Thursday, January 13, 2022

Onboarding Struggles and Strategies

Onboarding to a new company and new team for the first time after six years was something that felt like a daring challenge to look forward to. I was both excited and anxious, and hence tried to be strategic about it. It was clear that I would never have all the facts upfront and would need to adapt as I go. Here's what I imagined, what actually happened, what I tried in the situation and how it worked out so far. Brace yourself, this might be a long-winded road - so let me start right away with the helpful parts.

What Helped

Before I go into what happened from a timeline point of view, here's what helped me during this onboarding phase, and what will still help me when I go further. The good thing: these points more often than not proved to complement each other. A word of warning before you dive in: these things helped me in my situation and my bubble - they might not be the right thing for you. This is only intended as an offer to draw inspiration from plus a note to my future self what helped me in the past.

  1. Rest and forget about overpreparing. Before starting a new job, prefer recharging your batteries to the fullest - you're going to need your energy for the onboarding phase. Take some time off between your previous and the new job if you can, it's invaluable. Don't bother about preparing too much - it's going to be different than you imagined anyway, and it's better to learn it directly in the context. You're going to have enough time for that as well (and if not, this might not be the place to stay). The only thing valuable to prepare is to take note of any question you might already have which also allows you to feel you're not going in completely blank and quickly get back to resting again - yet nothing more.
  2. Build relationships. Relationships are the foundation for everything. Better get started right away to build a base to get and give feedback on, add to trust, and create the ground for bolder moves and changes. In the end, it's always coming back to the people, so let's put them first where we can. Try to opt for direct face to face calls to get to know each other - if the other one is open for them. Maybe get to pair or ensemble from the start and work together - again, given that people are ready for this kind of collaboration. Each day you can build on these growing relationships a little more.
  3. Approach with curiosity. Ask a lot of questions, and then some more - we're here to learn. There are reasons why things are as they currently are, and they can be manifold. Try to stay open-minded and focus on learning. When you understand the context better, questions like "How might we...?" can work like magic to learn about current thoughts, ideas and suggestions.
  4. Build knowledge hands-on and contribute as soon as possible. You won't know everything yet and that's okay - yet any chance to get your feet wet is an opportunity to learn more: more about the product, the processes, the people, the pains - and also praiseworthy things. The domain, the tech stack, the unique challenges. At the same time, you can bring something of you into all of these right away and give back - have people experience the benefits of having you here now. As especially the contributing part can be tricky if you haven't had much experience before, you can see it like this: if not anything else, working on something concrete is a wonderful conversation starter to deepen your super fresh new relationships. I've found it's easier to get talking with people and people talking with you when it's on a topic they can grasp and a topic that's (hopefully) safe and easy to speak about when not knowing each other yet (work compared to private life).
  5. Take tiny steps and improve as you go. Instead of waiting for big change initiatives or designing your own with lots of detail, incorporate small changes in everyday work right from the start. Anything that works better than yesterday already helps - and more often than not, people coming from different contexts first need to experience the benefits before they understand why we should change our ways and improve. Actions trump words all the time. Also: if you see something is incorrect and you can fix it - try fixing it yourself and suggest the fix along with the conversation on the issue. This could be anything from correcting the team constellation on a wiki page to updating onboarding material to submitting a pull request to make a project's readme more accessible.
  6. Meet people where they are. Which people use which wording? Are developers falling back on technical terms, product people talking about narratives for users? If possible, speak their language when aligning or working on something together. Are people are not used to pairing and have no experience what it entails? Invite them to show them something you detected to hear their thoughts about it, ask people to walk you through, ask for support - get them to talk with you directly on what you're trying to move further. Show your screen, take them along with you. Are people are not ready to kick stories off together and align before starting? Brainstorm test ideas and share them with everyone upfront, including assumptions and mental models. Invite people to join in and see if they detect any mismatch or missing points. Have people never done something before that proved valuable in your experience, let's say testing an API before testing the fully integrated system? Use it as an opportunity to learn why things were done differently (remember, people do have their reasons), and to share your experience - it's an opportunity to learn from each other.
  7. Observe and take notes. Gather as much information as possible from all kinds of sides. What you observe yourself, from conversations with people, what you overhear in group calls, and more. Especially look for pain points, needs, concerns, fears, waiting times, wishes for the future, praise and appreciations. After a few weeks, you can start looking for patterns - do several people mention the same things? Do you spot different symptoms pointing to the same cause? Is there something systemic about it? All the collected observations are the source we can draw from to decide on our first and next initiatives to work on. What does need change now, what's most helpful next?
  8. Focus with impact in mind. When you gathered lots of observations, identified your first patterns and have thought of where you want to end up at - it's time to pick one or two things to change first. If possible, choose small topics where it's feasible to have valuable impact in short time. You might have lots of ideas for initiatives for the future, yet refrain from deciding too early on big ones on a limited information base. Instead, focus on the one or two small ones for now. They will still take time to shape and drive. Be clear about when they are good enough, when it's time to move to the next challenge to tackle.
  9. Experiment. It might not be time to initiate experiments on a team or larger level yet, but that doesn't mean we have to stop trying new things. Why not experiment with your own way of doing things? Set out each day to try one new thing and see if it helped or not at the end of the day. Very informal. Not everything will work out, yet lots of new insights can come out of that. Bonus: you grow your own experimentation and learning mindset that you can share with the team and company as you go further.
  10. Make your boundaries explicit. You will probably interact with many new people with many expectations that are unlikely to be aligned. Be clear about your own boundaries and make sure to share them - explicitly. You can only do so much when you're new and don't have the full context. Also, this will help once you do have the context - as you're still human and can (and should) only do so much in the time given. Final plus point: making them explicit for yourself helps keeping your own boundaries as well.
  11. Take breaks, be kind to yourself and enjoy the journey. You might struggle with this one like I do - yet it's utterly important to remind ourselves again and again. Any onboarding situation will be a lot. It goes better with breaks and not forgetting the fun over all this! Enjoy yourselves, this new journey is part of your life after all.

Looking back at this, I realize this grew into a long list already. Are you ready for the full story, including the struggles? Then read on.

Before Starting

I'm more the anxious type, always trying to reduce uncertainty where I can (a trait that's often challenging yet also that really helped me with public speaking). So in the months before starting the new job I fought with myself many times. I was utterly eager to find out all about the new place in advance so I could prepare for it (whatever that might have meant).
I've focused most of my interview questions on culture... Yet what's the tech stack, the frameworks used, tooling? Maybe refresh my knowledge on approach A, or gain insights on concept C, so I won't look like a dumb one when starting. Starting with a lofty title anyway, oh my there will be lots of expectations. It's nice to hear they think highly of me, they hired me anyway - yet can I really match that? Or what if our mindsets are too incompatible and my way is the wrong way for that company? Sure, I can also apply somewhere else, yet I've already put my mind into this. Alright, stop it - not helpful! Yet maybe I can prepare somehow? No, let it be. There had been so many kind people from the community around me assuring me I should not waste my free time before starting and I can learn everything on the job. Hm... guess I should take that advice.
In the end, I found a compromise for myself. A community friend figured out and told me what the main tech stack in my new team will be like, so at least I could stop wondering. In my first days between the job, I limited myself to very minor research about it, then decided to prepare for my next conference instead and afterwards not do anything work related - the next months will show a lot of that anyway, and this free time to rest and relax won't come back so soon.

So, where's the plan in all this? Well, I did come up with a list of questions and thoughts of all sorts for my first month, to serve me as a starting point. Questions around culture, thoughts around my first focus topics. Just a raw brainstorming, nothing polished. Any time my brain came up with a new question, I could park it there and continue doing whatever else I was doing.

One thing that also helped me before I started was that I've received lots of invites for onboarding sessions way before my start date, so I knew quite some time ahead how my first days will look like in that regard. Such a relief! I didn't have to ask lots of questions myself this way, which was much appreciated. All hardware also arrived within a week before my start date so I could fully set up my new work space before. I was feeling prepared.

The First Days

Honestly: I've never seen such a smooth company onboarding. And that remotely! On my very first day, the basic computer setup was clear, we had a great introduction session on people, culture and the company, and I had a first talk with my new manager, getting briefed on what's coming. I received a prepared onboarding guideline with lots of pointers what to do next: resources to read up, people to get to know, trainings to do. I also happened to get to know my fellow quality people from the company's guild - amazing to see so many known and new faces and receive such a warm welcome!
What I was very intentional about was to quickly get a "working system" running. How do I organize myself with the new tools provided? Can I find something that's similar enough compared to what worked for me before? My urge to stay ahead and on top of things is high, and it's easy for me to feel like drowning in case I feel I'm losing my overview, so I wanted to have as good start as I can with this and neither let things slip through or let myself feel overwhelmed. I tried to stay pragmatic with my first approach, decide quickly and move from there, learning and adapting as I went. This proved really valuable in hindsight. Just as my decision to try something new every day! Experiments for the win.

Second day, meeting my new team for the first time. Another warm welcome. Further onboarding sessions, first team sessions. First calls with me team onboarding buddy, my fellow quality engineer Leila Gregory (thank you for making me feel welcome from day one and sharing so many insights right away!). First realization that I need a lot more access and permissions to tools - and that it wasn't clear which ones. My first challenge began! Besides that, I also had time to set things up for myself and schedule my first "get to know each other" sessions with a lot of people.

Third day, seeing the team in action, working together to investigate an issue and releasing a hotfix. More sessions, more relationship building, more local setup.

Fourth day, another issue - stepping in to help where I can with my very limited knowledge on product and context. It really felt good to get hands-on soon, even in a complex environment - learned a lot by doing so! More realizations on people and current procedures came along with it.
Fifth day onwards - first time realizing internal team dynamics and role understanding. What happened? Well, Leila was off and I was perceived as the one you could leave things to test with. Here you go, haven't you seen the wall yet? ;-) Kidding aside, I realized quickly that I needed to be very explicit with this new team about what testing is, what is needed (context would be a good start), what is possible and what not, and how I intend to live my role. After repeatedly stating my needs, the good thing happened! We did it together, and learned. And the next day. And the one afterwards the next developer said they wanted to pair with me on their story. And the next day as well. You know, little steps, wherever people are right now. These steps might not have been a lot for people used to pairing and ensembling a lot - yet it was huge for this team.

The First Weeks

What difficult weeks! I had lots of positive experiences and at the same time it was a real struggle. I was frantically trying to gather any bits and pieces I could gather to get a more holistic picture. Especially getting information from the team was proving to be difficult, it was hard to find anyone willing or able to tell me more or help me hands-on. I was trying to do a lot at the same time: get all the access and permissions I needed while having to figure out myself the missing pieces, setting things up locally as much as I could to be able to do my job, learning about mobile and the related testing difficulties, trying to figure out tooling to help me in this space, building up relationships with my team by working on first stories together with them (while still not knowing the product), trying to figure out what is required for compliance when testing and documenting notes, joining all my onboarding sessions (postponing any trainings to the end of the month) - and at the same time being pulled into everything already (which I appreciate) without getting further context or space to be able to do that (which I don't appreciate). I was really wondering how to manage all these contradicting expectations I encountered. Again, I had to be very explicit with people - a lot more than I was used to so far. I realized I crossed my own boundaries easily those first days, doing a lot more than I should. At first, I felt a bit pushed into it. The next weeks though... I felt I pushed myself into it. Yet more on that later.
So here I was, trying to get a grip on everything. What really helped me here was my experience from the past company. I knew a lot of the questions I needed to ask, and more often than once encountered people not being aware why I would ask for that in the first place. I was able to figure out the bits and pieces myself, yet it was a struggle. A struggle that I can do because of my experience, yet I wouldn't want that struggle for anyone, especially starting new.

Overall, the company onboarding was excellent compared to what I've experienced before. The team onboarding... well, it was clear that this will be one of the first topics I'll work on, especially given that the next new joiner was scheduled to start one month after me.

The Next Weeks

I've started the job in December, so there was another challenge at hand: upcoming off time for most of the team for the holiday season. It was very clear that people rushed to get everything done before, and I needed to be quick to build those relationships, especially with my new developers, within three weeks before they were off.

At least now I got access to everything, I received further help from my teammates and others, we managed to get more things set up. This way I could extend my reach, see more during testing, and show more value of what I do. Oh, and build those relationships (in case I haven't emphasized that part enough yet).

We had great conversations, things slowed down a bit, and finally I felt I could breathe a bit more.  Expectations on me could be managed better. I received first feedback from my team which was immensely helpful! I also had more opportunity to share where I'm coming from and why I'm looking for what I do, decreasing the current gap between us.
At the same time, I suddenly found myself putting in more hours and crossing my own boundaries - where was my own discipline? Oh yes, I was working now on something really purposeful for me, a new space, I finally enjoyed learning new things, pieces of the puzzle clicked together - and it was hard to stop and let go for another day. Oh my... that old trap again.

What really helped was the calm last week of the year. Less people, less work in progress, way more focus time. I managed to complete my overdue trainings, get more things set up, enjoy the learning part, and had even more of these good conversations. I managed to provide feedback on changes early on, earlier than people were used to - which resulted in even better conversations.

To add to that, I've already gathered so many observations from all kinds of talks and situations by now, and decided on what to focus on first over the next weeks - what would have the biggest immediate impact (like making onboarding easier for the next one coming right after me). All in all, I felt way calmer and more relaxed at this point. I knew the next year would get very busy and I needed that foundation to tackle it.

Starting The New Year

What a rollercoaster first week of the year. Learned a lot again, and once again found more challenges to tackle. Oh, and we could welcome not only one, but two new joiners to the team! So, so, so many things to figure out - things we all need to figure out as a team, while becoming a team. The whole team changing, product direction changing, company changing - it's a lot on people. A reminder to be cautious not to initiate a change at this point in time that's too big for people to come along with, without people starting resisting and the forming team breaking on the way. At the same time, lots of historical baggage as well, old conceptions and perceptions, old relationships as well as the lack thereof. The social foundation of teams can never be undervalued - we need to focus much of our efforts here as it's the base for everything: for working well together just as much as for delivering a valuable product of high quality.
Before joining the company and team, I was fully aware that not everything was in place and that there would be lots of opportunity to help shape things. And yet the extent of unclarity still surprised me. At least now I know that it's not me, it's just the current situation, whatever got everyone here. We can move on together.

There's so much to do. There's a lot of uncertainty ahead. There's a lot of freedom to shape and clarify things. There's a lot of great people involved. I do see a lot of potential and opportunity here. Which gets me thinking of how we might do all this in an incremental, iterative way and make the whole change journey easier for all of us, while enjoying our time together. Time will tell whether we found a good way! Whatever happens, I feel like I've already found a new place for myself to help discover and shape our future.


  1. Really great personal story and good advice! Wishing you all well!

  2. So much good advice here! Some of those things, like building relationships, have helped me hugely in my last couple new jobs. Others, like jumping in to work on problems from a tech point of view, I have often been too timid. I admire your courage!

    You say you have postponed training, were you able to pick it up later? My experience is, if I'm expected to onboard in 3 weeks, that is my only opportunity to have time for the training, and if I put it off, I'll have to do it on my own time or not at all. I've gotten in trouble for not understanding how long some mandatory compliance training will take and not leaving enough time to do them before the deadline! How did you handle this?

    1. Thanks a lot, Lisa! Regarding the trainings, I've only postponed them to the last week of the year when most people were off on vacation and things were calmer. That's one of the benefits of starting in December. ;-) Originally, I had planned to do one training a day to spread them, yet then the first three weeks of the month turned out to be way more valuably spent with the people.

  3. I enjoyed reading this. I like the emphasis of building relationships. Wishing you continued success on your first year in this new role.