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Building a better welcome wagon

Being the new kid is tough. And at 18F, we bring in newbies every two weeks.

As our team expands to meet federal digital needs, we’ve learned to appreciate documentation for its ability to turn new hires into self-sufficient contributors quickly, with minimal disruption to the organization. Some agencies require months of training to fully integrate a new hire into the workplace. Here at 18F, our process lasts a single day.

Of course, the first phase involves taking an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and learning about our parent agency, the General Services Administration (GSA). Immediately after that, new hires join the 18F team itself. After setting up emails and distributing equipment, we also give our newbies access to the 18F Hub, our internal system for organizing and sharing team-wide documentation, structure, and projects. We cultivated the Hub so it would answer the early questions new hires ask time and again, such as what to expect when working for the federal government (lots of acronyms and records management rules), how to get added to the 18F GitHub organization, 18F’s writing and design style, and tips for working with a distributed team. It won’t ever have all the answers, but this key piece of infrastructure saves time and effort as newbies no longer waste time hunting for information or interrupting teammates.

Many of our project teams are still small and absorb new hires rather quickly, but some teams have also drafted project-specific onboarding plans. For example, the team that maintains the 18f.gsa.gov website has an onboarding plan, posted in the Hub, that covers the following topics:

  • Who is on my team and when will I meet them?
  • Tools we use
  • What to expect during week one
  • First week goals
  • First month goals

Also, because 18F has team members all over the country, a page of guidelines in the Hub specifically addresses the needs of folks not working from one of our GSA offices.

Our office is young, and we’ve yet to hone in on a comprehensive plan tailored to every new employee’s needs. Our onboarding process continuously evolves and improves. As new people get settled, we encourage them to keep track of the things that didn’t go so well: questions not answered by the Hub, tools that were hard to use, documentation that was hard to follow, and other hurdles they encounter. We ask that they track these issues however they feel most comfortable, by keeping their own notes or filing GitHub issues or using Trello cards. We also gather their ideas in a quick survey or interview at the end of their second week. Our documentation team triages onboarding issues, uses them to update the Hub, and passes suggestions onto other teams.

Last but not least, we want new hires to feel personally welcomed as they become full partners in our mission to improve the way our government builds and buys technology. We host a biweekly after-work get-together to welcome new hires after their first day, and also invite them to other after-work social activities with members of the broader U.S. Digital Service family.

For more information on the importance and value of deliberate, effective onboarding, see Kate Heddleston’s “Technical Onboarding, Training and Mentoring” presentation from RailsConf 2014.

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