Whether you’ve been running a remote team for years or just taking your first tentative steps into hiring a remote programmer, you can’t escape the necessity of a solid dev onboarding process.
Onboarding developers is as vital as hiring suitable candidates. Without a straightforward onboarding process and checklist to set expectations and boundaries, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.
In this article, we’ll answer the most common questions about onboarding software engineers. Then, we’ll share our experience with developing onboarding plans and checklists and the kind of documents you should present as part of your onboarding documentation. Finally, we’ll take you through some developer onboarding best practices.
What Is Developer Onboarding?
Developer onboarding is the process of integrating and familiarizing new developers into a team or organization. It is a structured approach designed to help new developers become productive and successful in their roles as quickly as possible.
When onboarding developers, your goal is to provide them with the necessary knowledge, resources, and support to understand the organization’s processes, tools, and codebase.
Why Is Developer Onboarding Important?
Onboarding any new employee is perhaps the most critical step to ensure they have a productive career in your company.
Because tech roles often rely on using specific tools and contributing to a shared codebase, how you handle onboarding a software developer becomes even more critical.
Let’s look at some numbers to get an idea of Workforce Institute 2021 Engagement and Retention Report:
Onboarding is crucial for retention. The report shows that onboarding is key to making employees feel engaged and remain in the company. Yet, only 21% of respondents think they had a good start with their company. 66% would feel more engaged if the company culture were better, and 52% would rather have more diversity and inclusion.
The discontentment adds up. A separate SHRM report found that new employees with a structured onboarding process were 58% more likely to still be with the company in three years.
60% of respondents had to ask more times for feedback on their initial performance, and 52% solicited feedback to improve company culture during the pandemic.
Disconnection From The Team
After the first month, 46% of employees didn’t feel connected with team members; 26% of the respondents blamed the lack of communication, while 25% believed the company didn’t make an effort to create occasions for engagement.
In short, onboarding a remote developer is important to speed up the workflow and hold your team together. The more you invest in your onboarding plan and onboarding documentation, the quicker your developers will be able to start being productive, and the longer you can expect them to remain in your employment.
Conversely, a bad onboarding experience will result in them not being able to deliver to your expectations during their first few months, leading to frustration on their end and you wondering if you didn’t just make a bad hiring decision.
That’s why we always recommend that you make sure your onboarding checklist is on point before you pass judgment on a new hire. More on that later.
How Long Does It Take To Onboard A New Employee?
The onboarding process should, at a minimum, be the focus of the employee’s first week, although it is common for some tasks to stretch up until the end of the first month.
Some companies with very complex onboarding plans will only consider the onboarding complete at the end of the third month, but again, that hardly means those three months are exclusively devoted to onboarding.
For example, at DistantJob, our onboarding checklist is built to occupy the bulk of the employee’s first week, but it only really ends when they send their first invoice at the end of month 1.
How Do I Onboard A New Developer To The Team?
While every company is different, there are some essential touchpoints that should be universal. We’ll outline them below so you can incorporate them into your onboarding plan.
You can and should build on top of them by asking yourself the question, “What will a new person need to perform to my expectations?”
If you’re starting from scratch, it’s helpful to record your screen (or ask a colleague to record theirs if they are in a more similar position to the new hire) for a full workday and then go over the recording at 10x speed to get a full observer’s view of what an entire day of work looks like.
Alternatively, if this feels very invasive, just try to make notes as you go along. This is less optimal, though, as we tend to forget to make notes when deep in the weeds and focusing on work.
Developer Onboarding Checklist
Your onboarding plan starts with your developer onboarding checklist. This is, quite simply, a set of two documents: one for yourself or for the person in charge of onboarding and one for the developer you’re onboarding.
While it will vary depending on each person’s specific role, you should begin by creating a template that will broadly apply to anyone you hire and personalize it as needed.
For the onboarder, the list should include implementing all the tips in this article and others you determine; for the new developer, it should be the practical, step-by-step roadmap of their first week.
That doesn’t mean it needs to be boring or hand-holdy!
For example, in DistantJob, we like to play a little game with new hires, which is called “meet the leadership.” One of the tasks on their list is very high-level: to set up a meeting with each department lead and the president and VP of the company. Ask around and figure out how to make it happen.
The beauty of this task is that it forces the new employee outside of their comfort zone with a low-stakes task that will force them to interact with people in the company, move around and ask questions.
Onboarding A Remote Developer
Time for the Meat and Potatoes. While this aims to be a complete list of how to onboard a remote developer, never forget that your case is unique, and you should add stuff if you feel it is essential for your new developer to do their job.
One or two days before their official start date, send the new hire an email with information about their initial tasks, normal working hours, team members, coding standards, and expectations.
Share resources like:
- A digital employee handbook
- Presentations on company values and mission
- Videos from all-hands meetings
- Resources like an up-to-date internal wiki explaining tools and processes
- A recommended reading list of influential books
- Blog posts by company founders that share the company’s philosophy and values.
Stress that they aren’t supposed to go over it all before they officially start; you are only sending it so they can hit the ground running on the first week.
This is also the time to point them to the right tools. Give them a list of tools the team uses to get work done. For remote communications and task planning, all our departments use Slack, Basecamp, Zoom, Coda, and Google Docs, among others, so we send links to all of those before the first day and make sure our HR department has already added their work email to the relevant apps.
Finally, if you have the budget, consider sending a physical Welcome Package before the developer’s first day, including a letter from the team or CEO, branded merchandise, and personalized gifts.
Day 1 Onboarding
- Share a new hire announcement to introduce the developer to the entire team.
- Schedule daily check-in meetings between them and the tech team to keep the new developer updated and connected.
- Get on a call with the new hire and confirm they got everything they were supposed to get on the pre-onboarding package. Ask them if they have any questions.
- Introduce them to their mentor in the company. This will be someone who can work with the new remote developer for the first month. The mentor will help them understand their work and the team’s work culture better.
- Assign them their tasks for the first week through your team’s project management system, and confirm if they got them. Most of these should be onboarding-related tasks. We have some suggestions below.
5 Things Your First-Week Onboarding Plan Should Include
1. A Revision Of Work Agreements And Team Expectations
Documents that explain how the team behaves and what is expected of newcomers are an important part of your onboarding documentation.
These things should have been communicated during the hiring process, but that’s a complex and emotionally tiring process, and it’s not reasonable to expect everything to stick. We advise you to ask your new employee to go over all of this in detail again; the sooner, the better.
When crafting these documents and guides, you need to think about things like:
- Will they be expected to keep head office hours or their own office hours?
- Can they work flexibly, or are they expected to be online for core hours?
- How will performance be measured? Some productivity tracking tools can be intrusive, but there are some good options – we recommend measuring deliverables.
You’ll also need to take some time to consider any accommodations that your new team member might need. For example, if they are not native speakers of your company’s primary language, will they be familiar with all the jargon your company uses? A glossary of unusual terms is useful, but asking your team to try and use ‘plain English’ is going to help everyone.
Non-native speakers can also benefit from seeing written materials ahead of meetings, so start getting your team into the habit of circulating agendas and reports at least 24 hours ahead of any meetings. This way, your non-native speakers have a chance to familiarise themselves with the content.
Finally, make sure their mentor introduces them to all the essential tools, like task management, communication, your version control solution, and where the #watercooler channel is for those hilarious cat memes.
2. Get Them Started With The First Project
This is where you give them something to do. You know, because that’s what you’re paying them for.
Give them a small, self-contained project, a genuine piece of work, but one that doesn’t affect anything critical.
It will give them a chance to use your version control software, get familiar with your company’s coding standards, and produce something of value.
At the same time, you get to learn more about how they approach problems and whether there are any gaps in their training that could be filled.
You might take your new developer out for a “virtual drink” with the team during one of their lunchtimes or at the end of their first week. This gives everyone a chance to get to know each other in a social setting and is a great opportunity for team bonding.
Giving some time over to chit-chat at the start of every group call goes some way to meeting this need, but for milestone events like adding a new teammate or delivering a big piece of a project, a virtual get-together to celebrate wins is in order.
What you do will depend on your team; you could order everyone pizza, ask everyone to put on a Hawaiian shirt and make a cocktail or enjoy a few hours playing Fortnite together. You decide.
4. Daily Check-ins
A daily poke should be part of every new hire onboarding roadmap.
Let them know it’s coming so they don’t feel like they are in trouble or stressed out, but do tap on their shoulder (in Slack) every day and ask how it’s going.
Ask them how they are enjoying the team and company if they have everything they need to do their job, and if they have any questions. When dealing with remote developers, overcommunicating is a valuable and important part of developer onboarding best practices.
5. End The Week With 2-Way Feedback
This builds on the previous point, and the questions you’ll want to ask are essentially the same, but this time, you want to block 30 to 45 minutes at the end of the week for a call.
This one is as much for you as for the developer you are onboarding, as you want to pick their brain about their first-week experience.
Ask what they liked and disliked, what made sense to them and what confused them, etc. At the start of the article, we said every company should tailor the onboarding to their needs, and this is how you do it: by interviewing your new employees and relentlessly polishing the process.
The Biggest Secret to Onboarding Remote Developers
The secret to flawless developer onboarding happens before the first day: hiring the right person. That’s the secret. Remote working is great, but even though 90% of modern developers want to work from home, not everyone is cut out for it!
When hiring for a remote-first environment, you want to be sure the remote programmer you’re interviewing is truly remote-ready. So ask questions to help you understand how much the candidate is used to remote communication and distributed teams.
Pay especially attention to the quality and clarity of their writing, as this is how they will be spending most of their time with you.
Of course, you might like someone that doesn’t necessarily have a huge amount of experience with remote work. That should also inform your onboarding!
If your new developer is new to remote work, you want to spend more time showing around tools, daily reports, and internal communication strategies. If your guy is an old remote soul, you can put more effort into socializing, virtual water coolers, and team introductions.
The biggest secret for a successful onboarding process is to make your remote developer feel part of a family and slightly adjust your system to each candidate. And when they become an active part of your team, it’s time to get the job done!
Get Experts for Hiring and Onboarding a Remote Developer
By now, you might be wondering how to hire the perfect remote developer among 7 billion people. Guess what? You don’t need to go far to find someone that can give you a good answer. That’s because we are specialists when it comes to making sure the developers you hire get set up at your business.
We prescreen all applicants for technical skills, proven ability to work remotely, and cultural fit for your business. That’s why we are so much faster than other recruitment options; our shortlist is all ideal candidates.
We’re not about the transaction. Our work isn’t over when we find skilled developers for your company. We’re about getting your team ready for the future of work. Need that awesome employee? Get in touch!