Onboarding Junior Developers

by Brittany Martin


Ninefold was a sponsor of the 6th (and sadly last) Golden Gate Ruby Conference. While I was scheduled to be at the Ninefold booth on Saturday, I came to the conference towards the end of day on Friday specifically to hear Kate Heddleston's talk. I'm the newest Rails Support Engineer to join Ninefold and a big advocate of developer bootcamps. Her talk sounded like it would be perfect for where I am in my career. 

Kate presenting at GoGaRuCo 2014

Kate presenting at GoGaRuCo 2014

Sarah Mei came out to introduce Kate and recounted how RailsConf had a special track for Junior Developers this past April. She met someone from a PHP shop who had their ticket paid in full because his boss felt it was important that he learn how to onboard junior developers. This isn't a topic limited to Ruby! Kate's original talk was one of the three talks of that track. 

Kate's talk at GoGaRuCo on Technical Onboarding, Training, and Mentoring was well worth coming to the conference early. She is absolutely right: with the increase of code academies training new engineers there is an increase in junior engineers on the market. A lot of companies are hesitant to hire too many young engineers because they lack sufficient resources to train them. I hear it often via recent developer bootcamp graduates. 

Even though these developers are junior, she shared the startling fact that the total cost of losing an employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2x annual salary. In order to create a long-lasting relationship with a new team member, onboarding needs to be a focus from the offer of acceptance/start date all the way to reliable independence.

An excellent point that Kate made was that you shouldn't only rely on your senior developers to teach your junior ones. As the common saying goes, "you don't know something until you teach it." The last person who was taught should be doing the teaching. This will definitely cut down on the amount of cynicism that can interfere with the learning process. 

Kate broke down the four phases of onboarding for a new developer: 

Phase 1 (Week 1)

  • Ship stuff - First day is a gold star but you should aim for the first week. Teach the employee the mechanics of how the dev team works (who decides if a pull request is accepted, how is it deployed to production).
  • Developer environment setup - To avoid burnout, rotate this so the last person to be setup needs to help the next person.
  • Journaling/note taking - Give the employee a paper notebook so they can write everything down. This makes it especially easy when you meet with them to learn what they have learned. 
  • Social event - This can be limited to a gathering of the department but this should take place the first week so the new employee can use a teammate's name vs. "hey you" when trying to get their attention for help. 

Phase 2 (Week 2 - First Month)

  • Talk to your teammates - It is important to understand the team dynamic and individual personalities. Encourage your new employee to get to know everyone. 
  • History of the company and team map - I love that Kate suggested that this wait a week. I agree that hearing the history on the first day is useless since you don't know the context or the characters in the story. 
  • Shadowing and code labs - Encouraging a weekly safe space to ask questions for everyone. 

Phase 3 (Beyond)

  • 1 on 1s - setup your ongoing 1 on 1 with your boss and mentor. Kate even encouraged the idea that anyone in the company should be allowed to setup a 1 on 1 with anyone. 
  • Goal setting and feedback - this is important and something we embrace at Ninefold. You should always striving to go forward in your career and you should outline how you are going to achieve that with your manager. 
  • Presentations - once your employee is comfortable, start adding them into presentations (both internal and external) so they can grow their skills and share insights with others. 

Phase 4

  • Rinse and repeat!

To end the talk, the audience got to ask one question around how onboarding contractors is any different from employees. It depends on your situation but Kate simply said, “I think it’s funny that companies treat contractors differently. They are still people." Three cheers for empathy and a fantastic talk, Kate. 

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You can follow Kate here: @heddle317

You can view her slides and Railsconf presentation here

Her GoGaRuCo presentation will be available here soon.