Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Yes, onboarding during a pandemic is (very) difficult. Hiring great people, making them feel welcome and integrating them into an organization structure is a nightmare when you can only communicate via Zoom calls and over Slack.
Not to mention how crucial onboarding is for any company, especially since it is even more of a challenge nowadays, in the age of COVID-19. Two years ago we came up with a solution to onboarding challenges, omnipresent today as they were in the past - a system to eliminate the isolation, the confusion and sluggishness of integrating new people into the company, to make sure they feel at home right away.
Want to know more? Listen to Yuval Perry and Dalia Simons:
Do you remember that feeling you had as a kid on your first day at a new school?
You walked up to a building you’ve never been in before, surrounded by people you’ve never seen before.
You step into a classroom where the desks and chairs are different, and the teacher looks a bit intimidating. You don’t understand the equations on the board yet.
The worst part is lunch: finding a table to sit at. You scan the room, looking for whichever kids are least likely to mock you. It’s like Russian roulette, where the stakes are the next four years of your life.
Of course, everyone knows I, Ran Levi, am a super cool guy who’s always been popular and awesome. But for nerds like Nate Nelson and Guy Bin Noun, the writer and producer of this show, first days at school were pretty terrible. The kind of terrible that we grew out of when we became adults.
Except adults have their own first days of school. It’s called onboarding:
Dalia: My worst onboarding was my first job out of university.
Dalia Simons is a backend engineer and guild master at Wix.
Dalia: I came in the first day, a big company, and I found a pile of printed documents on my table and they were like, “OK. Now sit down. Read through that and we’ll come back in a few days to see how you’re doing.” I was like, “No!” [Laughs] I didn’t even… I was just… I just graduated and didn’t even understand how things are working yet and I had this pile of papers to read.
The first day at a new engineering job can go wrong in any number of ways. Your boss could plop a stack of technical documentation on your desk, give you a deadline to get through it all, and walk away like everything’s swell.
Dalia: A lot of my days I would come in and I don’t know what I’m doing. I still didn’t learn anything. I feel like I don’t understand. I go to meetings, I don’t understand what’s going on.
You could be paired up with someone who’s not too keen on having the new kid sit at their table.
Dalia: I still feel like it’s very strange starting with people that you don’t know.
You could have a boss, or an entire management team, that’s less than enthusiastic about putting time aside to help the new hire.
Dalia: I had to wait a long time to ask questions because whoever was helping me was busy with his own tasks. So I had to – I kept waiting. I got to the office in the morning, I didn’t always know what I should do now and it was a very frustrating experience. It took me some time until I actually started working on tasks. And when I started working, I didn’t understand the infrastructure a lot of times so I found myself a bit lost.
CONSEQUENCES OF BAD ONBOARDING
The first few days at a new company can be tough. But the consequences aren’t only to the employee. Bad onboarding is bad for everyone--for those involved, and the company as a whole.
Recently, a company called Onboardia--which specializes in...well...you can probably
guess--did a study tracking the relationship between how employees were onboarded, and how engaged they were at their jobs even six or more months later. According to the study, over half of employees who were “disengaged” at work had little to no assistance when they first got the job. By contrast, 62% of “engaged” employees described their onboarding as positive and effective.
Dalia: When you have onboarders that come in, and their first month was a frustrating experience, then they lose their motivation and then you need to work very, very hard to get people’s motivation up again.
The way employees are welcomed to their jobs affects how they approach those jobs months down the line.
Dalia: It’s very easy to lose the motivation and it’s very hard to gain it again and get people excited.
According to Onboardia, after one year employees who experienced positive onboarding were twice as likely to describe themselves as “comfortable” at work and 75% of them described themselves as “loyal” to their employers.
Dalia: So I think it’s a subject that a lot of time is overlooked. It’s like, we’ll invest a lot of time in hiring, hiring process, and then they’ll come and they’ll just learn the job, learn on the job. And it’s very, very important to give a new employee, a new developer, a good fitting when he starts to work and not just throwing [him] in the water and letting him drown.
When Dalia joined Wix nine years ago, onboarding was very much overlooked. In fact, it was hardly given much thought by anybody. She wasn’t given any formal training, or introduced to her coworkers in any special way. But it wasn’t a problem.
Dalia: When I started in Wix, it was still a very small company. So at the back-end, we were five developers, so it was pretty small. I think for small companies, maybe the process that we did isn’t relevant. Because for Wix, when it was really small then it was really easy for me.
I got in and I think my second day on the job, I got a task already and I just started digging in the code. And there wasn’t any – see, there wasn’t a special framework we were using, everything was pretty standard that I knew from the industry. It was running on Spring, it was running on things that I already knew.
Dalia’s onboarding experience was less like the first day at a new school than the first day in a band, or a club. There simply weren’t that many people to meet, or rules to learn, or new things to get used to, so she fit right in.
But the engineers that followed in her footsteps in the years to come had a distinctly different experience.
Dalia: I think the problem is that it doesn’t scale for big organizations. As the company grew and we started to recruit a lot, I mean we really started to recruit like crazy, and we saw it just doesn’t scale.
At a little website company, onboarding was simple. At a growing, multinational corporation, it was not.
DECIDING TO CHANGE THINGS
Yuval: So because we have the Guild system, we collected the experience and the feedbacks from people who just joined Wix.
Yuval Perry is the Manager of the Server Infrastructure Group at Wix.
Yuval: And we saw that around many teams, we had the frustrating experience.
Dalia: The same frustration coming up from a lot of different teams, and we were like “There must be a way to solve it for everybody instead of each team trying to solve it for themselves”. We must be able to create a process that will solve it for everybody and will save time for all the teams instead of everybody trying to invent the wheel or do their own thing.
Yuval: That’s why we decided to take on this challenge.
Two years ago, Yuval, Dalia and a team of experienced managers decided to overhaul the way their company did onboarding.
Interviewer: So once you decided that you were going to change onboarding, what ideas were bouncing around? How did you guys begin to make this change?
Yuval: OK. So the first idea is to agree on our guidelines.
Dalia: We tried to collect all the basic crucial documentation we already had. So we said, OK, what are the things that - we want people to still read a few documents or watch a few videos. So we collected those. And then we said, what do we want people to learn? What’s the important things that we want them to learn?
So we want to learn how our CI/CD works. So we need some kind of a project that they will do so they will learn all of the tools we are using for CI/CD. And then we said, OK, we have a few building blocks when you write a project.
So we want them to learn our framework. We want them to learn how to do experiments. We want them to learn how to use our messaging system, a few different things. So we made a list of all the things that we think were important and we said, OK, now how can we build some kind of a project around it or something that will give them the experience of using all of those different tools.
The team sat down and brainstormed on how to distill an entire Wix experience into a single, streamlined process. Some of the ideas that came out of these sessions were quite radical, like intentionally placing new hires not with the colleagues that they’d actually be working with, but different teams entirely.
Yuval: You onboard in a different team. This is for you to be free of production stress or delivery and also a place for you to ask silly questions.
Dalia: You can ask all the stupid questions you want and you don’t feel like you’re ruining your reputation in the new team.
Yuval: And this has a great positive impact on Wix culture because another team is teaching your engineer the job. So everybody at Wix in the first six months experiences at least two teams to onboard, it gets you connection and networking with other peers.
Not every idea the team came up with in this early stage was so great.
Yuval: The first step, we took a lot of screenshots and made animated gif of the whole process. It got stale two weeks after and it was very hard to create a new animated gif. So we dropped that.
To understand what really needed fixing, and what didn’t (like, GIFs), they’d have to do some research.
Yuval: And for this, we had a few tools to achieve it and one of them is shadowing onboarders and sitting and writing notes.
They followed onboarders like zoologists follow animal species in the jungle.
Yuval: We interview the engineers why they were onboarding, we interview the team leaders at the end.
So there’s – it’s a lot of people to interview but it – and we let the team interview them so they will feel the pain and the problems in the process.
But also, we ask the onboarders to create pull requests and fix the onboarding if there are minor things to change.
Dalia: They say “We have an idea. Maybe if you do such and such, it will really help it”.
Yuval: And by this, we change the mindset so they now understand that the world is bigger than what it describes. So we constantly evolve and change the onboarding process while people join.
After diligently studying the existing system--figuring what worked and what didn’t--two major goals emerged.
Yuval: We decided that it’s going to be self-guided.
Usually, at a company, you have one of two scenarios. Either a new hire has one or more existing employees dedicated to helping them get used to the swing of things, or the new hire gets no help whatsoever, and is simply thrown into the deep end on day one.
Obviously, scenario two is precarious--new employees get easily lost, and disillusioned about their new job. But scenario one isn’t ideal, either--it requires time and manpower that could be spent elsewhere.
The point of self-guided onboarding would be to help new employees get in the groove of things on their own, using documentation, multimedia and pre-prepared assignments which simulate the effect of having a buddy helping you every step of the way. A curriculum designed to be so intuitive that, by the end, you feel like you’ve been at the job for months already.
With a team of newly-minted React Native developers in place, the project was now underway.
Yuval: We thought about a process or a way to make sure that the documentation is self-guided.
Dalia: We said, what do we want them to learn? OK. Now how can we create something that they will learn all of those different things?
Yuval: it’s not a tutorial. It’s a self-guided tutorial assembled from all parts of the organization that never gets stale.
Self-guided onboarding had two clear benefits. New hires would have control over their own training, learning the ropes without feeling anxious about asking lots of questions or missing anything important. For existing employees who would otherwise have been guiding the new hires through every step of the way, a self-guided process would save massive amounts of time.
Dalia: They were happy to get this help and get this guideline from the Guild, it really saved them a lot of time for their developers.
Because instead of them having to give a developer that was, you know, spending maybe 50% of his time on this onboarding of new developers all the time, now they have a self-guided tool. They get a new employee, for months now he’s busy. They do get a buddy - but maybe 5% of his time, and not 50% of his time, is spent on onboarding the new employee.
The second major goal was to create a clear, unified experience.
Dalia: At the beginning, we had a lot of people who were contributing and each person did a different step along the way.
Yuval: We created a structure for each step and we assigned it to different teams. So like the build team or the monitoring team wrote their own guidelines according to the structure. It was easier for them to write and easier for us to maintain.
Dalia: But at a certain point, we realized there needs to be one person that goes over all the steps, all the instructions so it will all look like one guide and it won’t look like 10 different guides that someone squashed in together.
Yuval: We assigned a team to curate all of the onboarding and be responsible for the onboarding experience. So they were the ones accepting the steps from other teams.
Interviewer: So could you describe how if I am joining Wix as an engineer everything that you guys worked on would look like to me? So once I get to the company, what happens?
Dalia: Your first day, you get a welcome email. Just to get you acquainted with everything and then you start your first project. The first project is called, Nothing to Prod. It’s really a step by step guide.
Nothing to Prod is a lot of hand-holding--getting new developers acquainted to the production process slowly, piece by piece, with help each step of the way.
Dalia: And the idea is to give you the feeling of how our CI/CD tools work and have you deploy a project to production usually on your second day at work. So you write a Hello World project, you deploy it all the way to production.
So that’s really a big project they are writing and they’re using all the different building blocks.
Something to Prod is where new developers get to finally break off the training wheels, and put their skills to the test.
Dalia: And here, we didn’t give a step by step guide intentionally, we give a general guide of here’s the task, here’s your design... We’re trying to imitate the real world. So here’s what the product manager told you that you need to do. Now think how you’re going to implement it and try and write code.
I think one of the best ways to learn is to try. Try it yourself, try to play around, then you can look at the solution - but now you understand better what you did and why you had to do it when you already tried and failed.
So the project, Something to Prod, takes about two weeks and you deploy to production all along. You use our framework, our experiment system. We use Kafka as our messaging system very heavily, so we use that. And we also monitor the system in production. It’s very important for us that they will learn the monitoring tools as well, security, a lot of different aspects.
And then after they deploy it to production, after they finish this task, then they are really ready to go and get a new task in their team.
Two years ago, Dalia and Yuval and a group of their colleagues got together to change how Wix did onboarding. They did it to increase efficiency, improve company culture, and, most importantly, ease the burden on new hires.
They couldn’t have anticipated that mere months later, the work they were doing would be completely flipped on its head.
Dalia: We kind of… we got ready for something we didn’t know that was coming.
In March, the Coronavirus pandemic spread to Israel, Ukraine, Lithuania, and around the world. Every one of us was forced to social distance, and work from home. One of the consequences of moving everything remote was that onboarding became much more difficult.
Dalia: You lose the personal touch because most of the time [. . .] you write a Slack message and he writes back to you but it’s not the same as sitting in the same room, having coffee with someone, going to lunch, getting to know people. It’s kind of an isolated experience.
If companies were already having trouble integrating new hires into the company culture and workflow, having to do it all from a distance made that job ten times harder.
Dalia: So giving them a good experience is even more important now that they are at home.
Yuval and Dalia might have had to scrap the new onboarding system they’d worked so hard to build. After all, they built it for an in-person, physical environment. Then COVID changed the rules. It was back to the drawing board.
Yuval: Luckily, a year and a half ago when we decided to take this challenge, we set our ground rules, and one of them was to create an onboarding experience which is completely self-guided.
Self-guided! Yuval and Dalia created a self-guided onboarding process to increase efficiency, time-saving and autonomy for new hires. They just happened to have stumbled on the perfect system for a pandemic.
Yuval: This paid off during corona times because we kept on recruiting people by the dozens in the last few months.
Dalia: It works really, really well for working from home. Because it – we don’t assume that you need someone next to you to do it. We assume that you can do it by yourself.
Yuval: We didn’t need to stop recruiting and we recruited much more during COVID.
Dalia: Yeah, we recruited a lot of people and we didn’t feel the pain at all because we already had it ready.
Thanks for listening.
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