Incident Management: Onboarding Tips and Tricks


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@a.tsibulskaya[email protected]

Infrastructure Engineer & Site Reliability Evangelist

“Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Henry Ford.

In the previous post of this series on Incident Management — How to hire people with a knack for it — I shared my views on the hiring of engineers who will be handling production systems. This post is going to be on the onboarding — as next logical step after hiring. But, in my opinion, there is no much difference in onboarding of employees who will be managing production incidents and those who won’t.

The only difference is that the quality of the onboarding process directly correlates with the quality of the service and attention the production of your company will get. So this post will describe an onboarding experience that would be good for any employee, but would be critical for people managing production environment.

Onboarding is my favourite part of work, as it’s usually full of surprises, good mood and super short feedback loops — what more could you possibly dream of? 🙂

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. I personally went through several different kinds of onboarding: one time it was a whole month of full day training and tests, another time it was “mmm, sorry we don’t have enough tables, so take mine for now. No, I don’t know what you should be doing today”. Each type had its own charm, but not all of them were actually achieving the goals of onboarding.

Onboarding goals

There are several sides involved in onboarding — a new employee, a team and a manager, and each side has its own goals.

For a new employee the goals could be:

  • Get information which will help in my day-to-day work.
  • Get to know the team and the people I’ll be working with.
  • Make sure that I made the right decision in choosing this company.
  • Make sure that my manager’s expectations from me are actually something I can and will be happy to meet.

For a team the goals of onboarding could be:

  • Share the culture and the team spirit; get a real team player on board.
  • Get to know the new employee —we’re bringing someone into the family, we should know the person that we’ll be working with day to day.
  • Get someone who will want and will be able to commit to the team’s goals and aspirations.
  • Share as much useful information as possible, so that the new employee can start bringing value ASAP.

For a manager:

  • Get to know how to manage a new employee.
  • Learn the employee’s expectations and set your own.
  • Make sure the place/projects you choose for the new employee are actually the best fit for them.

If we take a closer look at the goals listed above, we can split them into a few categories:

  • sharing information
  • building communication
  • sharing culture
  • inspirational

Every category is important in its own way, and it’s important to find the balance between them. For example, you shouldn’t make your onboarding process extremely inspirational, while forgetting about sharing information. I prepared some tips and tricks for each category that you can use to build the onboarding process for your team.

Tips and tricks for achieving the onboarding goals

1. Sharing information:

  • Split your onboarding into categories: information about the company, the team, fundamentals and day-to-day work. Reuse the information from these categories for onboarding of different teams or different positions inside the same team.
  • Try to have fundamentals and day-to-day work categories covering the same subjects, with the former providing an overview of the subject while the latter does more of a deep dive into the same subjects. This will allow you to have information “lego blocks”, and customize your onboarding based on a specific position or specific personal needs.
  • Onboarding information has to be up-to-date and relevant. If updating information takes too much time or effort — write only an overview and some very generic information, and leave all the details for f2f onboarding.
  • The information in onboarding has to be easy to consume. Different people consume information in different ways. I usually have the same information in 3 formats — schema, text and video. As they all contain the same info, the person doing the onboarding is able to choose their preferred way of getting information efficiently.
  • Another trick to speed up the learning process is to have tests after an important part of information. These tests can also provide a good motivation to make new friends on the team and ask questions.

2. Building communication:

  • Onboarding shouldn’t be built from online info only. It has to encourage a new employee to get up, get to know their new team, ask questions, make connections or just eat lunch together because it’s scheduled on the onboarding 🙂
  • If onboarding contains any f2f meetings it’s a good idea to schedule them in advance for the new team member. Not everyone feels comfortable arranging meetings with completely new people on their second day at work.
  • Onboarding has to include 1-on-1 with the direct manager.
  • In order to get a team player, it can be a good idea to involve a new employee in team activities even before they actually start working for the company. Going out with the team? Invite the new employee. Having a meeting about team goals for the next quarter? It can be very useful for a new employee to participate in it.
  • The same can be a good idea for getting to know a new person. If integrating into a new team goes at a slow pace and before consuming large amounts of professional information — the new team member will feel more comfortable sooner. More than that — the team will get used to them faster and more smoothly.
  • Don’t forget about cross team communications as well. Make a list of the teams or products that the new employee will be working with, find focal points in every team or with service/product owners and schedule intro meetings with them for your new team member. It’s important to prepare a list of subjects, or just set expectations with the people from the other teams. Even though it’s just an intro — their information has to be useful and relevant as well.

3. Sharing culture:

  • Onboarding should make a good impression, but it has to be built to suit your company’s style. If your company is about wow effects and easter eggs and having fun — onboarding has to represent it. If your company is strongly focused on metrics and measuring everything — onboarding has to be full of numbers. It can be a good idea to get people who work the longest in the company to build the onboarding material — they probably have the best feeling of the company’s culture and can implement it in the most intuitive way.
  • Include information about the history of the team, team achievements and maybe even a few fuckups. It will be amazing if you can share the emotions that your team members are feeling at work — not always good, but open and honest, supporting each other and reaching the team goals together. Company culture is rarely shown in docs or presentations, it lies more often in what people feel, what they talk about and what they share with others.

4. Inspirational:

  • State your team goals — not just as some quarter’s KPIs, but for the better future that the team is building. Your new employee has to fall in love and get motivated to finish onboarding as fast as possible and commit to the common dream.
  • Make sure that you know how to manage your new employee in the most efficient way. Take notes during the onboarding — how the new employee is learning, how they deal with success or failure, how they communicate, how they choose the types of information they consume. Every detail like this can help you choose a set of managerial tools for every specific employee.
  • Have some fun — go to a team lunch, arrange a happy hour or watch the sunset on a roof together. It’s super inspiring to feel that your new team already accepts you and you’re already becoming a part of the family.

A few more generic recommendations I’d like to add to close the subject:

  • Don’t be afraid to invest time in it. It pays back amazingly — both in terms of the value that a new employee starts bringing and in terms of the average period of time that people will spend working in the company, if you can instill loyalty to the company from day one.
  • Make it interesting, visual and involving. It’s the time for building motivation and is the first experience with the company for the new employee.
  • Assign a mentor/buddy for a new employee. It’s super important to feel supported, to be able to ask for any kind of help anytime.
  • Set up a deadline by date or by subject and summarize the onboarding. It’s important to give the first feedback to a new employee and it’s equally important to hear feedback about onboarding from them.

How to measure the success of onboarding?

Most likely you’ll see it without any extra effort — by the time that it’ll take a new employee to go from day 0 to their first oncall shift, or by the good feedback a team will be giving the new employee.

However, when I was working on onboarding for the first time, I didn’t believe in getting feedback without asking for it and I really wanted to measure everything, so my way of measuring success was to send 2 surveys — one right after finishing the onboarding and another one in 3 months.

The questions in both surveys were almost identical — what did you like/ didn’t like in the onboarding process; what is the most interesting/important subject for you; how useful was it for your day-to-day work.

My goal was to check if the new employees think that the onboarding was useful even after getting real working experience in the company. Surprisingly — it was:) What’s more, our new team members started getting their first oncall shifts after 3 months, instead of the 9 months they were getting before.

I didn’t mention in this part of the blog series anything about covering specific subjects for working with production incidents — in my opinion incident management has to be a separate training build on top of a strong foundation, which the onboarding has to prepare.

I think it’s counter-productive to start introducing a system to a person from a failure perspective. It’s better to learn the “normal” way of operating and only start letting the new employee ready to fight crises after a few more weeks.

How to do it efficiently?

How not to scare your new team members?

How to make sure you covered everything?

Read the answers in my next post. To be continued.

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