Interview with PluralSight: How Drift Gets Engineers Up to Speed by Day 3
In late 2018, GitPrime interviewed me about the onboarding program we developed here at Drift. I discuss the strategy and value of the program, and share some secrets about how to execute it successfully.
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That’s because setting up their laptops, while critical, isn’t contributing to the team. So by early afternoon on their first day, they’ve completed all the no-op stuff. And that, Karl says, is when the real onboarding can begin.
“The goal is to start with wins and build on wins,” he explains. “That’s how onboarding works here. You can’t create motivation, but you can foster it. You can blow on it like an ember.”
What Karl and the team leads do is situate their new hires for success. You can talk all you want about a “culture of success” and “expecting people to contribute,” but no handout says it better than asking a new hire to deploy a formatting change in the first 20 minutes they have their new laptop up and running.
“The goal is to start with wins and build on wins. That’s how onboarding works at Drift.”
When you set high expectations on their first day, you tend to get high performance in return. People reach the bar you set for them, so you might as well set it high.
So Karl gets engineers touching the deployment pipeline from end to end, without getting snagged on a bug or all this unfamiliar terrain — because this expectation that feels like it’s high stakes (contribute on my first afternoon!) is not actually very high stakes. This first win may be just a pull request, promoting the pull request, running some test, and so on.
“We’re learning while we’re winning,” Karl says. “It’s an inevitable win. That’s what’s important about the very first one.”
From there, Karl builds on the first win with wins that are slightly bigger, slightly meatier, slightly more ambitious, until they get to something chunky enough that it qualifies as “visible work” — or, in Drift’s terms, something that contributes to customer success.
Be upfront with expectations
Building up incremental (and immediate) wins to the point of creating customer value is a central part of Drift’s onboarding process precisely because speed and customer centricity are the organization’s two differentiators. By embedding the company’s core tenets in the initial expectations, a new hire learns your company by doing rather than by reading or listening.
“Customer value is the fuel that drives engineering success here,” Karl says. “Because we’re customer-centric, the quality by which we measure ourselves is how successful our customers are, not test coverage, not which framework we chose.”
Customer centricity, in practice, means that rewrites, refactors, or choosing a new tool for kicks and grins shouldn’t happen. The answer to “Should I use this? Should I introduce this? Should I tackle this?” depends completely on whether it will have a beneficial impact on the customer.
Karl goes over this concept with new hires in a 15-minute chat so they get that Drift’s work is oriented around the success of its customers. But the real incorporation on this idea happens with the engineers’ first customer-centric contributions to the code.
“It’s kind of a graduation for engineers to say, ‘I have put something in the customer’s hands.’ True ownership here means shipping things that impact the customer.”
This final win of onboarding is so important because it’s when the engineers place the work in context — they connect the technical work they’re doing to the benefit a customer gets from that work.
The engineers get to own that bridge. Creating customer value is their job, now and in the future. And they’re responsible for making that first connection to the customer by the end of Day 3.
“It’s kind of a graduation for engineers to say, ‘I have put something in the customer’s hands,’” Karl says. “True ownership here means shipping things that impact the customer. Keeping those communication lines open to the customers. It’s a tall order. But they’re never going to throw their technical work over the fence.”
So what is your organization’s center — the point from which your work is focused? Are you team-centered, finance-centered, self-centered, product-centered, impact-centered, customer-centered? If you don’t know, figuring it out may help you with any identity crises your company is experiencing. And once you have it pinned down, get your new hires up to speed by having them contribute work from that central purpose.
The 1–7–30 day plan
We mentioned the more traditional 30–60–90 day onboarding schedule earlier. Drift utilizes a 1–7–30 plan, where engineers are oriented by Day 1, achieving their first ‘win’ by Day 2 — and by Day 7, they’ve already joined their respective teams.
But they’re not dropped into their new teams cold. Karl has advance conversations with the teams, so they can have work teed up for the new hires. It’s important for new engineers to continue building a few more wins.
“I want them to ship one or two more customer-valuable items that week,” Karl says. “That’s usually the shape of the 7.”
The 30 continues to establish and reiterate expectations for the new hires. Like any kind of training, consistency here is key: the first week’s lessons can be undone if engineers lose sight of the centricity of their work for the rest of the month.
“The first week blows their minds,” Karl acknowledges. “We did this. We did that. We did the other thing. They plugged right into their teams. They had a fantastic week. Now the task is to do it again, and not only do it again, but again, and again, and again.”
Instilling that consistency is the process of the 30. And that means that the team lead or manager must be incredibly involved with new hires throughout that process.
“The first week blows their minds. Now the task is to do it again, and not only do it again, but again, and again, and again.”
Whatever your center is, you want your engineers to be continuously delivering valuable work. So it’s up to the team leads to keep delivering opportunities to the new hires, as well as encouraging them and educating them about how to take initiative within the team.
You also want to keep an eye on whether the new hires are continuously challenging themselves. “The challenges don’t have to be astronomical,” Karl says, “but you want them to be in the range of ten to twenty percent more than they’re comfortable with. That will help you accelerate learning and shorten feedback loops with those individuals.”
So the tiered model of 1, 7, 30 isn’t all that different from the 30, 60, 90. It’s simply a matter of scale. In the former model, a team lead is guiding new hires based on creating consistent output, creating a growing impact, and to make sure that both skill and will are in a healthy place. They’re just doing it in 30 days instead of 90, which is enabled by high expectations from the start.
Can this work in my organization?
The short answer is yes. The slightly less-short answer is that Drift’s onboarding model works for Drift, and you need to develop one that works well with your organization’s environment. That said, it’s possible to get your own new engineers up to speed faster than you’ve ever considered doable.
“We at Drift certainly benefit from a cultural simplicity,” Karl acknowledges. “A desire to be productive. So our first question is, how can we remove the structure from this process and make people the owners of whatever happens next?”
“Onboarding should be an extremely productive time for someone joining a company.”
For instance, Drift eliminates cultural overhead from the onboarding process. They believe new hires don’t need another process and another Wiki doc with instructions to learn. Karl points out that the organization invests in personal responsibility and modeling ownership of the work being done.
“Onboarding should be an extremely productive time for someone joining a company,” he says. “Unfortunately, a lot of folks have dedicated their culture to systems, which must be learned. To that end, a comparably lightweight onboarding, like Drift’s, is not compatible.”
Yet no matter what values are already inherent in your company, you can incorporate them into your onboarding process. You can’t just start tossing another organization’s values into your own and expect them to stick. But you can focus your process on the kinds of problems that people will be solving there every day. And that alone will start setting up your onboarding for the win.
Originally published at https://www.pluralsight.com.