How do you help a new hire start contributing to an agile delivery team in as little time as possible?
For WWT Asynchrony Labs, an agile software-delivery firm headquartered in St. Louis, which is experiencing hyper growth and aggressive hiring, it meant a new innovative training and Human Resources program. This program, appropriately called “The Learning Team,” began as an experiment starting in January 2015 to offer new hires a method to bridge the gap from day-one orientation to meeting the high expectations of a billable customer-facing delivery team. Frankly, the company wasn’t exactly sure how the experiment would turn out when it embarked on this new venture. One year later, it validated the hypothesis that an investment in new hires spending time learning would pay off when they join delivery teams.
The Learning Team was designed as an internal team in which new hires could safely and confidently learn from company veterans’ new skills such as TDD (test-driven development), pairing, continuous delivery, and data-driven forecasting. The objective was simple: help new hires hit the ground running with external-facing teams as quickly as possible.
Asynchrony Labs’ organizational structure and hiring needs necessitated that management discover a way to more effectively onboard people, and to enhance the investment put forth for its aggressive hiring to support its fast growth. Its recruiting meant adding people who have the aptitude and attitude to work on the company’s sophisticated software development projects for customers in both commercial (including many from the Fortune 500) and government, but who sometimes did not have the experience of agile delivery. Specifically, this also meant many new hires did not have experience pairing or using TDD or other vital practices demanded to meet customer requirements. Asynchrony Labs found that new hires generally were not able to go straight from hire to contributor without disruption, and that pairing newbies and veterans in a nurturing environment could dramatically shorten the learning curve for its new team members.
In the past, Asynchrony Labs occasionally had used ad-hoc and sometimes loosely run “bench projects” as places where new hires spent a few days before jumping onto real projects. However, those projects were not designed to provide much in the way of mentoring or professional development; they were merely a place to bide time until logistics were in place for the new staff member to join a team. The company also had experimented with research teams, but those initiatives were more oriented toward research and development rather than product delivery.
Enter the Learning Team
Under the leadership of its CTO, Nate McKie, the company envisioned the Learning Team to be a permanent, first-class team staffed by a full-time tech lead, a full-time product owner, and a part-time agile coach. Following the first week of a new hire’s tenure at Asynchrony, which includes the same three-day agile overview workshop that it offers to its customers, the new hire would join the Learning Team. Depending on the individual’s learning goals, the person might be on the team from a few days to more than a month. The Learning Team also would be a safe place for existing “Asynchronites” (Asynchrony employees) to acquire new skills or transition to a new role. For instance, one staff member who has been at the company for years wanted to learn the skills of product ownership, so she was made the team’s product owner. This was beneficial for the veteran to acquire a new skill set and to challenge herself, but it was also advantageous for the newbie to hear from a long-time staff member.
Since the project was internal, the team had few dependencies outside of its control, so it could run the project in an exemplar way, focusing on learning rather than customer delivery. The team had an advisor, who encouraged the new hires to immediately use the learning they received in the agile overview workshop, and to apply what they were doing in the Learning Team.
The pattern was as follows:
- Implementation in the Learning Team of good practices learned in the earlier Agile overview session.
- Implementation of good practices in future customer-facing team that were experienced in the Learning Team.
To help all understand the mission, Asynchrony developed a short statement as a guiding blueprint for the Learning Team. It read as follows:
“For new hires and veteran Asynchronites, who need to learn the Asynchrony delivery ‘way,’ brush up on skills, or explore new methodologies, the Learning Team is an internal delivery team that provides a safe place to learn proven practices and experiment with new ones. While other organizations might simply assign a new staff member straight to a team without knowing what great delivery practices look like and to ‘sink or swim,’ the Learning Team is an exemplar team where people can learn healthy practices they can acquire and then take to other teams.
Asynchrony kicked off the team with a proper inception, complete with “customers” and internal stakeholders. It added a twist to the vision, charter, and release planning of inception: personal learning goals. Each person on the initial incarnation of the team took some time to write and share his or her goals with the rest of the team, which they would hold each other accountable for and encourage each other to achieve.
The Net Results
The biggest risk of the effort was whether the return would be worth the investment. After all, it can be costly to intentionally run a bench project, staffed with a coach and software development mentors. CTO McKie had gotten buy-in from the rest of executive management to carry out the Learning Team experiment for a few months.
With that, management decided that had it failed, it would’ve pulled the plug and tried something else. But now the organization is celebrating the Learning Team program’s first anniversary, and it is continuing with the program as it has seen great results from it, and it accomplished the overarching goal set forth of bridging the gap for new hires to successful team members. Even greater was that Learning Team members “graduate” with less friction, more experience, and greater confidence when they join their new teams. Furthermore, they learn a lot about their colleagues and company culture or what is known as the “Asynchrony way.”
In addition, Asynchrony received veteran employees and new graduates from the program who gained valuable experience as product owners and tech leads and who are potentially able to perform those roles on other teams. It’s also true that Asynchrony incurred an opportunity cost by “benching” some people to work on the Learning Team, but the tradeoff was an investment in people with reduced risk and future gain.
Asynchrony also has realized that people who are new to Asynchrony and its way of working—in which transparency and honesty are precursors to learning—aren’t always trained or made to feel safe to expose what they don’t know. But the Learning Team helps them develop that mindset so that when they start team pairing under the pressure of delivering for customers, they don’t feel they need to hide problems or take shortcuts, which can lead to messy delivery problems and even greater complications. With so many new people coming onboard, Asynchrony needed to make an aggressive move to invest in preparing new “Asynchronites” for success and viewed this as a necessity for growth. It has been more than pleased with the results.
Phase 2 Challenges
Because the team composition is always in state of flux, the company has to always be prepared for someone to leave the Learning Team for a customer-facing team. Asynchrony mitigated that by keeping intact three of the roles—product owner, tech lead, and coach—for longer periods of time, which provides some continuity. Also, this was needed because members don’t generally know when they’re going to be “promoted,” which can be disconcerting and impede team morale. Along with that, a next level for the program will be to better determine how to answer, “When is a person ready to move out of the Learning Team?”
Asynchrony also learned that it needs to choose the product and tech stack wisely. The product the Learning Team has been developing over the last year was built on a legacy code base with a challenging programming language to learn (Erlang). With dependencies on some business-facing concerns about the legacy code base (some real customers use it) and the steep learning curve of Erlang, it decided to use a simpler, more straightforward product so the team members can focus on agile delivery, rather than some of the unnecessary distractions from its previous product choice.
The Future Is Bright
Overall, Asynchrony Labs has seen numerous benefits for its visionary development program for new hires. First, they’re able to more smoothly integrate into their delivery teams. Second, veteran employees learn new skills and roles and feel valued and invigorated.
An unexpected benefit is that the transition from the Learning Team to the delivery team means an infusion of eager and motivated people, who can contribute from an advanced “day one,” and offer a fresh, innovative skill set to improve their new team.
The initial experiment proved so successful that Asynchrony replicated the experiment in its recently opened Denver office, and now has three total Learning Teams (now called Onboarding Teams) in the organization, preparing new hires for a smooth entry into customer-facing delivery work.
Matt Philip is the director of Agile Coaching at WWT Asynchrony Labs. He is responsible for helping teams become fit for their purpose. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on this topic, you can view Philip’s presentation from the XP Days 2016 conference at www.slideshare.net/MatthewPhilip/from-new-hire-to-team-contributor-asap .