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How to Streamline Your Remote Software Engineer Onboarding

Engineering Management

Though some fast-growing companies overlook onboarding, it’s a crucial way to ensure the legwork you’ve already put in during the hiring process pays off. Perhaps more importantly, it helps you avoid the high costs of early churn. According to Kristen Gallagher, founder and CEO of onboarding software platform Edify, it can cost upwards of $350,000 to replace an engineer if they leave before the 12-month mark. 

A structured onboarding system for remote developers brings more benefits than just ensuring new hires know what to do when they step through the company’s virtual doors. It’s a way to build your brand’s credibility among the dev community, increase retention, and ultimately foster sustainable growth.

Don’t get stuck playing catchup or lose out on talented software engineers due to a lackluster onboarding process. Follow these tips to ensure your process is as effective as possible.

Review and improve your developer onboarding documentation

A detailed and well-documented onboarding plan creates consistency, which is crucial for a smooth onboarding experience. Survey results show that companies who implement standard onboarding training increase their new employee retention rates by 50%. Taking proactive measures on internal documentation helps new hires get the hang of things more quickly, and it helps you eliminate redundancy in each hiring cycle with a comprehensive resource bank.

So what does good documentation look like? In the beginning, it’s as simple as writing things down. You might create a comprehensive employee handbook or start with a straightforward checklist. These should include information on:

  • Terminology: Are there any company-specific jargon, acronyms, or phrases new engineers need to know? When in doubt, define it.
  • Process + meetings: Describe the length, structure, regularity, and purpose of each meeting. It’s also smart to include expectations for attendees (yes, we want you to turn your camera on every now and then…)
  • Tools: Map out your engineering tech stack and describe how each tool is used at your company. 
  • Communication: What are the company norms? What necessitates an email, and what can be done over Teams, Slack, or Zoom? Clearly-defined channels of communication save headaches and reduce nerves for new engineers.
  • Individual working styles: Have everyone in the org create a “work with me” doc to share how team members prefer to collaborate. These guides might include things like your preferred forms of communication, work style, or even what gets on your nerves. At CoderPad, we’ve found that “working with me” documents increase transparency and support an open, genuine company culture. 

Deliberately schedule the first day through the first month for new hires

The early days of a remote software development job can be a whirlwind of confusion–from wondering where to focus attention to understanding who they’ll work alongside and report to. 

Remove uncertainty by creating an onboarding checklist with items for a new developer’s first day, week(s), and month. Your checklist will contain things like

  • peer meet and greets
  • pair programming sessions
  • and, most importantly, time slots allotted for regular check-ins (the more frequent, the better.)

Engineering managers should directly schedule these events on the new developer’s calendar. This removes any question of what they should do and when and reduces the hire’s cognitive load

Some organizations have found that providing as much structure as possible—right down to the hour—pays serious dividends down the line. Foxbox Digital, for instance, describes an onboarding process in which “every hour” is accounted for in the first week. Is there such a thing as too much planning? Take it from them:

“The short-term impact was immediately noticeable. Every new team member was ready to go on the fifth day. They had fewer questions and made a bigger impact on project work faster. The longer-term impact was even more substantial.”
— Foxbox Digital

The final step to a successful first month is providing the right context. It’s not enough to give new engineers a company email address, a calendar stacked with meetings, then expect them to get the full picture immediately. 

To keep everyone moving in sync as effectively as possible, block out extra time to “prep” a new engineer for their first week of meetings. You should also share your onboarding checklist with eng leaders and devs across the organization to help fill in any gaps. 

Make social onboarding a priority

Even though the stress of remembering names is mostly a thing of the past (thank you, Zoom), the world of remote work still brings a steep social learning curve for new hires. When teams are spread out across time zones—and, sometimes, countries—it means a conscious effort is required to foster cohesion, build company culture, and keep software engineers from feeling isolated. 

As Slack’s Engineering Learning Specialist explains, a common problem for new engineers in fast-growing tech organizations is psychological safety. 

Approaching an entirely new work environment can be a highly stressful experience, which ultimately leads to “anxiety block[ing] the learning process.” Ensure your onboarding system incorporates measures that promote an open environment where communication comes first.

One proven way to make new hires feel at home is to establish a buddy program. Buddy programs assign every engineer a mentor who knows your company’s ins, outs, and nuances. This mentor gives new engineers a go-to channel for gaining familiarity with the org, quick questions, and everything in between.

Instead of relying on emails or a “what’s up?” Slack message here and there, you can also use software like Donut to encourage social connection. Donut has features like a virtual watercooler with prompts to get the conversation flowing and helps people get to know team members across the organizations with automatically generated lunch pal pairings. 

Assign projects that bring real results and identify small wins from day one 

New software engineers often want to dig in and get to work right away. But sometimes, there’s a significant psychological barrier–a dev who just started isn’t likely to be able to jump into a sprint with a tight deadline and little room for error, nor are they going to be able to shape product development right away. In turn, they might question whether their contributions are meaningful or if they truly fit into the new team’s workflow. 

Assigning meaningful work early on and giving new hires a sense of accomplishment can both orient them to your workflows and add value for the business. We can call these “small wins,” or any completed tasks that push your org forward—no matter what they may be.

One option to implement small wins comes from onboarding projects. This might be fixing up an outdated internal system or working through bugs in an existing product. You could also take a more direct approach: Simon Stanlake, former CTO at Hootsuite and VP of Engineering at Procurify, aims to have new devs deploy code from day one

To guarantee small wins for engineers, create an interactive checklist of tasks that make up the onboarding process. This way, they earn a sense of accomplishment early on while longer-term projects take shape.

Whatever the project’s details and purpose may be, you should choose something with a visible endpoint so the first week can go down in the books as productive.

Iterate on your onboarding process as you go

As your company grows, its onboarding process will inevitably change—and that’s a good thing. With solid documentation, you can continue to build upon what works while updating practices that no longer work for your engineering team.

The other piece of good news is that you have an invaluable tool at your disposal: the feedback of newly-onboarded engineers. Use an agile framework and distribute a survey about what worked, what didn’t, and suggestions to make the process smoother in the future. With this at hand, continue to iterate and improve upon your strategies for remote onboarding.

Onboarding doesn’t stop after week one or even month one; research from LeadDev shows it takes an average of six to seven months for a software engineer to be fully up to speed. Still, with calculated pre-planning and by updating your protocols in real-time, you can realize all the opportunities of remote work without leaving new engineers to figure things out on their own.