How to make—and not break—a new hire’s experience? Advice for onboarding software developers6 min read
Mary J., COO at a middle-sized technology company, was perplexed. Despite the strong technical competence of her team and its agile approach, time to productivity among the newly hired developers was extremely low. The newcomers struggled with complicated code contributing processes, experienced challenges with finding the necessary information, and generally felt lost in the workflow.
Moreover, the senior software developers felt overwhelmed because of being bugged by the new hires’ questions, which threatened to generate a high turnover rate among long-serving employees.
Luckily, Mary J. and her company (a SoftServe client) managed to stabilize their onboarding by enhancing documentation and improving the ability to locate technical information. In this article, we’ll break down the path they took.
Creating a documentation-first culture
The challenge encountered by a middle-sized tech company described above isn’t rare. Onboarding issues are huge for companies in tech and beyond.
According to Gallup, a jaw-dropping 88% of employees have a negative view of their onboarding process. Another research study claims that one of the most challenging issues in onboarding training is learning how to do one’s job. For example, the software development teams can struggle with nuances of the product information, architecture, or specific standards for writing the code. And that is exactly what new hires experienced at the company where Mary J. works.
As mentioned, improving the documentation approach helps tackle this challenge. Although spending time on writing docs is often regarded as useless (no one likes routing and wants just to get things done), proper documentation can solve problems, and helps teams build awesome stuff.
How to build this documentation-first culture, and how can it help onboard new hires? Here are some of the most essential that allow companies to utilize the power of documentation.
1. Building knowledge base
What often happens in digital companies is that information is either
- stored in a non-structured way (usually on a collaborative platform and all over the team’s environment)
- or, at least partly, kept in human memory (little or no documented information)
Needless to say, the latter situation is the most unfortunate. Just imagine what happens if a software engineer, who is basically a walking library, loses their notes, goes on sick leave, or quits the company entirely, leaving behind no documentation.
The more frequent case, however, is when documentation is stored but not structured, such as:
- Scattered pieces of content on a collaborative platform
- In endless videos—meeting recordings and video presentations that every new hire should watch
- Audio or text messages
As a result, a newbie (or even a long-serving employee) must plow through tons of documents and contact many people to get the necessary information, as it may not be clear where a particular fact may reside.
This is a case when creating or systematizing a knowledge base for internal use comes in handy. This base should be:
- Comprehensive: having no gaps in important information or processes and providing exact and actual data
- Scalable: must be constantly updated, when necessary, according to the established algorithms and processes
- Reader-friendly: easy to create and understand
Building the knowledge base often requires improving, updating, or creating different assets of technical documentation that can include
- Application and network architecture documentation
- Software requirement specifications
- Developer guides
- Release process documentation
The docs should be accessible to the entire team anytime. This means that finding a convenient platform or storage for knowledge is also an essential challenge to solve. Additionally, proper information architecture is necessary to ensure intuitive search throughout the knowledge base, which helps new (and old) hires navigate through it.
When a knowledge base becomes comprehensive, scalable, is reader-friendly, and team members can reach it with ease, it helps reduce their time to productivity.
2. Preparing onboarding documentation
While a solid knowledge base is the cornerstone for everyone engaged in software development and business processes, onboarding documentation, by definition, is designed specifically for new hires.
Onboarding documentation often includes:
- A new hire checklist—a guided set of tasks with links to important internal resources
- Instructions on logging into critical systems, o r installing necessary apps, libraries, etc.
- Company policies
- How-to guides on established workflows
These and other onboarding assets help new hires learn the ropes, which is critical to their speed and success.
You might want to note, however, that onboarding documentation is not a goal by itself. The aim is to go beyond it to deliver a comprehensive onboarding experience.
What documentation to include and how to effectively weave it into the onboarding process is something a technical communication expert can help with. We’ll address this topic in a moment.
3. Creating a documentation strategy
The conclusive step in this journey is to create a strategy for keeping documentation to date. If the strategy is already in place, you might require implementing more efficient approaches to maintaining it.
Preparing and regularly updating documentation must not be an ad hoc task, but rather something that a business regularly dedicates its time and resources to create, maintain, and improve.
Some essential questions to ask when creating a documentation strategy are
- How do different stakeholders in the team communicate?
- At what points do you update documentation?
- What is the life cycle of each document?
These questions aren’t easy to answer and require investment of time and effort. That’s why it’s better not to assign them to BAs, QAs, or software developers—essentially, it’s outside of their range of responsibilities. A specific person (or a team) who handles documentation can take on these tasks.
How can a technical communicator help?
A technical communicator is a member of a development team who helps organize knowledge. They take care of creating, updating, and fine-tuning documentation and processes. Their overall mission is to ensure that documentation lies at the heart of your workflow and success.
By enhancing documentation and aligning it with the best standards, they help improve the time-to-productivity of the new hires, facilitating their quicker onboarding and reducing the need for support.
Apart from that, a technical communicator brings numerous other advantages:
- Eliminated lost revenue and associated costs due to the fast and proper delivery of information within the team
- Enhanced productivity because of the improved team communication experience
- A better company image because of assigning all corresponding tasks to the professional
Documentation, seemingly a routine activity, provides an opportunity to move beyond the docs and deliver a comprehensive onboarding experience. Often regarded as an afterthought, documentation should be viewed as a critical element of the software development processes.
Best of all, you don’t have to create or fix documentation on your own. A technical communicator can help with this by applying their expertise in tight cooperation with the core team. Let’s talk to discover how enhancing documentation can boost your business’s success.