5 min read

I'm Definitely Your Buddy, Guy

I'm Definitely Your Buddy, Guy
South Park definitely shaped my early years. Probably for the worse. All credit to Trey Parker and Matt Stone

Adding a new person into a team is hard for everyone involved, but it's particularly hard for the new starter themselves.

There is a tonne of stuff for them to learn, everything is subtly different from their last job, and they don't really have anyone to turn to because they haven't formed any relationships yet.

As a manager, your job is to support them and set them up for success.  But you also have a team to run and other people to grow and all sorts of crazy stuff happening that might result in you not giving them what they need when they need it.

You might not even be the best person to support them. You aren't embedded in the day-to-day operations of the team so you may not have all of the answers to their questions. Hell, you're their brand-new boss, and they don't know you yet, so they might not even want to talk to you about all the things.

So, it's best to take a step back and make room for someone else.

A Friend In Need

I'm talking about an onboarding buddy of course.

Someone who has both the time and the inclination to pay a lot of attention to the new starter, at least until they are up and running under their own steam.

That's not to say that the rest of the team doesn't also need to be supportive and available, far from it. It's just that for the buddy, it's one of their primary responsibilities, while for everyone else it could be second, third or even further down depending on what is happening.

In my team, there isn't really much of a structure when it comes to being a buddy.

But there are suggestions.

A buddy should be talking to their new starter at least once a day. Doesn't need to be a deep and meaningful conversation, but a check-in each morning is definitely recommended.

A buddy should go out of their way to identify and organise pairing opportunities with their new starter. Periods of time when the two of them can sit together and work on something collaboratively.

Finally, a buddy should be available at all times, so that their new starter feels comfortable in reaching out, asking questions and getting timely as they go on their onboarding journey.

Unsurprisingly, there is enough to being a buddy that it is clearly not free.

So what do we get for our investment?

Let's Search For Treasure

The benefits for the new starter are obvious and easy to see.

They get support, which decreases the mental and emotional cost that comes with starting a new job. Always having someone to fall back on when things aren't going well or when you can't find the answer that you need creates a lot of psychological safety.

They also get to deliver meaningful things sooner. Having someone else available who is already delivering stuff means that the new starter doesn't have to muddle their way through things in order to get to a solution.

But the benefits aren't just limited to the new starter, the buddy comes out on top as well.

For the buddy, they get to reinforce their knowledge. Having to teach someone about a topic or process is a fantastic way to ensure that you understand it yourself, and walking a new starter through all of the things means the buddy has to understand them in depth.

They also get to look at things from a different perspective. Helping a new starter through a problem or issue is a great way to take a second look at something. When you have to explain to someone else why something is the way it is, it can inspire you to improve that thing or at least re-evaluate your position.

Lastly, they get to grow their mentoring and educating skills. It's not quite as full-on as helping another person to grow professionally, but being able to effectively teach someone about a thing is an important skill to have, especially for progressing as an engineer. The more practice that a person gets at it, the better the result.

But wait, there's more!

The buddy and the new starter together also get to build a lasting relationship, which can then have long term benefits beyond just improving the effectiveness of onboarding. That sort of bond can pay dividends during future work.

You Can't Let Trite Things Come Between You

The buddying process as it exists within my team is good, but I'm pretty sure it could be better.

For example, I think it could be more consistent.

Right now, the quality of the buddying experience is somewhat dependent on the buddy themselves. That's not to say anyone is doing a bad job of being a buddy, just that everyone handles the situation a little bit differently. This, in turn, means that every new starter gets a different experience, which makes things harder to manage at the macro level.

Even beyond differences in their approach, there are also skill differences that should probably be taken into account. Some people are better at teaching and supporting than others, and while being a buddy is a great opportunity to improve those skills, I don't think I'm providing enough guidance as a manager to create a consistent experience.

Additionally, I don't think we do a great job of accounting for the load of being a buddy.

I haven't gone out of my way to decrease the load of anyone that has agreed to be a buddy and that can put various projects and initiatives at risk, or stress the buddy out.

It's a worthwhile trade-off for all of the reasons that I've explained above, but I'm not entirely sure what we can do about it. Making sure the buddy isn't alone on the critical path for something is probably the best I can hope for, which is something I'm already trying to do by reducing the amount of parallelisation within the team.

Finally, there is a real risk that the new starter becomes dependent on the buddy.

This is unsustainable of course, as we need to be aiming for people to be self-reliant, but a really helpful buddy trying their best to do a good job might accidentally engineer this sort of situation.

Starting a new job can be extremely overwhelming, and having someone who is always capable of picking up any slack that you might be leaving behind is a double-edged sword.

The only real solution to this is to make sure that every buddy understands the goal is to set the new starter up for success, not necessarily do all the things for them. I have faith that everyone in my team understands this, but it's still something I worry about all the same.

We've Learned A Lot

In all the recruiting and onboarding that I've done in the past, I think I just did all of the buddying things myself.

The teams were smaller though, and I was never hiring more than a few people at a time, so I didn't have to worry about scale. Also, when it came time to onboard a new starter, I had all of the technical context necessary to get them up and running because I had done my time as an engineer.

Neither of those things are true for my current role at Atlassian though, and I doubt they will be true ever again. Part of evolving as a manager is coming to terms with the fact that you can't do all of the things, so you need to be able to rely on other people more and more.

A solid buddying system provides a huge amount of value to any manager looking to grow a team and I'll definitely continue to do it in the future.

Everyone needs a friend after all.