Successfully Onboarding a Junior Engineer in Three Steps,
by Emily Samp
How you onboard someone to your team can have lasting effects on their professional success, growth, and happiness, but many teams treat onboarding as an afterthought. In this talk, you will learn how to successfully onboard a junior engineer in three steps, with the goals of building their trust, instilling confidence in their technical abilities, and enabling them to be an autonomous contributor to your team.
The intended audience for this talk is anybody who is responsible for mentoring new, junior members of their team. This can include managers, but also informal mentors and team leads.
This talk will teach audience members three steps they can follow to successfully onboard a new junior engineer to their team: setting expectations, providing feedback, and assessing performance. The desired outcome of following these steps is building trust with a new team member, instilling them with confidence, and enabling their autonomous contribution to the engineering team.
- The Problem:
- How someone is onboarded to a team will impact their success on that team.
- However, many teams treat onboarding as a solved problem. This leaves many engineers, especially junior engineers, unclear on the expectations for their role and whether they are meeting those expectations in the first few months of their job.
- In the long term, this erodes trust between managers and their reports and makes it difficult for junior engineers to build the confidence they need to succeed.
- The Solution:
- Three steps:
- Set expectations
- Provide feedback
- Assess performance
- Three entities to manage:
- Your new hire
- The rest of your team
- Three outcomes:
- Build trust
- Instill confidence
- Enable autonomy
Step one: set expectations
- Set your expectations:
- Before your team member starts, make a roadmap for their role: what should they be doing after one month? Two months? Three?
- Re-read their resume. Ask yourself: what do they already know? What will they need to learn to hit those milestones?
- Set your team’s expectations:
- Who on your team is going to teach your new engineer the skills they need to succeed? How much time should they spend doing that?
- Set expectations for the new engineer:
- Tell them everything you have determined from the previous two steps.
- As a result, the new engineer builds autonomy: Because you have set expectations for your new engineer, it is clear what they have to do to perform well at their job. It’s also clear who they can ask for help, making it easy for them to unblock themselves or to find new work to do when they finish their current task.
Step two: give feedback
- Normalize giving feedback on your team:
- If your team does not have a culture of giving feedback, or your team members receive feedback defensively, the new engineer will feel singled out when you give them feedback.
- Building a feedback culture on your team is not just one step, and that could probably be its own talk. It’s not something you’re going to solve before your new hire arrives (probably), but keep in mind that it’s something to work on alongside hiring new engineers.
- Give feedback to the new engineer:
- How do you give feedback?
- When do you give feedback?
- What should you give feedback on?
- Prepare yourself to get feedback in return:
- Upon giving feedback to a new engineer, they might give you some criticism in return.
- For example, you might tell the new engineer that they failed to follow one of your team’s processes, and they might respond that they didn’t know about that process because it wasn’t clearly documented.
- In this case, your natural instinct might be to rely heavily on your own experience. You might think, “I knew about this process. Why couldn’t the new engineer figure it out?
- If you do not make an effort to see the situation from the new engineer’s point of view, you may end up becoming defensive or trying to make excuses. For example: “I haven’t had time to document that,” or “Everyone else figured it out just fine.”
- While those things might be true, saying them in the moment may hurt your relationship with your new team member, and they may be less likely to come to you with problems in the future.
- Instead, ask the new engineer specific questions to try and understand their point of view. For example, you could ask: “Why didn’t you post a question in Slack if you didn’t know how to do this?” You might discover that they’re too nervous to post on a public channel, or that you forgot to invite them to Slack altogether. Either way, thank them for bringing that to your attention, and use that information to improve your onboarding process and your team culture.
- As a result, the new engineer will gain confidence: Because you give timely and actionable feedback, the new engineer is confident in their ability to learn and grow. They aren’t afraid to admit when they don’t know something or to ask for help.
Step three: assess performance
- Give a performance review for your new engineer:
- If you have followed the above steps, this review should not be a surprise to you or your new hire.
- If the new engineer is performing well, reward their performance with a raise, bonus, promotion, public recognition (if they’d like that), etc. Back up your words with actions.
- Make sure your team is on the same page regarding what constitutes good performance:
- Imagine this scenario: your new engineer is worried that they are taking too long to complete a project. You see why it is taking them longer than expected, and you tell them that it’s a natural part of onboarding and not a problem for the team. The next day, your team’s PM tells this engineer that they expected the project to be done two weeks ago.
- This erodes trust and undermines your assessment of the engineer’s performance.
- Be prepared to reflect on your process:
- If the new engineer’s performance is a surprise, it means you failed to follow one of the previous two steps. Here are some possible scenarios:
- You thought the engineer knew more than they did when they started the job.
- You knew that the new engineer would need to gain certain skills but did not make a plan for them to do so.
- You did not give your engineer timely feedback, causing them to repeat the same mistakes when their behavior could have been corrected.
- You and your team were not on the same page, causing your engineer to receive conflicting feedback.
- If all goes well, you have built trust between yourself, the new engineer, and your team: Because you and your team followed through on your feedback, the new engineer trusts you to keep your word.
- Onboarding is hard, but when it’s done right, you can build trust with your new hire, make them confident in their own technical ability, and show them how to be an autonomous contributor on your team.
- This will boost your engineers’ productivity and improve the quality of their work, making your team stronger.
- This is especially important for building diverse teams. You want to hire people from a variety of backgrounds -- people who have never had a job in the tech industry before, people whose parents didn’t go to college, immigrants from different countries -- i.e. people who may not already be familiar with the norms of workplace culture, or who may have never been taught how to succeed in such an environment.
- When you leave people guessing how to be successful, you are setting many people up for failure.
In the past six years, I have made the transition from intern, to junior engineer, to mid-level engineer through various internships and full-time jobs. In that time, I have seen the onboarding process at every company I worked for, and I have planned the onboarding process for engineers more junior than myself as the intern coordinator at my first full-time job.
I noticed that when a team actually took the time to onboard me, I felt more confident in my skills and more invested in the work itself. My productivity was directly correlated to the time my team spent training me and bringing me up to speed. However, I have also had the opposite experience: when my onboarding wasn’t prioritized, I felt like I was doing a bad job but didn’t know how to improve. I didn’t feel like I had the ability to go above and beyond to succeed. I have heard similar stories from my friends and peers, especially from women and people from other underrepresented groups: when their team takes the time to set expectations, deliver explicit feedback, and provide regular performance assessments, they are more likely to succeed at their jobs.
In this talk, I have broken down the process of successfully onboarding a junior engineer into three crucial elements: the goals (build trust, instill confidence, and enable autonomy), the steps (set expectations, deliver feedback, assess performance), and who must be involved (you, the new hire, the rest of your team). This is a concise and memorable framework to help people conduct a successful onboarding process for the next new engineer on their team.