5 min read

All Abooooaard!

All Abooooaard!
All credit to JK Rowling and Warner Bros. Pictures. I never read the books, but the movies were pretty great

Starting a new job is never easy.

It's a critical time, when lots of impressions are made and assumptions are validated or rebuked. It's the moment when you start to see the beast from the inside, with all the messy viscera that that implies.

It's also a hell of a transition because you're swapping a high confidence, competence, and influence position for pretty much the exact opposite. Low confidence, unknown competence and low influence.

It can be very stressful as a result.

Not only have I gone through such a transition myself in the last year, I've also shepherded a number of people along the same path.

The combination of being onboarded and onboarding others has given me plenty of opportunities to reflect and improve things, so, without further ado, let's get on with it.

Choo choo!

An Owl Delivered Letter

My own onboarding experience here at Atlassian was pretty damn good.

It consisted of the following things, in no particular order:

  • In my first couple of days, I had two onboarding sessions (via Zoom), with a cohort of other new starters that explained high level Atlassian things and aimed to establish a support system of sorts
  • I got a Trello board provisioned for me which contained a bunch of generic Atlassian onboarding steps. You know, things like "here is how to get technical help", "here is some training you should do", "here is a system you need to set up" etc
  • I got a Confluence page provisioned for me that contained a 90 day plan, which explained various things about the team I was entering, the domains that it worked with and some short, medium and long-term goals that I should aim for
  • I had regular and frequent catchups with my immediate manager, who was very supportive and a useful font of information for the hundreds of questions that I had

It was overwhelming though, with everything happening all at once, and I found that I got sucked into various team level things before I had a chance to settle myself with the organisational stuff.

Talking to other new starters in the team, their experience was similar. There was plenty of information and lots of guidance, but not a lot of structure and focus.

It was common to be pulled into a project or initiative before finding your feet or finishing the onboarding activities.

Obviously, while that sort of approach is an excellent trial by fire, and a great opportunity for people to show how they manage themselves and their time, it's also very stressful and exhausting.

I knew we could do better.

A Magical Train Ride

Something that I did for myself before I started was to establish weekly catchups with my new manager. I found these catchups to be exceedingly helpful in mitigating the information overload that comes with starting a new position, because I was able to accumulate and digest useful context slowly over the course of a few weeks.

So, the first step in improving our onboarding process was for me to offer similar pre-Atlassian catchups to all new starters. Just an hour a week, nothing fancy, but intended to expose them to some information about our team, our goals and our ways of working ahead of time.

Catching up with people before they start also gives them a chance to ask more questions and really solidify whether or not this is a job that they actually want.

From there, when someone actually does start, their first week is focused entirely on doing the Atlassian onboarding. Obviously they have plenty of contact with me and with their buddy in the team, but I keep them away from general team concerns like our Slack channels and rituals.

The idea here is to allow them to find their feet with the organisation before they have to absorb all of the team stuff. It also allows them to focus on achieving some smaller, easily identifiable goals upfront in order to build momentum, like a boulder its inevitable thunderous crash down a hill.

Of course, if they finish up early, it's a simple matter to push ahead. No need to be stupidly rigid about this sort of stuff. It's more about setting expectations.

Time For The Sorting Hat

After that first week, the new starter is initiated into the team and it's time to unveil their first big goal.

Having a single big goal and a plan for how to get there sets expectation around focus. More importantly, a new starter is not expected to participate meaningfully in any of the ongoing project work.

Everyone's first big goal is to get into the disturbed roster. For reference, disturbed is a rotational role  that shields the rest of the team external interruptions.

The knowledge and experience required in order to enter the disturbed roster is considerable, and the adventure of becoming qualified acts as a fantastic way for people to become familiar with everything that we are and do. Not only that, but every single additional person in the roster alleviates the stress incurred on everyone else and helps to give them more focus for other work.

Thanks to the amazing efforts of some previous new starters, we actually have a pretty good process for people to follow to get into the disturbed roster, with training material, scheduled pairing and shadowing sessions and a questionnaire to test their knowledge.

Rolling all of that together we make a 90 day plan in Confluence that contains a clear description of the first big goal and then a weekly breakdown of activities in order to get there. At the end is a measurable outcome: getting added into the roster, which makes a great moment for celebration.

The celebration usually takes the form of a cake delivered to their house, which is always fun :)

You're A Wizard

So, bringing it all together, if you're onboarding into my team, your experience is going to look something like this:

  • We'll spend an hour a week chatting before you officially start, sharing context, getting to know each other and so on
  • In your first week, you'll focus on organisational things like training and configuring support systems
  • In your second week, you'll get a clear 90 day plan with a single big goal and some structure around how you'll get there
  • At the end you'll probably get a cake

All in all, I think it's a pretty good process.

It's not perfect of course, nothing ever is.

For example, as a new starter you won't be contributing directly to any of the teams major initiatives during that onboarding period. Not really a concern for you, more something for me to deal with when it comes to setting expectations with the business.

Of course, I challenge whether or not a brand-new person would have the context necessary to do a good job on a major initiative so soon after starting anyway, so that's a conversation I'm more than happy to have.

The only other downside that I can see is that it requires me, the manager, to put in more effort. I've got to make time to talk to the person before they start, spend time setting things up and so on. But let's be honest, investing in people is literally my job.

And as far as investments go, it pays for itself remarkably quickly, so it's one I'm happy to make.