It’s tempting to think about developer onboarding as just another hurdle a new hire needs to pass before the “real” work begins. It might not be as easy as getting a name badge or completing intake forms, and oftentimes there’s a structured multi-day process associated with onboarding, but that’s all it is — a hurdle.
Is it, though? Consider the benefits of developer onboarding done right. Providing the new hire with the necessary system access and information they need to do their job might be the most visible part of the process, but it doesn’t have to be the only goal. Onboarding can be used to promote team collaboration workflows, impart company values, make sure the new hire becomes productive faster, and accomplish many more “soft” goals.
Enabling good onboarding at scale is easier said than done. Thankfully, you’re hardly the first to consider the onboarding process, so here are a few tips:
The beginning of the onboarding process is quite obvious: it’s the employee’s first day. But when does the onboarding end, and what do you want the employee to achieve by that time?
These aren’t obvious questions, so don’t treat them like an afterthought. You should always be treating onboarding as an opportunity to reduce the time and effort required to get new hires to 100% of their productive potential rather than just reducing the time it takes them to start working. We’re talking not just about knowledge but collaboration and other soft metrics that impact productivity.
After onboarding 5-10 employees, you should go back to this step and ask yourself whether the end goal is correct for your organization at the stage it’s at.
For example, some companies treat on-call readiness as the end of onboarding. Others might consider the first meaningful contribution to the codebase to be the moment the employee is successfully onboarded. A growing organization might move the goalpost as it builds more structured processes and safeguards.
It’s tempting to think that the last thing a new employee wants is to be left alone doing menial tasks. After all, you do want to welcome them and let them feel a part of the team. Almost every developer we’ve talked to would actually rather begin by staking their claim in the organization, so to speak, and setting up their workstation.
Whether they’re remote or in the office, start by providing them with all the software and the accounts they’ll need, then give them ample time to set everything up to their liking. Not only will they feel more comfortable afterward, the setup process might actually raise important questions about how the organization is built.
While the exact checklist differs, here’s a template example to get you started (feel free to steal it):
Reassess. Revise. Repeat. One of the most common problems in onboarding is that it can quickly become outdated. Tools get replaced, workflows change, and priorities shift. But the checklist you’ve created for new hires doesn’t know all that. You should create a reminder to review the list at least once a quarter and ensure it’s still relevant.
Devising (or revising) your developer onboarding is a great opportunity to look at the tools you use in your org. The tools a new employee will be using are, after all, the same tools you all are using. And if there’s something missing to make the onboarding process smooth, it probably interferes with your day-to-day as well! Here are a few tools to consider:
While a small start-up can get away with using a text editor for an onboarding checklist, bigger operations should have a checklist that includes dependencies and collaborative capabilities. While it’s very likely that you already have a dedicated project management platform if you’re still trying to pick one or have an opportunity to switch, here are a few of the most popular SaaS platforms on the market today.
Free version: yes, but limited to 2 people.
One of the most robust project management platforms around, Monday describes itself as a WorkOS. This is due to their emphasis on having the right template and integration for every part of your workflow. They even have a burgeoning add-on marketplace with free and paid apps and integrations. Also, their generative AI product is coming.
Free version: yes, with limitations.
Another all-in-one platform that’s designed to replace all your other tools, Clickup tries to undercut Monday on free features. Theoretically, you can get a lot more for free, even though you’ll probably still need the paid tier if you have a team of 10+ people. And just Monday, it prides itself on a great interface, lots of templates, and powerful integrations. Generative AI? You bet!
Free version: yes, limited to 15 members.
Around since 2008, Asana doesn’t try to be more than a project management platform. This focused approach can be good if that’s all you need because it has an interface that’s easy to master and many project management features. From assigning task weight to workload analysis, Asana is a very thought-out platform. See their list of apps and integrations here.
Free version: yes, limited boards and fields.
Are you in the Atlassian ecosystem? You should try out Trello. This Kanban-focused project management platform is very easy to grasp and work with. It enables easy visualization of the project and doesn’t distract with unneeded features or complex customizations.
You don’t need us to tell you that organizational knowledge should be cataloged and preserved. What we would like to recommend, though, is designing a thoughtful path for a new hire to follow because knowledgebases are too often focused on helping existing employees get stuff done rather than helping new hires. Ideally, they should follow a narrative and understand the “why” as well as the “what” and the “how.” Here are a few tools you should consider:
Free version: trial.
Getting acquainted with a new codebase can be challenging. Some of the largest tech companies have internal tools designed to help their devs search across their entire codebase more easily, but most don’t.
Sourcegraph is a platform built on an open-source project that lets developers search across every repository and code host quickly and efficiently, making it easier to understand the structure. It can also help understand dependencies, find root causes for problems and reuse code. For new hires, this can significantly shorten the code orientation period.
Free version: up to 10 users.
If this were a popularity contest, Notion would win it. The cool upstart might only be seven years old, but it had taken the world of start-ups by storm. It tries to do a lot, from knowledge management to calendars and note-taking to knowledge preservation and collaborative work. Its popularity is a testament to how well it does all of it.
Free version: Yes, up to 10 users.
Instead of trying to do everything, Confluence is very focused on making information easy to maintain and find. If all you need is to preserve textual knowledge and make it easily retrievable, Confluence is an excellent solution. Moreover, if you’re in the Atlassian ecosystem, Confluence integrates well with the company’s other tools.
Free version: No.
Zendesk’s main business is a CRM and customer support platform, yet by virtue of these things being knowledge-focused, it can be used to organize your organizational knowledge as well. If you’re already using Zendesk for support, it might be more than enough.
An emerging category of dev tools takes the hands-on approach to training and professional development. These tools can be used to teach by doing, reducing the reliance on “buddies” and supervised work. They can also replace checklists and certifications with engaging, game-like scenarios.
Free version: Yes.
Wilco (hey, it’s us!) is a platform where you can train new employees with hands-on dev challenges that simulate work tasks. Want them to train on fixing a bug in a production environment? We’ll simulate one for you. Want to see if there are any gaps in their knowledge of your tech stack and address them? We’ll simulate a certification journey that helps with that. You can build your own challenges using our SDK, and will also have access to our ever-growing catalog of self-authored, community, and partner quests.
Free version: Yes.
With support for 14 coding languages and over 2700 questions, leetcode is among the top platforms that help developers pass interviews and challenges. It simulates interviews, asking the users to code their way to success. Less for learning than for practicing what devs know, it can nevertheless be an important tool during onboarding when you recognize a mindset gap or want to help the new user practice as part of reskilling.
Free version: Yes.
With a name that sounds like a game, no wonder that Codewars puts emphasis on gamification when presenting users with coding challenges. It even lets you level up your rank and compete with other users while mastering new things.
Choose based on need, not marketing. Picking a stack based on cool features you might need one day is not the best way to optimize your workflows today. You know it, of course. You just needed someone to remind you of that.
Talk to the target audience. After all, these platforms are supposed to help them as much, if not more, than they’re helping you. Are they effective? Can something be improved? Give some thought to the feedback you receive.
Ecosystems matter. Whether you’re looking at sister products from the same company or integrations, don’t forget to verify that your stack can work as an actual stack. Tools like Zapier can overcome some of these challenges, but native integrations are often a much better solution.
It’s a long-term investment. Think about the budget and the extras you’ll need. Even a few dollars-per-user difference can stack up over time, and you don’t want the core features to be cost-prohibitive when used at scale.
It’s easy to lose track of the importance of onboarding. Its impact on company KPIs isn’t as straightforward as that of other projects. By design, it comes before the new employee begins being productive. But that doesn’t mean that the sooner they finish it, the better off you’ll be.
The onboarding is the foundation on which your new employee’s work will be built. A well-onboarded engineer delivers better code, solves challenges faster, and needs more handholding during their first months of work. They’re also easier to retain. This is what’s important. So be thoughtful, plan ahead, and adapt when something doesn’t work.