Developer orientation can save you time, money, and a headache

Orientation programs for new hires and contractors reduces ramp-up time and eases integration into a new environment. This article looks at benefits of orientation and discusses ways to introduce new developers to your systems.
Written by Shelley Doll, Contributor
Given the current state of businesses with technical staffing requirements, hiring contract consultants is as popular as ever. Together with the fact that turnover rates are still escalating as companies restructure to stay competitive, hiring contract workers can create a very real drain on organizational resources. Organizations today face these issues on a regular basis, so it makes sense to deploy measures to decrease the impact new hires have on their peers and managers, as well as to level out the learning curve, thus decreasing the amount of time it takes a new hire to become productive.

You can overcome a surprising amount of the time and money costs of a new employee simply by deploying an orientation program. This article explains the benefits of an orientation program, some types of programs to choose from, and what topics should be covered to be most effective.

Ramp-up costs
Many sources, including a 1996 paper by Joan Brannick, PhD, and the 2002 Workforce Report from Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network report that the effects of turnover are staggering, and can cost an employer as much as 25 to 30 percent of a new hire’s annual salary. Some of this impact stems from the time, fees, and materials associated with losing an employee, but a significant portion was reported to come from ramp-up time for the new employee and lost productivity from peers as they “show the ropes”.

When your business practices “rotating staffing” based on current workload and projects, you may experience a drain on your profits from inadequately assisting new people in becoming familiar with their environment. Of course, everyone is given the tour of the parking lot and shown where the coffee pot is, but how many people are given a cheat sheet of the locations and access requirements for development servers, CVS, testing URLs, peer phone numbers, database servers, and other important information?

Creating an orientation program can greatly reduce the department-wide impact that new hires have on a company, improve profits, and help ensure your project deadline and budget are affected as little as possible. Read more for suggestions on what types of programs companies are using.

Types of orientation programs
Depending on the new employee’s work scope, you may consider a number of options to help ease them into your technology environment.

Keep in mind that the program you choose should be appropriate for your particular situation—overkill can be mind numbing, but too little information is ineffective. Consider trying one of the following:

  • Boot camp—If you’re bringing on a large number of new hires at once, an informative seminar may be the way to go. Invite current employees to speak, and also introduce the new hires and explain their roles. For very large acquisitions, a company picnic or other such event provides an informal setting in which to both present this information and get everyone familiar with the people they will be working with.
  • Group orientation—Some companies hold group orientations every few weeks, inviting all new hires to attend. Doing so reduces the time required for initial training, because it is no longer an individual effort. Often, start dates are scheduled to correlate with these meetings to further reduce the impact a new hire has on existing staff.
  • Individual brain dump—This is an organized meeting with one or a few new hires, where pertinent information is presented. It is probably the most frequently practiced orientation type; it should be organized and accompanied by printed or posted information. If you don’t follow a script of some kind, omissions will create constant interruptions for both you and the new developer for several days.
  • Mentor program—Sometimes a new hire is assigned to a peer, whom they will shadow and/or go to for all answers to their questions. The benefit of this type of program is that the affects on productivity are localized, and the mentoring process may help create a bond between the new hire and one of your team members.
  • Automated information—Such information should accompany any of the aforementioned programs, but sometimes this type of orientation is sufficient by itself, especially for contractors who are accustomed to hopping from company to company and for telecommuters. Offer this information on a CD or on the company intranet—and be sure it is up-to-date to avoid problems and confusion.
  • Now that you’ve seen some ways to present orientation information, let’s look at some topics that are particularly useful for new developers.

    Helpful topics
    Any developer in your organization should be able to help you determine what specific information you should present to new hires. If not, maybe you should consider re-orienting your existing staff. Creating common knowledge is an effective way to bring unity back to your department and alleviate questions and concerns employees may have about standard operating procedures.

    In presenting this list, I’m assuming you already know what organizational information needs to be presented at your site; I’ve only included items of a technical nature that may not be apparent. Ideally, this information should be presented in a way that can be preserved and easily updated, such as on your company intranet or other centralized location:

  • Logging on to systems and who to contact for network support
  • How to get to the intranet
  • Peer listings and contact information—including job titles and areas of expertise
  • E-mail groups and mailing lists
  • Standard operating procedures for development processes
  • Sample of properly formatted and commented code
  • Information about any sensitive data that may exist
  • Descriptive overview of the system the new hire will be working with
  • Description of other systems that may have an impact on their work
  • Data flow diagram that details server names and other information needed for access
  • Database architecture diagrams
  • Project plans and related documentation
  • Links to development systems, such as bug tracking, change orders, and version control
  • Including everything here may seem overwhelming, but the intention is to review this information with new developers, and then allow them to use it as a reference guide for questions that may come up. The time it takes to assemble this information is well worth the benefit in productivity you’ll receive.

    Taking the time to develop an orientation program for new developers not only makes dollars and sense, it will drastically shorten the time it takes for new hires to become productive. Answering a lot of the obvious questions up front gives the new hires the sense that your company is well organized and values their time. You’ll save yourself a lot of back-and-forth by deploying these methods, and ease the burden on the rest of your team.

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