What Everyone Gets Wrong with Developer Onboarding
Ask five EMs how they pursue and improve time to productivity even after that first code commit, and you'll probably get three different answers and two blank stares. It's time we fix that.
In January 2019, long before companies had gone hybrid or full remote, Gallup found that full ramp-up time took a year if not longer. Similarly, Swimm.io cofounder Tom Ahi Dror found that while engineers first committed after some weeks, most managers said they weren't fully ramped until several months down the line. What is happening with these long tails, and what can we do to fix it?
The Time-to-Commit Trap
When engineering managers talk about onboarding, we often talk about time to productivity. As a developer myself, it's on top of mind for me, especially as I'm leading this tech company. But after that first code commit, junior developers and even seasoned technical leads are often left fending for themselves in a poorly defined org. This is not a failing of the managers, and it's not a failure of the time-to-commit metric; it's the result of mistaking onboarding for training, where shipping to production is the end of the onboarding journey.
When developers hit that productivity goal, the remaining ramp up happens even more slowly. This is partly because managers aren't fully integrated themselves and partly because the material needed to complete onboarding is held by SMEs scattered throughout an organization. As a new hire's responsibilities and familiarity with the product continue to expand, the percentage of the codebase they touch increases, which ultimately means integrations and effect on others' work. The onboarding time sink for the individual developer expands to include laterals they have to consult with, and ultimately the team and product.
Onboarding vs. Induction
Nearly 80% of employees say "they would have settled into their new roles much more quickly had there been a better onboarding process.". Given excessive ramp up times for software developers, we should work on engineering a solution. So, what's the difference between getting someone settled into their job and actually onboarding them?
Onboarding integrates a hire into the company culture, connects them to laterals and managers, and communicates their role's alignment to the organization's mission by aligning their product value delivery with the organization's purpose. Induction, on the other hand, orients the individual into their specific job and prepares them for success.
Developers already train. Our own 2021 Educative developer survey indicates that 84% of developers actively learn new tech skills three or more times per year. On the other hand, less than half of employers commit training resources to developer learning. While giving developers the tools they need to stay on top of emerging technologies is important, it is not onboarding; it is empowering those software engineers to be the best and most productive they can be.
This approach shows employees that you are not merely buying services but investing in their careers; product delivery is a dividend while their success is long-term growth and return. As software engineers transition to technical leads, and technical leadership to engineering management, those roles require their own onboarding with new parallels, new managers, new responsibilities, and all the new skills those changes require. Because new products, new projects, and new roles are different for each individual, a great onboarding is personalized and continuous.
Great onboarding effectively brings a software engineer into the company's culture and mission; because the market and the products we deliver are constantly evolving, employees are brought along the journey with intentional learning paths that not only train in abstract technical skills but apply to their work even when they're transitioning forward or laterally to a different track.
The challenge facing technical organizations as every company becomes a tech company is how to integrate developer onboarding with the demands of technical training. Lead times for new hires and the lost productivity during the ramp up period cost US firms over $20 billion per year, so it's important to get it right. The good news is that developers highly value opportunities to learn new technical skills in the workplace, so installing the tools is an easy first step.
Ultimately, these moves can help massively increase employee retention and productivity, leading to fulfilling careers, personal growth, and corporate success. If you aren't talking about onboarding already, you should be.