The Onboarding Trick All Senior Engineers Seem to Know
Onboarding sets the tone between a new Engineer and the team they’re joining.
Whether you’re the one joining or you’re a manager in charge of onboarding someone else, it’s a process you’ll want to get right.
Having been on both sides of the table, I’ve noticed one key factor that separates good onboarding experiences from great ones: taking notes on the process.
Every Senior Engineer I’ve worked with has taken notes during onboarding. This lets them immediately contribute to the team’s documentation while showing that they are organized and proactive.
The result? They help the team, secure an early win for themselves, and immediately lay the groundwork for trust and collaboration.
It's a simple and effective strategy that anyone can employ to turbo-charge their first few weeks with a new team.
Below, I’ll discuss three specific areas that you should take notes on as you onboard:
- Environment setup
- Business logic / domain understanding
- Workplace and team logistics
For managers, I'll explain how you can empower your new teammate with this technique.
You’ll likely spend your first day or two setting up your development environment.
This provides an immediate opportunity for high-value notes.
Is the wrong command listed in the Readme for a project? Does a particular package fail to install?
Keep track of any issues you encounter and the work-arounds you use to resolve them.
Once you’ve finished your environment setup, you can submit a change to any relevant Readmes. You’ll help your new team level up their documentation, and you’ll get a sneak-peak at the code-review process as your change gets merged in.
If no onboarding documentation exists, you can set up the docs yourself. Your new team will thank you.
Managers should encourage their new teammate to take notes by giving them an onboarding journal. This can be a simple Google Doc — it doesn’t have to be fancy.
If there’s no onboarding documentation for a particular project or repository, the manager should write it themselves before the new teammate arrives. If there's time, they should test the docs by going through the setup from scratch.
Successful Engineers distinguish themselves by having a deep understanding of domain-specific knowledge, or business logic.
When I worked in real estate tech, understanding the home buying/selling process was a force-multiplier on my productivity.
Use your onboarding to establish this strong foundational knowledge.
Ask questions about the industry, the company, the product, the users, the market, and your team.
Take notes so that you can put together an onboarding FAQ for future folks, if one doesn’t already exist. (Or, if it does, you can improve it)
Some questions to get you started:
- Who are our end-users?
- What problem are we solving for them? (Why do they use our product/service?)
- What does the end-to-end experience of using our product look like?
- What is the “Champagne-popping moment” we want our users to experience?
- If our product disappeared tomorrow, what would our users do?
- What upcoming milestones does our team have on the roadmap? What is the end-goal for each of them?
Remember that the only stupid questions are the ones that don’t get asked.
If you feel self-conscious because a question seems too basic, try prefacing it with: "At risk of sounding silly…"
Managers should prepare a list of FAQs for their new teammate to give them context on the business, product, etc. Encourage the newbie to bring up any additional questions, and remind them that understanding the business logic is an important part of succeeding in their role.
Workplace & Team Logistics
It may seem like a small detail, but getting all of the “small stuff” set up early on will help you integrate into your new team quickly and show them that you’re organized and reliable.
Calendar Events & Shared Calendars
You’ll likely need to add recurring meetings to your calendar, like sprint plannings, end-of-week wrap-ups, and 1:1s with your manager.
You may also need access to a PTO calendar where folks register their time off.
If your team is remote, ask about their “core hours”. Do they aim to keep a consistent schedule?
Tools & Communication Culture
Figure out what tools the team uses most (e.g. Slack, Jira, Trello) and how they communicate about important work.
For example, do folks rely on GitHub notifications about new PRs or do they ping each other in Slack?
Payroll, Benefits, etc.
Nobody likes the paperwork involved with setting up payroll, healthcare benefits, and the likes. If it drags on for weeks, it’ll feel like an energy-drain, so it’s best to get it done quickly. It’s another chance to show your new team that you’re capable and organized.
As with other areas: take notes! Help the team by building a checklist for onboarding future teammates.
Managers should build the checklist themselves beforehand and use it to streamline the boring stuff. Even better: use online tools like Gusto where possible to minimize friction in the process. Nobody likes having to print, sign, and mail a form if there's a better way.
Especially important for managers:
Helping your new teammates set up their healthcare benefits may not be thrilling, but it helps build trust and show that you’re thoughtful and organized.
The Senior Engineers I’ve worked with all have one key insight: onboarding is an important but under-documented process.
By contributing to onboarding docs – whether technical or non-technical – they immediately hit the ground running by helping their new team level up.
Effective managers can jump-start the process by writing some documentation themselves, then encouraging their new teammates to add to it.
Best of all?
You don't have to be an industry veteran to put this technique into action.
What onboarding tips do you have for others?
What strategies have you found helpful during onboarding?
Share them in the comments below!