This past March, I accepted a new job with a team based in Portugal – 5 time zones ahead of me! I would be the only full time remote team member. This worried me. And then, as I waited for my start date – the pandemic struck, and everyone was remote! This was a silver lining of the pandemic for me – I thought, “Even if it’s only for a couple of weeks, they’ll have more empathy for remote people.”

Starting work at the start of the lockdown

The sudden requirement to abandon the offices in Portugal as well as the U.S. left everyone in chaos. HR couldn’t access necessary materials in their offices, and it took some time even to fix my start date. People were reacting to the sudden stress of a pandemic and being mostly confined to their houses. were coping with having their kids at home, trying to school their kids, sharing limited space and bandwidth with other family members.

My first day, my new quality team had their weekly sync where everyone reports what they did the past week. This includes one’s feelings. So it was easy for me to learn how much stress most people felt. My manager appeared to be overloaded with adjusting to all-remote teams, an urgent new initiative starting up, and other responsibilities. Like so many others, he had many new constraints: small children now at home, sharing a workspace and internet bandwidth with other family members, coping with lockdown. He didn’t have time to prepare an onboarding plan for me.

I was disappointed, but because I thought there would be much pairing and collaboration involved, not too worried. I was determined to use my first few weeks to learn as much as I could so I could start adding value as soon as possible. And there was some onboarding. Various people walked me through various things such as the bug tracking system, analytics and monitoring tools. I got an overview of R&D teams and the various initiatives underway.

The importance of setting expectations

Helping each other is a core part of my new employer’s culture, and anytime I asked for help, I got it. This was really important. At the same time, I found that my expectations that teams did a lot of pairing and ensemble (mobbing) work were somewhat unrealistic. I joined a new team that, among other things, was working on the big new initiative. They mainly worked independently, as far as I could see. People would spend an hour here and there on Zoom with me going over things, for sure. However, there was not much pairing for real, hands-on work.

At the same time, I had equipment issues and delays in obtaining software for my new work laptop that delayed my learning how to use the company’s product. When I finally could start doing the online tutorials, I struggled a lot. I’m not good at learning on my own, and the tutorials in some cases were out of date or not easy for me to follow. I kept getting stuck and getting discouraged.

I’d been clear during the interview process that while I was keen to get a job working in an observability practice and learning SRE (Site Reliability Engineer) skills, I am no observability or SRE expert. I understand the concepts, but my use of the various observability tools and even monitoring tools was limited. I expected to be able to learn alongside my new colleagues. So, it was quite a shock to show up in Zoom meetings and hear someone say, “Lisa is the expert, she will be able to show us how to do all this observability stuff and use the tools”. Somehow, expectations about me had not been set with the teams I’d be joining, and they all got the wrong impression..

Donkey inside an officeI was used to working from home, but in previous jobs, either I’d been able to pair a lot, or the work I was doing was something already in my wheelhouse and I could confidently do it on my own. I am an anxious person, I worry even though I know that doesn’t do any good. I started to lose confidence that I could succeed in this new job. I felt terrible that even after a few weeks, I still didn’t know how to use the product, and wasn’t adding any value.

Turning things around – slowly

One lifesaver for me was that each new employee gets a “buddy” who is an experienced employee in another department. My buddy listened to my woes and gave me great advice. He tutored me through learning some basics of how to use the product. He urged me to choose one area of focus, and not let myself get loaded up with more teams and projects. He even, unbeknownst to me, let my manager know how badly I was struggling.

My manager, learning about the difficulties I had, arranged for an experienced teammate working on related areas to spend time pairing with me on learning to use observability tools and brainstorming ideas together. My teammate was even allowed to pair with me to go through some online training tutorials that he hadn’t taken yet himself. This teammate was so supportive, listened to all my tales of woe, and found more ways I could get the help I needed. He also helped me with ideas that I could use to help my teams make progress on our proof of concept.

The teams in which I was embedded were helpful and supportive. While I didn’t get the big blocks of pairing time to do real work, I did get a lot of shorter sessions where people helped me learn the monitoring and observability tools in use. And I did get short pairing sessions to do real work, hands-on. Not the “strong-style” pairing I’d hoped for where we alternated “driving” and “navigating”, but still helpful and rewarding. I’ve been too shy (yes, this is a handicap I have) to suggest the strong-style pairing and grateful for whatever pairing I get. As time goes by, teammates are more receptive to trying pairing sessions to do real work, not just demo things to me.

As I’d taken a job I didn’t know how to do, I was out of my comfort zone most of the time. That’s ok, it’s a good way to learn, but I also needed to do things that were more in my existing wheelhouse. Getting back into my comfort zone sometimes helps me rest up and build confidence. Our quality team is working on ways to help engineering teams take more responsibility for testing activities, including exploratory testing. Other quality coaches on our team have organized ensemble testing sessions so that I get a chance to learn other areas of the product. I feel like I can contribute in these sessions. Even without knowing much yet, I can ask questions that can lead to new insights or ideas.

Last week, my manager gave me feedback on my first 3.5 months. I was surprised that it was so positive! He feels I’m already adding a lot of value and helping my teams make progress. I realize he was trying to tell me this before, but I was so stressed and discouraged, I couldn’t hear it until he stated it very clearly.

Advice to managers onboarding new people in these remote times

In hindsight, I know I should have been more diligent in getting specifics of how teams worked and whether they were used to pairing on a larger scale. Still, it would have been helpful for my new manager to explain more clearly what “collaboration” really meant in the context of the organization. It’s also important for managers to set realistic expectations about the new person with the teams they will be joining. If the plan is for everyone to learn a new skill set together – make that clear!

Now that I’ve seen the normal onboarding plan, I know how much it would have helped me. Take the time to at least get the first week of the onboarding plan cobbled together before a new person starts their first day. Then you can keep adding to it so they have guidance. Make it clear to the new person what they’re expected to have learned by day one, week one, week two and so on.

Also set expectations on when the new employee is expected to be contributing value – and give them feedback frequently! Don’t overwhelm them with information, but make sure they have what they need today. Make sure to acknowledge every small success, and help them along one small step at a time. Help them keep a balance of being in and out of their comfort zone – keep learning, but don’t lose confidence.

It’s important to help newbies learn whom to talk to for various things, but don’t overwhelm them with 10 names at once. A few weeks into my new job, I felt I’d had a great success in getting some engineers on different teams to collaborate and help the proof of concept move forward. When I told my manager about it, instead of applauding my efforts, he responded by rattling off the names of several other people I ought to be talking to. That was really discouraging. Now that I’m more used to his style, I realize this is due to his enthusiasm for building on a small success. He’s an idea person and tends to give me 10 ideas at once. I’m learning to go through those ideas, talk about them with colleagues, and pick one or two to try out for now.

Definitely give each new team member one or more buddies to support and guide them!

Advice to new employees in these remote times

If you’re starting a new job now and your team is all-remote, be prepared for extra obstacles. Be diligent in clarifying practices and processes teams use. Be clear in your expectations for them, and set realistic expectations for what you will be able to do starting out.

Building relationships is important even if you’ve been in a job a long time, but especially when you’re new. And it’s really hard to do remotely. Take advantage of virtual coffees and lunches. My team does a weekly virtual lunch, and I arrange other meetings to be free for that if at all possible. We have a Slack bot that pairs people up for virtual coffees. I find it so interesting to meet people in other teams and departments. See if the leader of your new team is willing to do a short virtual coffee before you start working with the team. Do what you can to simulate the interactions you’d have if you were co-located. One silver lining of the pandemic is now we get to meet (or at least hear!) our colleagues’ family members and pets. It’s more personal, and I think we build more empathy.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know this is hard, I struggle with it too. Remember that people don’t want you to struggle, they are happy to answer questions and work with you. And when someone helps you, they’re automatically your friend after that.

If you have a way of working that your new teams don’t practice yet, see if they’re willing to experiment. During a recent retrospective with one team I’m on, I suggested an experiment that we pair on at least one story per week. It’s a small thing and we can see if it’s helpful or not. They were willing to try it. Conversely, learn about their work styles and see how you can accommodate them.

I still am not 100% sure I’ll be successful in my new job, but I feel a lot better now that I got some “remedial onboarding” and my various teammates are more willing to pair with me to do real, hands-on work. Like anything related to software development, it takes extra work and discipline to succeed at onboarding, especially during a pandemic!