Developer Experience
Developer Onboarding

Engineering Onboarding: The Key to DevEx Success

Discover strategies to elevate your engineering onboarding process, ensuring new hires integrate seamlessly and contribute faster.

May 23, 2024

Engineering onboarding comprises more than just allocation of credentials and orientation to top tools. Depending on staffing, capacity for resource and permission allocation, and maturity of self-serve tooling, it can take weeks or even months for engineers to contribute their first meaningful PR—a common measure of "onboarding completeness."

So how should engineering leaders think about optimizing their processes to improve developer effectiveness, velocity, and confidence?

This article will look at the art and the science of onboarding engineers. It will consider the tools, data-driven practices and social principles behind converting engineers from new employees to team members. Let's dive in.

Benefits of a structured engineering onboarding program

Good onboarding, like good software, is built on structure. You want to define the culture and set the tone early by emphasizing high-value activity and the importance of deep work. Onboarding is an opportunity to state and demonstrate these values, setting the stage for innovative problem-solving and creativity among new hires. This needs to be repeatable and standardized, so it requires a structure that can guarantee a high-quality experience regardless of the engineering team, office or country the hire is joining, or whether the onboarding is for remote work or in-person.

Getting this right can unlock several benefits:

Accelerated ramp

A well-planned onboarding process breaks down the initial learning curve into manageable segments. By providing a clear roadmap of what they need to learn and in what order, organizations can significantly reduce the time it takes for new hires to become productive members of the team. This allows new engineers to start contributing to projects sooner, boosting the overall productivity of the team.

Enhanced job satisfaction and retention

Making your onboarding process, structured, streamlined and empathetic ensures that new hires feel a stronger sense of belonging and appreciation right from the start. This initial experience is crucial in shaping their perception of the company and their role within it. Providing new engineers with the resources, support, and guidance they need correlates strongly with higher retention rates, as employees who feel valued and supported are less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Improved team cohesion and collaboration

Cohesion and collaboration are the bedrock of a company's engineering culture, and onboarding is your chance to set standards and expectations for what these look like. Providing joiners with positive, relaxed and early exposure to their new team members allows them to understand not just their role, but also how they fit into the broader team and organizational objectives. A structured onboarding can foster a deep sense of community and shared purpose from the outset, getting the developer experience flywheel in motion.

Consistent knowledge and skill development

Like a good education, software engineering is a state of constant learning, and onboarding is your opportunity to emphasize this from day one. Whatever their prior experience, new developers will need to learn about the specific competencies that their new roles require. By providing a structured onboarding you can set expectations for deliverables and outputs, while giving a clear briefing on your company's methodologies, tools, and objectives. You should learn something new every day, and the more you incentivize this from day one the better.

Evaluating your current engineering onboarding process

Getting onboarding right feels intuitively important, but to evaluate how effective it is you'll need a data-driven approach. Organizations where software developers are most strategically important will have engineering cultures that elevate data over anecdotes, so aim to use analytics to uncover hidden strengths or weaknesses in your existing process.

Here are some data-gathering approaches to consider when assessing your onboarding:

Measure developer satisfaction and feedback

How happy are your joiners with the process? One of the most direct ways to gauge the effectiveness of your onboarding process is through measuring developer satisfaction. This can be achieved through regular, structured feedback sessions, surveys, and one-on-one meetings with new hires. Questions should aim to understand their experience of the onboarding process, including what they found helpful and areas they felt were lacking. This direct feedback serves as a crucial indicator of your overall developer experience and highlights areas for immediate attention and improvement.

Analyze time to first commit

How quickly are your new hires adding value? Monitoring the time from onboarding to the first commit, or completion of a first project milestone, provides data on how your onboarding process is setting your developers up for success. This reflects how well you are equipping new engineers with the necessary tools, knowledge, and confidence to get to work. Slow time to commit could mean that the onboarding process needs to better prepare new hires for their roles. Significant outliers could point to problems in your company's recruitment.

Review retention rates and early turnover

Do new joiners stick around? Retention rates during the first year of employment can tell a lot about your onboarding process. Higher turnover rate during or shortly after onboarding could indicate that the process fails to meet new engineers' expectations or needs. Investigating early turnover can show what aspects of the onboarding experience need to change, such as clarity of role expectations, support structures, or integration into the team. It is important to analyze this data to separate poor hires who were not a fit, from those who were suited but not onboarded correctly. Losing the first is a feature, the latter is a bug.

Assess integration into team culture and dynamics

How well do new team members fit in? People who loved school typically did so for reasons beyond academia, and this helped them to learn. Successful onboarding should be measured in terms of social and cultural factors as well as technical contributions. Tracking new engineers’ participation in team activities, projects, and social events can show how well the onboarding process fosters a sense of belonging and community.

It is important not to be too prescriptive here, as you don't want to exclude introverts or parents who are less inclined to socialize. It helps to take a holistic approach to assessing team dynamics, and to use peer feedback in particular. This helps gauge perceived fit within the team and comfort levels in contributing to discussions and initiatives.

Gathering data to assess your onboarding allows you to put your intuitions to the test and provide a tangible basis for improving the process.

How to improve your engineering onboarding process

Getting onboarding right means taking a first principles approach that puts the developer front and centre. It starts with empathy: consider what it feels like on your first week in a new company, and what would most put you at ease personally and professionally. Look at what factors create a psychological environment that challenges and inspires colleagues to do good work. Put this through the filter of your company's engineering culture and your expectations for new hires. Then review the results of your onboarding evaluation. These factors should combine to determine how you can go about improving your onboarding process.

Some tactics to help you with this include:

Integrate data-driven decision making

Just as data is the basis for assessing your onboarding process, it is also the basis for improving it. By analyzing metrics such as time to first commit or project completion rates, and incorporating new hire feedback, engineering managers can pinpoint areas for improvement. This might reveal the need for additional training in specific areas or adjustments in the pacing of the onboarding schedule. Once you have found data points that indicate success, build and refine an onboarding checklist to continue applying these insights. Grounding your decisions in data allows you to personalize and improve the onboarding experience based on revealed performance and satisfaction data.

Foster a culture of continuous learning and feedback

Developers are knowledge workers, and good developer experience requires an environment that incentivizes learning and the free flow of information and feedback. As well as setting up clear mechanisms for new hires to seek help and clarification, you should proactively check in with them on progress and well-being. It comes down to culture: your engineering culture should support cognitive work. That starts by helping new engineers as they settle into their roles, while reinforcing the organization's commitment to their growth and satisfaction. By creating a dialogue where feedback is consistently solicited, valued, and acted upon, you create psychological safety from day one and improve team dynamics.

Utilize technology and tools to enhance learning

Tools and technologies should support an engaging onboarding process, not vice versa. For example, an internal developer portal can provide new hires with the essential resources, documentation, and tools to familiarize themselves with the engineering culture and contribute quickly. As well as supporting and streamlining the onboarding process, these tools should align with improving developer experience from day one. Look for tools that facilitate communication, project management tools that offer visibility into ongoing initiatives, or e-learning systems with tailored content for self-paced learning.

These tactics boil down to being deliberate and thoughtful when applying straightforward engineering practices to onboarding. It sounds obvious, and yet there are several examples of mature companies with excellent engineering cultures making great strides in onboarding simply by making it a priority.

Google's, Project Aristotle, an extensive study into team dynamics, allowed the company to reform onboarding. After identifying psychological safety, clarity and structure as drivers of good teamwork, Google introduced a structured mentorship program into onboarding, along with regular check-ins and clear documentation on role expectations, including a checklist for the first 90 days as a Google employee.

Etsy, the creative marketplace, wanted to broaden the technical skills for new hires, so the company extended the onboarding process by including multi-team rotations for new hires. This not only improved engineers' skillsets, it gave them a better grounding in the broader business and culture, fostering a sense of community and belonging. By sacrificing speed of initial output, Etsy provided new hires with greater understanding and left them more equipped to tackle cross-functional projects. It also showed that developer experience metrics like time to first Hello World are subjective and should be considered in the context of broader engineering strategy.

Why DevEx starts with engineering onboarding

Early exposure to the company's goals, values, and methodologies helps new hires align their personal objectives with those of the organization. Onboarding sets a first impression for new hires of culture, processes, tooling and expectations - in other words your developer experience. By clearly and efficiently communicating expectations and best practice, you can empower your newest developers to focus on deep work, prioritize high-value activities and contribute effectively from the outset.

Metrics such as SPACE are useful to consider not just the developers themselves, but potential improvements in their workflow. New hires will come with habits from a different environment as well as having expectations that may or may not align perfectly with reality. Gathering data on activity, satisfaction and collaboration can give you a baseline for performance and may demonstrate gaps in your onboarding on broader DevEx needs.

As well as gathering data to strengthen the link between onboarding and experience, you should be actively aligning your onboarding processes with DevEx principles. Developers are knowledge workers, and so the best experience is synonymous an intellectually stimulating development environment built on deep work. To help get you there, look to build structured learning pathways and continuous feedback loops on the process end, and collaboration, robust mentorship and one-to-one support on the people end.

The non-technical side of engineering onboarding

Some engineers like to focus on process and tools, framing productivity as just another technical problem to be solved. While it's useful to apply this lens and use Taylorist principles to "build your machine", any process involving human beings requires a human touch. A good team is a community and social relationships often count for more than intellectual ones. Onboarding is a chance to instill your company values and foster a sense of belonging from day one.

Google's Project Aristotle (mentioned above) found that psychological safety was the most important dynamic in an effective team. Developers need to feel that they can confidently express their opinions and take risks, and getting to this state proactively makes for a better engineering culture. Onboarding should facilitate a flat culture that frames problems as challenges of learning rather than challenges of execution.

A more literal aspect of psychological safety involves prioritizing the mental health needs of your developers. Include mental health resources in your onboarding by drawing attention to the availability of counseling, wellbeing days or Employee Assistance Programs. Engineering leaders and onboarding buddies should be on hand to offer emotional support – with leaders pointing them in the right direction where they are not equipped to handle it directly. Regular check-ins should cover off professional and personal concerns.

Social and non-technical considerations may not always fit neatly into KPIs, but they are an essential part of onboarding to build high quality DevEx. Developers are people first, with their associated social and emotional needs, and manpower second.

Tools and technologies for better engineering onboarding

One area where onboarding can clearly surpass the first day of school for efficiency is in using technology and tools to streamline the process of settling in. Cortex's suite of products offer specific features to support communication and knowledge development while reducing cognitive load and enabling deep work. These help with:

Time to value

The Cortex Catalog provides comprehensive visibility into documentation, dependencies, ownership and more. By centralizing access to information, this allows new engineers to quickly understand a project's context and technical history. New hires can grasp system architecture and identify who to go to with questions, allowing them to hit the ground running.

Our Scaffolder allows for the creation of project templates and boilerplate code. This allows engineers to progress from learning to contributing much faster, comfortable in the knowledge that they are aligning with organizational standards and best practice.

Personalized learning and insights

Cortex's Eng Intelligence provides data-driven insights and holistic productivity metrics that offer deep insights personalized to the individual engineer. This actionable feedback creates a culture of continuous learning from day one, driving productivity while enhancing DevEx. It can be delivered in line with your communication preferences, such as by integrating data from Scorecards with Slack. Grounding this feedback in broader team objectives helps to align new hires with organizational goals.

Using Cortex in onboarding

If your Internal Developer Portal is meant to be a central system of record, it should also be home to your developers from Day 1—helping to abstract away unnecessary yellow tape during onboarding and beyond. Cortex centralizes all data, tools, and team information to provide rich context to each new hire.

Cortex also centralizes all templates and workflows that enable devs to put their newfound knowledge to work—eliminating overhead in infrastructure provisioning, resource allocation, and permissions. Automate these processes with workflows to reduce tickets and speed time to impact.

For more on how to build Cortex into your engineering onboarding, book a demo today.

The Future of Engineering Onboarding: Trends and Predictions

Your tech stack and the processes surrounding them play a central role in effective and timely onboarding. But what else can be improved? We foresee strategic incorporation of AI and more automation playing a pivotal role in getting to the next tier of excellence in onboarding efficiency. Whether that's by furnishing the right information at the right time for each developer given context about what they own and what they're responsible for, or tuning onboarding flows to be more specific to each person's skills and interests.

Whatever technology we use, the core elements of onboarding will remain unchanged. Build psychological safety from a place of empathy to look after the social needs of your new team members, and give them the technical access, support and guidance to get them writing code and adding value from the start.

Developer Experience
Developer Onboarding
What's driving urgency for IDPs?