Hiring a great engineering leader is hard enough as it is, let alone creating a leader onboarding process that sets them up for success.
Newly hired leaders at any company often make rushed decisions before understanding the full context. Other times, they lack the confidence to get into hard situations, which may be a wise choice, but it can reflect on them poorly with senior leadership.
Either way: transitioning to a new company as an engineering leader is extremely stressful. It will make them and their engineering teams less productive, which is a loss for every party involved. Yet you need to hire leaders and managers at times.
What can a company do to alleviate some of this stress?
Nadia Alramli tells the true story of her onboarding experience at HubSpot as Director of Engineering. She went through the potentially difficult process of transitioning to a new company as a leader, and she came out ahead. HubSpot’s unique leader onboarding process had been the secret of her success.
Nadia Alramli is currently Director of Engineering at HubSpot. She runs the marketing campaigns group, where her teams provide tools to help marketing teams attract and engage their audiences. She arrived at HubSpot from the video game industry, where she used to build backend services for the Call of Duty franchise and for other titles for over a decade.
In her spare time, she likes to crochet miniature animals or spend time with wild gray squirrels. With patience and a lot of nuts, she has managed to train squirrels to visit her home daily. They often show up in her video calls too; thus, she earned the title at HubSpot, “The Squirrel Whisperer.”
The biggest challenge for a new leader is building credibility and trust. It’s best to do this before you need to step in to course correct or to make decisions. I’ve seen engineering leaders jump headfirst into a new company to prove themselves before they were ready, and it backfired.
New managers may rush because they lack confidence and feel threatened. Other times, it’s the opposite; they feel they know it all and start acting instead of listening out of overconfidence.
Either way it often turns into micromanaging their teams, which is damaging. This is why I believe a well-done engineering leader onboarding process is essential.
The leadership onboarding process played a key part when I considered moving to a new company and ended up joining HubSpot.
When a HubSpot recruiter contacted me, I wasn’t looking for a change. A few months later, I decided to explore the option anyway. The engineering leader onboarding process and themade me go for the job in the end.
HubSpot’s leader onboarding process is a unique experience, because every engineering leader hired at HubSpot goes through the same profound embedding process in the first six months. During that period, they’re treated like any software engineer.
New engineering leaders during the embedding process don’t have privileged access to information, nor management responsibilities. They’re expected to focus exclusively on doing an individual contributor’s job. They take the same training courses and go through the same employee onboarding process as everyone else.
New managers and leaders are switching between the different engineering teams they will be responsible for in this period. They’re building features, fixing bugs, and reporting to the manager of the team they’re working with at the time.
The biggest misconception about this leadership onboarding process is that the only reason to do this is to get newly hired engineering leaders to familiarize themselves with the tech stack. This is an important aspect, but it isn’t the point.
The embedding experience is a great way to learn HubSpot’s tech stack, the product details, and the guiding principles. But really, it’s all about the relationships you get to build with the engineers. The whole point is the trust you build.
Engineers love this too. I got to experience every day like everyone else, and I saw everything from their perspective. My future reports even had a chance to mentor me.
Engineers love it when you ask them questions. I made sure to rotate the questions I had between every team member. This gave everyone the chance to correct my mistakes and teach me something new; these moments were invaluable.
The relationships I built left a lasting impression on everyone involved.
The point of this onboarding process for leaders is to make the new employee feel at home by the time you’re finished. You need to make this your focus during the process. After you’re done, you'll need some time in your leadership position to get back up to speed as a manager.
The onboarding process is exactly the same. Engineering directors get the same treatment in the onboarding process as new engineers. You hold your original title, like Director of Engineering in my case, so everyone around you knows you’re going through the manager embedding process.
Let me introduce the high level employee onboarding checklist of HubSpot, to better explain the manager onboarding experience.
The process focuses on creating a personalized experience for every individual. We make sure to connect newly hired engineers with their managers, even before they start. I was in contact with my manager via email for three months before arriving at HubSpot.
He responded to every question I had, and he shared a lot of useful resources with me. We had email discussions that spanned several threads, with 30 or 40 emails each. I started to build a lasting relationship with him way before starting at my new company.
The employee onboarding really begins when the new hire joins. It starts with a social aspect of the orientation, where we reaffirm why they are here, and introduce them to other new hires, their teammates and managers.
To react to COVID-19 forcing our engineering into remote work, our learning and development team translated our icebreaker events and games into a virtual form. It’s been great to see how quickly we’ve adapted to this.
We also assign them an onboarding buddy to provide guidance if they have any questions not tightly related to work.
The next stage of onboarding covers the foundation of our business. We explain how we fit into the SaaS ecosystem, our business model, our customers’ needs, and so on.
After this, we do a product onboarding workshop, built specifically to make engineers familiar with our tech stack. This workshop walks them through building a frontend and a backend project, where we encourage them to work in a cohort. They can ask questions if they're stuck, and there's no time limit.
You spend six months focused on being an engineer. Toward the end of the embedding process, you spend the last month getting back into management, so you get back your groove.
You start with an introduction, like some information about the engineers, updates about what's going on in the organization, the vision, and the strategy. After this, you start attending some meetings. The idea is to ramp it up, not to throw you in at the deep end.
By the time you finish the leader embedding process, you're included in everything.
Then you get up to speed with your role, which understandably will still take some time. This is intended, because lots of information and documents weren’t available to you earlier, but after going through the leadership onboarding process, it’ll go quickly.
I got to know people’s strengths, their areas of improvement and a lot more. So when I started to get information about the employees, it all made sense, because I got to know them closely. In fact, I often added to it, and improved the information with my experience.
The onboarding workshop is elaborately documented. We also have guides that go both for individual contributors and for engineering managers and tech leaders.
When a new employee joins the company, we send their manager an email with helpful guides from the wiki on how to make a new hire feel welcome, and how to onboard them. We assume this is helpful regardless of seniority. We keep updating the wiki regularly. For example, we included new guides recently on remote work.
This is important, because this is your first experience when you're arriving at a new company. If you don't do this right, it could taint the whole thing. I consider myself introverted, and the embedding process for new leaders helped a lot with making me feel welcomed, without getting overwhelming.
In my previous leadership roles, people didn't feel like I was approachable, no matter how much I tried. The leader onboarding at HubSpot helped with people getting to know me better, so they didn’t take me as seriously in a social environment. They talked to me, we shared inside jokes, and they weren’t afraid to have fun with me. I loved it.
This helped tremendously later on, and I don't see how this would’ve been possible otherwise. Spending over a decade in my previous company wasn’t enough to build these relationships across the board, but this process made it happen over the span of a few months.
The key factor at HubSpot is that senior leadership and management take it seriously. No one is allowed to pull you out of your engineering role while you’re in the embedding process. You’re protected from the distractions and responsibilities of leadership, no matter how much they need you to take your managerial role.
From senior management to the individual contributors, everyone believes in the importance of the leader onboarding process. Even toward the end of my embedding, if I reached out to my future peers for information, they were hesitant to involve me in management matters. My boss told them not to talk to me about this, and I had to specifically assure them that the process was ending, so it was okay to include me.
This results in new managers going through a thoughtful, in-depth onboarding experience, so the employees get a more empathetic and adaptive leader.
During the embed process, I was reporting to the engineering managers, and I did regular one-on-ones with them. It’s an interesting situation, because eventually, they’ll be reporting to me.
I also had one-on-one meetings with my eventual manager, but they were less frequent; we did it once a month. They work more like check-ins, just to see how things were going.
The SVP of Engineering described the expectations and metrics of a successful embed process. It's about the new manager building credibility within the engineering team by getting their hands dirty. They're expected to build empathy and intuition for every team member, and to have a deep understanding of the development philosophy, the customer needs, the product roadmap and the tech stack.
Many employees think that understanding the tech stack is the highest priority, but it’s prioritized last on our list. The leader onboarding program is about building relationships across the engineering teams.
This is how we assess the success of the onboarding:
I remember running into imposter syndrome. Eric Richard, my manager at the time, told me about this beforehand, so I wouldn't let it taint my onboarding.
When you’re an engineering director for a long time, your tech skills get rusty. If you go back to engineering, you're surrounded with brilliant engineers, and it’s easy to feel you’re not good enough. I had plenty of this going on during the onboarding process.
Most of my engineering experience is in backend, but I had to do frontend work as well, which was challenging. It was interesting that one of my engineering managers told me that my insight was as if it came from a senior engineer. Even though I didn’t have experience in the language, they appreciated my insight a lot.
My background is mostly in Python, so I was learning Java when I moved to HubSpot. I got positive feedback for the fact that I coordinated tasks well between teams, looked at the big picture, and could think about the customer's perspective. I was considering dependencies and multiple dependencies, and I thought ahead.
I had a true manager-report relationship with each team’s engineering manager. I received feedback on my performance from them, which helped build my confidence.
The lack of such an elaborate onboarding process makes it difficult for new engineering leaders to build trust with their teams.
Without this process, new leaders may rush into their role, without spending time to understand their teams and business first. They might end up micromanaging their teams or making rushed decisions due to overconfidence. I’ve seen this happen many times where there wasn't a manager onboarding process.
It’s a big investment the company has to be willing to make. You invest in a new engineering leader for six months, before getting that person to fill the role you hired them for. You might need the new manager urgently, but you have to make this investment.
You need buy-in from the rest of the organization, so everyone respects the process. This system would be overwhelming if you were to carry a manager's responsibilities and were expected to work as an engineer.
During my embedding process, HubSpot needed me to take my place as Director of Engineering. They had been looking for a new leader to fill the role for several months, and my manager was filling in with many teams reporting to him. He ran the entire engineering team at HubSpot, but he still told me, if I wanted more time for the embedding, I could have it.
This willingness to take on massive amounts of work shows the commitment to the process. Everyone believes in its importance, and that’s why it works.
We work in triads, so I have peers in product and design, and they were equally committed, as well. They were dying for me to finish the embedding process, because they had to carry an additional load until I took my position. Yet they respected the process and didn’t distract me, which made for an effective onboarding.
I recommend doing this same leadership onboarding process, even if for a shorter time, like one or two months. The longer the better. Any embedding period is better than nothing, so go for as much as you can afford.
Even if you think you can't afford it, the short-term pain of waiting a couple of months for the new manager to take their place is probably worth the long-term gain. However long you can take, it’s worth the investment.
HubSpot’s manager embedding process attracts many new leadership candidates to us. Beyond that, our engineers also love the fact that we require new leaders to go through this lengthy onboarding process. They take this investment as a sign that we care about them.
I’ve made it a point to mention it to every engineer I onboard. The response is overwhelmingly positive; it actually helps us with recruiting engineers.
This investment into onboarding new leaders is also an investment into every engineer we have, and they appreciate it a lot.
When I was interviewing at HubSpot, I thought it sounded too good to be true. I said to myself: if it’s only half as good as it sounds, it would still be good. In hindsight, they undersold it.
I love working here every day; sometimes, it doesn't feel like work. The engineering culture here is loving and empathetic, where everyone cares deeply. We care about the customers and each other, while we have brilliant people who hold themselves to high standards.
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About the author:
Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.