Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Giving your employees a great start

“An employee can only be as good as their manager let’s them be” Billy Turchin

So you’ve found a great candidate; he’s accepted your offer and will be starting soon.  Now what?  How do you get your employee up to speed quickly, set proper expectations and re-enforce that he made an excellent decision by joining your team?  

As a new or even seasoned manager, it can be difficult to bring on a new employee and keep track of all the things needed to be done by you and the employee.  I recommend developing an orientation plan before they start which has the following sections:

  • First day
  • First week
  • First month
Within each of these we’ll be placing activities that fall into four basic categories of learning needed in the employees first few weeks:  Organizational, Technical, Functional and Managerial.  Let’s review each of these and the types of tasks they contain that your employee will need to do in their first month.  Then we’ll build a sample orientation plan.


This refers to learning the policies and procedures of your company, as well as general office logistics.  You’ll probably get some help from your HR department on these, but much of it will still fall on you to make sure things are conveyed to the employee correctly. 

Activities included in this category:
  1. Touring the office
  2. Introductions
  3. Setting up computer and network accounts
  4. Phone, voicemail, etc.
  5. Learning company policies, going over employee handbook
  6. Setting up payroll (for example I-9 form), benefits, direct deposit, etc.
  7. Completing any mandatory company training
  8. Learning important websites and where to go for help
  9. Learning the reporting structure and org. chart


This refers to learning the technologies your team is using.  Perhaps you’ve hired someone that already knows all the tools and libraries, but often this is not the case.  This section of learning can be a combination of taught and self guided.  I’m often a fan of a “trial by fire” approach where I like to throw a new employee rather quickly into actual, small development tasks for a project.  This is not to discount the value of training, but there is no substitute for getting into the details.  In some cases employees don’t get the luxury of much training and this all depends on your situation.  But even if the employee is technically very savvy, they will not be familiar with how your company uses those technologies.  Some level of technical training is always necessary in the first few weeks, even if plan a trail-by-fire and this should not discounted.

Activities in this category include:
  1. Instructor led training classes
  2. Virtual training or previously recorded training sessions
  3. Reading online documentation
  4. Building prototypes
  5. Writing documentation on how a library or feature works
  6. Inspecting existing code and documentation
  7. Knowledge transfer sessions
  8. Mentor partnership with an existing employee

This refers to learning the domain of your software and the functional requirements of the projects they will be working on.  You will need to help your employee learn things like what your product does, who uses it, what the acronyms are and what environment your product is used in.  Depending on your project the learning curve can vary greatly.  If you are working on a complicated project you want to ease your new employee into it by first focusing on high level overviews and going into detail initially only on the area(s) this employee will be working on to start.

Functional training is generally the most overlooked aspect of training.  New engineers are often thrown into building something without understanding the bigger picture.  The cost of this is then felt later when they don’t produce fast enough, or they produce something incorrectly. 

Activities in this category include:
  1. Demos of existing products
  2. Whiteboard session with the manager on product function and design
  3. Reading functional design documents
  4. Meeting with product owners and customers
  5. Company overview documentation, glossary, etc.
  6. Reading technical design documents
  7. Inspecting the code

This refers to educating your new employee on your managerial style and your expectations.  This ranges from logistics of how and when things are done to defining their role on the team and responsibilities.  This can be surprisingly overlooked.  A manager may not clearly set expectations with a new employee, expecting them to “fall into the groove” of the existing team.  As I’ll be writing about in a future posting, setting clear expectations of your employees is one of the most important things you can do as a manager.  Don’t let assumptions, conflicting priorities and misinformation cloud your employees judgment.

Activities in this category include:
  1. One on one meetings with the employee
  2. Checkpoint on progress after each week, month
Topics to review:
  1. Work hours
  2. Working from home
  3. Team meetings
  4. Development methodology
  5. One on one meeting schedule
  6. How they fit in with existing team
  7. Mentoring of or by other team members
  8. General role responsibilities
  9. How they will be phased into the project
  10. Career goals / personal development plan
  11. Objectives for the month/quarter/year/etc.
Writing the orientation plan

You’ll want your orientation plan to group the activities from the four learning categories into three time period buckets.  This builds a checklist of activities by time for their first month.  Some of these may extend beyond a month, but most of these things should be accomplished within the first month.  Having this checklist ensures you don’t miss anything and also gives your employee a clear view of their first month on the team. 

The first day should generally cover most of the organizational activities, but also some of the managerial review.  It’s important to set some expectations very clearly upfront with your employee.  For example, something as simple as what time to show up the next day is good to convey.  Then over the course of the first month you’ll expand on the managerial topics. 

The first week should be about completing the organizational activities and beginning technical and functional training. Most managerial items you did not cover on your first day should be covered within the first week.   Plan to have a one-on-one meeting with your new employee on the first day and one other time during this first week.  I would not expect much “real” work in the first week.  The reality is in most cases if you expect someone to “hit the ground running” you are not setting realistic expectations. 

The remaining weeks of the first month will be all about continued learning and starting to get actual project work done.  Finally at the end of the first month you’ll want to checkpoint on your employee’s progress in a one-on-one meeting.  Talk about the first month, what was learned and what is still missing.  For most software development jobs a month is not enough time to get totally up to speed on everything needed for the project, but at this point the employee should be well on the way to productivity. At this time also review your managerial checkpoints and make sure they are clear on your expectations of them going forward.

Another trick to a successful on-boarding is to make each new employee in their first month update the on-boarding documentation and orientation plan.  This way the material does not become stale and is updated based on what the new employee actually goes through.

I also recommend assigning someone else as a go to employee that can help get your new employee get up to speed.  This needs to be done in the first week.  Firstly this alleviates you from having to aid with all of the technical and functional training. Secondly this gives the employee someone else to turn to when you are not available.  And finally it allows the employee someone else to talk to if they have questions they may be embarrassed to ask you.

The first orientation plan is the hardest.  Once you’ve built an orientation plan for one employee, it can be used as a template for future employees.  People with different job roles and different experiences will have slightly different plans; however most of it will remain the same.  I recommend keeping the plan as a document which you print and give to your employee on day one.  Once you put this plan into place the stress on you for their first day and month can be largely alleviated.  It also eliminates a lot of stress on the new employee.

I recommend the first thing you do on the first day with your employee is to go over this plan.  Imagine if you had this on your first day and immediately had a clear understanding of your first month … now that’s a great start that will certainly inspire confidence in the manager!

Below is a sample non-specific orientation plan:

First Day
  1. Review orientation plan
  2. One-on-one meeting (review expectations, meetings, dress code, hours, org chart, etc.)
  3. Building – tour, badge, office supplies, phone, etc.
  4. HR paperwork
  5. Lunch!
  6. Team meeting, introductions
  7. Computer setup
  8. Important websites
  9. Requesting accounts and system access
  10. New hire wiki page / technical setup
First Week
  1. HR policies, employee handbook, etc.
  2. Mandatory training
  3. Product demo
  4. Start technical training – self guided and directed
  5. Read functional design docs
  6. Read technical design docs
  7. Assign a mentor
  8. Enroll in training classes if needed
  9. Finish computer setup and technical environment configuration
  10. One-one-one meeting (review management style, expectations, development methodology, meeting schedules, travel, ramp-up plan, objectives for first month, etc.)
First Month
  1. Continue technical training
  2. Continue functional training
  3. Writing or updating training documentation
  4. Update orientation plan and new hire docs
  5. Start on project tasks and/or prototypes
  6. One-on-one meeting (review career goals, personal development plan, objectives for month/quarter/year, training, expectations, debrief first month, etc.)


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