they don’t see a future at your company. Likewise, poor performance and bad behavior may force you to show them to the door. If you have an issue with an employee talk with your HR representative. Here are some tips if you don’t have an HR rep:

  1. People make mistakes. Up until a few years ago, disciplinary programs for behavioral issues followed a sequence > informal or verbal warning; formal written warning; disciplinary action, termination. It’s a good practice to follow compared to immediately firing someone because they inadvertently said something stupid.
  2. Performance metrics should never be the direct basis for discipline. Many variables influence performance – nearly half of them relate to insufficient project requirements and poorly defined tasks.
  3. Failure to consistently apply to best practices as defined by your Learning Plan is a basis for remedial training. A continuous pattern of not applying to best practices can be a basis for disciplinary action or a bonafide poor performance review.

Leastwise, as a manager it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone on your team is pulling their fair share. Nearly all developers want to and will, but sometimes something gets in their way. It’s their responsibility to clear their way forward, but a great manager will find out what they need or help arrange conditions so they can. If they don’t want to, you may not have an option but to let them go.

It’s a crazy world. No one likes firing people. As a manager, you need to keep the best interests of your company in mind, just as you must also do for your entire team. You also need to keep your sanity. Most people will get along fine if given half a chance – and perhaps a little guidance.

 

Post updated: Feb 02, 2022

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