Technical Onboarding at Hootsuite
“You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.” – Master Yoda
The Danger of Team Debt
At her PyCon 2015 keynote, Kate Heddleston explains how a familiar engineering concept – technical debt – applies to any growing organization. Any technical system can accrue technical debt as a consequence of bad design. Heddleston argues that organizations can also accrue ‘team debt‘ as a consequence of bad design: where each person added to your team eventually decreases overall team productivity. Productivity drops because each new addition lacks an understanding about the team’s processes, cultural norms, how to do their job, corporate values, code standards, architecture, and more.
Steve Blank sums it up as “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup.” It’s like death by a thousand cuts – each person’s inefficiencies compound to a point where their time and effort spent navigating your ‘system’ outweighs their time and effort spent shipping code.
This was exactly our situation in our Engineering group two years ago. Our team had tripled in size from 13 to 39 in the span of two years and was slated to double again to 78 in 2014. So much of our ‘just get it done’ approach lead to misaligned expectations and lack of understanding of our code base, our practices, and our culture. Symptoms of the problem trickled in to me periodically, but the depth of the situation really hit home when someone I had hired resigned and cited some of these issues in their exit interview.
That event radically shifted the way I looked at introducing new engineers.
Accounting for Team Debt
There are three key ways we account for team debt at Hootsuite: The Answer Index, Time to Contribution, and Time to Connection.
How soon does someone who is new to your organization get an answer to a question? I call this number the “Answer Index”. In her TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan says, SAP’s Answer Index is 17 minutes. I was curious – Is that good? What was ours? Our Engineering group’s Answer Index is ~5 minutes 47 seconds. This number is the mean response time in HipChat calculated by measuring the time between a post that contains a “?” and a reply. I measured and then averaged two sample HipChat rooms: “Who Owns It?” (367 seconds) and “Platform [Team]” (328 seconds).
Given that our office is open plan and collaboration is part of our culture, I estimate this number is even less when someone turns to their neighbour with a query or asks the question through other available channels like daily Stand ups or Yammer.
The second key measure is how soon after hiring is someone able to contribute to the their team? How soon does someone feel connected to their team? Our Talent team asks new people these questions in scheduled 30, 60 and 90 day conversations. Combining these data points with anecdotal feedback indicates how we measure up against our aim. According to the new people we’ve hired into all of our technical the last three months, people feel part of their team within four days (median). They feel productive within the first nine days (median).
Do you invest?
The Energy Project in the NYT Sunday Review writes:
“We often ask senior leaders a simple question: If your employees feel more energized, valued, focused, and purposeful, do they perform better? Not surprisingly, the answer is almost always “Yes.” Next we ask, “So how much do you invest in meeting those needs?” An uncomfortable silence typically ensues.Here’s how you might invest.
Pay it Down with Systematic Onboarding
Kate neatly defines onboarding as the act of “taking someone from outside of the team, outside of the company, and making them an integrated, productive, and confident member of the team.” I tag “happy [member of the team]” on to that definition too – I’ll get to happy in a moment.
Onboarding is like training – an activity that pays back your invested effort handsomely in terms of productivity. Ben Horowitz explains on his blog:
Consider for a moment the possibility of your putting on a series of four lectures for members of your department. Let’s count on three hours preparation for each hour of course time—twelve hours of work in total. Say that you have ten students in your class. Next year they will work a total of about twenty thousand hours for your organization. If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in your subordinates’ performance, you company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.Every new person that joins Hootsuite’s technical groups (Engineering, Product, Operations, IT, Security, Web Operations) goes through all or part of our onboarding program. Our aim is to make someone feel a part of our culture and contribute to our mission as soon as possible after joining so that they can become reliably independent.
How Does Ours Work?
Our program runs in partnership with our Talent team. It starts the moment a new person signs their contract, continues on Day One, and runs until someone feels a part of our culture and contributes to our mission. This model has been in place for two years, but it iterates frequently based on input from every newly hired person and from the members of our Onboarding Guild.
As soon as a candidate says “Yes” (by electronically signing their employment agreement), their hiring manager sends them a Welcome Email that covers: how stoked we are that they’re joining us, what they can do to be ready for Day One, what they can expect in their first week, who they’ll be working with, what technologies they will use, who is available to answer their questions. It’s important to reciprocate their excitement.
Starting somewhere new is stressful. Almost all of us feel those invisible walls around us anytime we show up in an new and unfamiliar setting. Those invisible walls separate us from our social support network which hampers us from asking questions that help us get productive get familiar with our surroundings and understand our context. Shawn Achor, a positive psychology professor, has done research that shows that – surprisingly – the best time to increase your social connections is at the time you are most stressed.
Margaret Heffernan beautifully illustrates this concept of connectedness and it’s long-term benefits in a TED article – as mortar between bricks; in other words, the space between us. She calls this ‘social capital’: mutual reliance, an underlying sense of connectedness that builds trust.
In any company, you can have a brilliant bunch of individuals — but what prompts them to share ideas and concerns, contribute to one another’s thinking, and warn the group early about potential risks is their connection to one another.Pairing every new person with a Training Guide who answers their questions and breaks down those invisible walls lets them invest in a social support network that will help them now and later on. Oren Ellenbogen sums it up succinctly: “People want to connect with people, not with todo lists”. He’s right. Who likes being welcomed then abandoned at their desk to read a wiki article or watch a corporate video?
Train the Trainers
To ensure that our Training Guides understand the Why, How and What of onboarding and their role, we hold a “Train the Trainer” session the Wednesday before their new charge is set to start.
There is no day like Day One. You get just one opportunity to make a memorable impression. How? Make it personal. Make it unexpected. Make it significant. I borrowed an idea from Oren Ellenbogen and another from Mike Brittain at Etsy (articulated here by John Goulah).
Spend a lot of effort and a little money to make a Welcome Gift. This isn’t a coffee-shop gift card – it involves research on social media, speaking with to the new person’s referral, talking to the recruiter – anyone, really – to find out about them, what they care about, and what they love to do. Wrap it up, add a handwritten note, and put it on their desk for Monday morning.
Push to Production
In Engineering each new hire pushes to Production on the first day. To be honest, that’s the benchmark we measure ourselves against though there are times it happens after Day One. Why does this matter? This conveys the speed at which we operate (continuous delivery), gives someone the rush of shipping (as Engineers that’s what we live for, right?), and conveys to them that we trust them and that the responsibility of delivering to the last mile is theirs.
Present, in person, a series of talks that connect them to their cohort and to a speaker. In addition to establishing a connection with someone, onboarding talks help someone new develop a common sense of purpose, understand our culture in Product & Engineering, and most importantly, how to participate in and contribute to our culture and our mission.
Attendees run the gamut of roles from high-school students to VPs to any current person on our technical staff who would like a refresher. In fact, Training Guides who attend the Talks routinely say they are clarifying and energizing. On-the-job training in the morning, and in-person talks in the afternoon.
Each speaker is a current employee who has volunteered to pay it forward by giving a talk. They follow up with each attendee and asks for their ROTI (return on time invested) and comments about what they liked about the session and what can be improved. Those comments go into making the talk better for the next cohort.
Talks are run like a funnel, broad to narrow. A sample set:
- Culture in Product & Engineering
- The Business of Hootsuite (How we make $$$)
- Products, Practices, and Stable Teams
- Our Architecture and its Evolution
- How we Build Software
- How we Deploy to Production
- Writing Code and Tests (for a specific language)
By having an effective onboarding you’re moving on from ‘just get it done’ to ‘get it done so you can scale’ and solving the problem of team alignment. By investing in the emotional side (in addition to the technical side) of a new person’s experience you help to avoid team debt, and get the payback of better connectedness and productivity.
Some Helpful Articles
- Kate Heddleston’s PyCon 2015 Keynote and blog
- Onboarding by Steve Blank
- Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work by Margaret Heffernan
- The secret ingredient that makes some teams better than others by Margaret Heffernan
- Why you hate work in the NYT Sunday Review
- Why startups should train their people by Ben Horowitz
- Positive Intelligence (HBR) by Shawn Achor
- The Happy Secret to Better Work – TED Talk by Shawn Achor
- …an unforgettable first day for new hires by Oren Ellenbogen
- Happiness makes your brain work better by Jessica Stillman
- Extreme Onboarding – a comprehensive and useful article by John Sullivan
- What-is-a-good-onboarding-process…? by Edmond Lau on Quora
To Oren, Mike, Kate, Edmond, and Simon for the inspiration. To my colleagues who deliver our onboarding talks, to the new hires and member of our Onboarding Guild that made it better. To Lindsay, Kimli and Ric for their editing.
About the Author
Noel focuses on culture, employee engagement, technical community involvement, and training for Hootsuite’s technical groups. He loves to exchange ideas and would like to hear how you do these things at your organization. Get in touch via LinkedIn.