How did you get into the bottleneck?
A growing startup commonly underinvests in its onboarding process. The need to scale up headcount rapidly can come about unexpectedly. An event can trigger the team scaling – perhaps the product took off with customers, or the startup acquired a company or pivoted in a new product direction. Quickly, plans change to how many people the startup now needs to achieve their new goals, the recruiting team starts interviewing and making offers. With added pressure, you don’t take time to optimize the onboarding process. If an effective onboarding system wasn’t already in place, the new employees are dropped into teams, assigned some tasks, and left to figure out how to become productive for themselves. It’s particularly problematic if team members aren’t collaboratively helping the new employee get up to speed, there's no onboarding documentation, the code is impossible to read, or the product goals and KPIs unclear. Then new employees can become lost, dissatisfied and underproductive. In this article we will explore signs that your company is bottlenecked by an ineffective onboarding process, and the best practice solutions we have seen work at Thoughtworks Scaleup Studio.
In addition to onboarding new hires, the process is utilized when reorganizing teams. The studio believe the ability to learn, fail fast and refocus is a important skill for successful scaling. A nimble startup will pivot as it responds to learnings and landscape changes, this involves changing product team goals and reassigning resources to best target the new goals. To do this easily, we need the ability for the reassigned team members to get up to speed quickly. Most of the capabilities in this article, will also apply to reorganizing.
Onboarding is a key business process
Onboarding is often seen as merely granting access and doing a set of administrative tasks before handing new employees to their manager and team. It's not thought of as an end-to-end business process. But a well-run onboarding process addresses social and cultural integration and facilitates collaboration among the different functions that a new employee has to interact with. The onboarding process typically involves human resources, engineering management, legal, IT Operation, security, and product team members. Spanning so many groups means it can be very disjointed. Optimizing the process is difficult because often no one owns the whole process, and you must bring all the different players together.
Software leaders put a lot of effort into shaping hiring plans and supporting recruiting efforts, but often neglect to give much thought to how new employees will become effective. We believe this to be a mistake, as effective onboarding acts as a “multiplier effect” for new hires.
From a clinical perspective, what is the value of a new employee? Without proper onboarding, new hires will only exhibit a fraction of their value and productivity, some as low as 50%. With an ROI at this level, you are less likely to achieve your intended goals. Leaders are forced to do additional hiring, which will increase organization complexity and workload for managers. To avoid this, we recommend putting the same amount of effort into optimizing onboarding as you would hiring new employees.
In our opinion the onboarding process doesn’t end after a week or a month – it keeps going until the person is fully productive. As soon as someone accepts an offer, the onboarding process begins, followed by a robust new hire orientation, receiving of laptops and access to appropriate systems. It continues after they join their team, as they carry out their duties for the first time, build relationships with their team members and managers, and develop habits around their common tasks. The last phase of onboarding enables an employee to reach full productivity, where they can contribute to the team creatively, teach others and contribute back into the onboarding process. This timeline is dependent on role, domain and complexity.
Optimal onboarding timeline
To gauge how you are doing, this table represents what we observe to be optimal timelines for a developer onboarding. We will explain the concepts mentioned here further in the rest of the article:
|Access to all HR and administrative systems
|Access to workstation and personal development environment is setup with necessary tools
|Company mission and business goals are explained and discussed
|Complete a push to production for a trivial change, assisted by peer
|Manager has set expectations with employee and given them an OKR
|Paired with colleague on developing a real feature all the way to production and performed defect resolution
|Understood key customer problems and internal operation processes
|Developer: Able to be an “Anchor” on a story
|Week 3 - 5†
|Developer: Able to lead support calls
|Week 5 - 7†
† depending on complexity and experience