The Newbie Backlog: How we welcome our new co-workers. / by Sébastien Conilleau

Two years ago, at Discngine, we decided to rethink the way we welcome our new co-workers. We ended up with an onboarding process which we call the Newbie Backlog. It allows the new ones to acquire most of the basics they need to know, very quickly. Moreover, we observed that once the training period is over, the backlog remains a widely used information resource. We're convinced that our onboarding process is useful as it has been confirmed by the excellent feedback we got from the newbies themselves. However, very recently I was surprised to realize that this kind of process is rare, so I decided to share the full story with you. 

Once upon a time … 

"Remember the future" to improve your organization

2014-2015 was a major hiring period for us, we almost doubled the company size in less than a year. Before this period, the onboarding process was mostly technical with a few documents here and there, and it was mainly supported by one single person. We were only a few people in the company, so the very important non-technical information (who does what, where do I find this or that, how do I do this, etc.) was acquired by discussing with the rest of the people, and didn’t really need to be written somewhere before this hiring period. Although we almost didn't have any document, the beginners were very grateful and could successfully integrate the team without any problem. All this mostly thanks to the person who took so much time to train them. That process was very time consuming (imagine the amount of effort needed when doubling the company size in a few months!), so when we hired many people in 2014-2015, other colleagues took part to the training process. The unfortunate consequence, since there was no supporting documentation, was that the information passed was incomplete or different depending on the person welcoming the new colleague and, sometimes details were forgotten afterward. According to the feedback of our "2014 new colleagues", this process was not sufficient anymore

Fortunately, by the end of 2015, there was an inflection point: Discngine organized a 2-days offsite event on the Atlantic coast of France with the aim of deepening our knowledge and improve our practice of Scrum and other agile approaches in a relaxed and playful environment with a strong team-building component. The event was coached by Claude Aubry, our scrum Guru, and one of the last exercises was a game called “Remember the future”. We used it to quickly undercover things that were missing and would be very beneficial to work on to improve our organization. Amongst other things, we identified a strong need regarding the way we welcome, accompany and train our new colleagues. We even ended up with a quite comprehensive list of subjects people would like to be trained in or at least informed on. Of course, the fact that this subject popped up was influenced by the fact that most people in the company were quite new, but we had planned to hire more people, so the subject was hot! 

The birth of the newbie backlog 

newbie backlog for new co-workers

After the event, we quickly built a small team of 6 highly motivated people (Ariane, Claire, Géraldine, Nicolas, Vanessa & me). The team composition was pretty neat with both recently hired people and dinosaurs (I’m the dinosaur here), as well as people with experience from other companies and people without it. We listed up things we thought new employees needed to know early on. Thanks to the “Remember the future” workshop, it was a straightforward task. Everybody had some very good ideas of the kind of information that was needed. We ended up with a quite comprehensive list: 

  • technical training
  • technical environment (servers and this kind of stuff)
  • how to prepare the minimum viable computer
  • administrative information (how do you ask for vacations, where do you log your activity, …)
  • Discngine working habits (scrum framework and others agile approach, code versioning, …)
  • Business environment (our products, our clients, our partners and our competitors) 

We struggled more with the format it should have. We had the feeling that a file (typical Microsoft PowerPoint slide deck or Microsoft Word document) would not really hit the target. It’s boring and people can very quickly become passive, or even not read it. Moreover, we wanted the new co-workers to be introduced to the agile way we manage projects, and a file can only give you a theoretical explanation, not a practical exercise. Also, writing a good file with such an amount of data is a huge piece of work! I don’t even want to think about what it would take to keep it up to date at all time…. A colleague of ours, outside the team, had this idea that immediately stroke us as the solution: make it a project, use Trello for that too. It was a brilliant idea, I mean it. One of those that make you feel stupid for not finding it yourself (thank you again, Benjamin, I know you like making me feel stupid). Here we were! We had a precise idea of the content, and a good way to make it usable. 

A few days later, after hours of gathering and formatting the info (and after several beers), we had it!  The Newbie Backlog was born. 

Gurus 

Onboarding Guru

We had one last detail to set up before we could actually use the newbie backlog: How to keep one of the best things of the former way of doing: human relationship? We wanted to ensure that people would not get lost and that feedback regarding the onboarding process would flow back to our team. To address this, we needed to define a new role in the company: The Guru

At Discngine, a guru has nothing to do with spiritual leaders (we just thought it was a way cooler name than "mentor"). A Guru's only duty is to help the newbie walk through the newbie backlog, guide him or her towards autonomy and pass on the spirit of Discngine. When it works, it’s quite rewarding! Of course, all Gurus are volunteers, but it’s pretty easy to find people that want to be other one’s Guru ^^. 

Where we're now 

The newbie backlog has been in place for more than 2 years now, and about 20 people have used it during their training period. Of course, it has known maintenance, reformatting, updating, etc., to keep it alive and relevant. For instance, the technical training on our main framework used to be in a single card of the original Newbie Backlog. Recently we extracted it to a dedicated complementary backlog which guides the newbie in the development of a sample application with a list of features. With the help of the Guru, the newbie has to produce the sample application from scratch. We did this to enforce the project management aspect of the training, as well as to detect people’s (in)ability. 

Overall the feedback is excellent, so we’re quite proud of what we’ve achieved here. We think there’s a high sense of belonging among the people working at Discngine and it’s important to keep it this way. Engagement is one of our core values so it's crucial everyone feels that they belong here. From what we observed we believe the newbie backlog is an excellent way to reach this goal. It keeps the sense of belonging high because newbies can dive in very quickly and understand who we're, and how we work. This reason alone already makes it worthwhile. 

Let me finish off by saying that whether you're a newly graduated student or an already working developer/scientist, be sure that if you join us, you will have a pleasant onboarding journey!