Successful Dev. Team Onboarding – Trust, Tradeoffs, and Giving Everyone the Benefit of the Doubt

Adding a new team member can be a challenge for both the individual and the team. A new person can shake up a team’s culture, and a team’s culture may force the new member to adapt and change. Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t.

For things to go smoothly, everyone needs to play their part and take responsibility for making it work. Below are some attitudes that both the existing team and the individual should adopt as they begin working together. I’ve seen them dramatically improve the odds of success.

For the Team

Take the Time to Explain Tradeoff Decisions

Many times, what new team members see first are the downsides of tradeoffs that the team has made over time. For example, a new developer can see that one particular area of the application is using an outdated pattern that’s more problematic to deal with. What they don’t see is that leaving it alone let the team release a valuable feature a few weeks earlier, and there are plans to refactor.

As a team, be aware of this bias in visibility and share the positive side of the equation to help temper the negative. Show respect for the decisions the team has made and talk positively about them.

Prepare to Revisit Historical Decisions

Answering a lot of why questions can be exhausting (as parents can attest). But curiosity is healthy, so take that deep breath and try to be generous with your answers. If you need to, an occasional and polite “not right now” is okay when you need a mental break or need to focus on an urgent task.

Assume No Villainous Intent

Your new team member is here to become a positive, productive part of your team. At least that’s the most likely scenario — by a long shot. Treat them like it, and don’t let negative self-talk poison your perspective.

Make it Safe to Not Know

A productive learning environment starts with the safety to say, “I don’t know.” It’s okay to not know something, and it’s likely that your new teammate will have a lot that they don’t know yet. Remember, it wasn’t long ago that you needed to learn the same things, and there’s still plenty you don’t know.

How do you encourage this type of openness? Here are a few things I’ve seen help break down barriers:

  • Show a genuine interest in and respect for the new team member’s prior experiences. Ask about their experiences and pay attention to what they were excited about or disappointed by.
  • If they seem to be getting frustrated by being out of their depth, find something for them to work on that’s more in their wheelhouse.
  • Don’t assume they do or don’t know something; ask before diving into a long explanation. Take their “yes” as a yes.
  • Consider phrasing questions in the context of the team and project rather than the absolute. Ask, “Are you familiar with our team’s goals for this type of unit test?” rather than, “What should this type of unit test accomplish?”

For the New Team Member

Respect the History of the Team, Project, and Product

Some of the biggest misfires I’ve witnessed have involved a new team member talking disparagingly about a decision the team made without any real attempt to understand the context. It can set the whole team in a defensive mood and make productive next steps much more difficult.

In the wise words of Stephen Covey:

Seek first to understand.

Working to understand context and history before criticizing decisions is a critical step; it shows respect for the team and its history. Ask respectful questions and listen with the intent to understand.

Ask Questions, but Accept the Occasional “Not Right Now”

As you join a new team, you’re obviously going to have a lot of questions. Ask them. It’s part of the team’s job to help you fill in the context you need to do your job well.

But be willing to accept an occasional “not now” in response. There could an urgent task underway, or the person you’re working with might need a little break from the peppering (it happens).

Assume No Villainous Intent

The team wants you to become a positive, productive member. This is by far the most likely scenario. It’s part of your responsibility to treat the team accordingly and avoid negative self-talk that could poison your perspective.

Be Open About What You Do and Don’t Know

Hopefully, your new team is already taking steps to provide a safe learning environment, and you don’t feel pressured to hide the truth about what you do and don’t know. If so, great. Be clear and open about it.

If you’re struggling to feel safe, consider these power moves:

  • “I haven’t used that tool before, but I’ve used [tool] from [other tech stack] that I understand does similar things. I’d be curious to see more about how they compare.”
  • “I haven’t done that before, but I’m sure I can pick it up. Are there resources you’d recommend?”
  • “I’ve heard of it, but I’m not very familiar. What’s your take on it?”

Shared Responsibility

Both the team and the new team member share the responsibility for making team growth a success. I hope these tips are helpful, and I’d love to hear what else you’ve found helpful in similar situations.