Social Enterprise

Get entry-level employees up to speed quickly with a boot camp approach

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

Question:
We are a large company and usually hire some technical people straight out of college every year. Our group hires developers. We assign a "buddy" to these new employees to help them adjust to the work life at our company. Typically, these new employees thrive, but their initial success can depend on whom they are paired up with. What other things can be done to get new developers acclimated quickly and help ensure they are successful?

Answer:
It is good to see that your company is still hiring entry-level employees. In many companies, new employees are on their own to sink-or-swim. At least in your company, you are pairing up the new people with experienced employees to help make the transition as smooth as possible.

One additional idea for you to consider is the concept of a development boot camp. The boot camp can be a full formal curriculum, or it can consist of a number of related experiences to help new employees adjust as quickly as possible. I’m sure the term boot camp has military connotations of drill sergeants yelling in the faces of new recruits, but in the corporate world they are not that harsh.

When I graduated from college and started my first job at Eastman Kodak, I went into their introductory boot camp program. Kodak was hiring many college graduates at the time, and I started on the same day as six other people, into a program that had around 30 people total. The boot camp was our full-time job. There were two instructors and a curriculum that we studied. We could work at our own pace, and when we completed the work, we were assigned to one of the actual project or support teams.

Benefits of the boot camp
The main objectives of the boot camp were:
  • To provide a safe environment to learn and transition from the college world to the corporate world.
  • To train people to use the languages at Kodak. When I started at Kodak, they were predominately a mainframe Cobol, PL/1 shop. Depending on where you went to college, many new employees did not know the development environment, especially PL/1. (This is a reflection of when I started my career. The mainframe was king and punch cards were still in, but we had progressed past vacuum tubes.)
  • To build competency in the Kodak IT development infrastructure. There were many things to understand about the work environment that were unique to Kodak. For instance, how do you build production jobs? How were the jobs run? How were tapes and disks managed?
  • To explain Kodak processes and procedures. Even if you find companies that use similar technology and tools, every company has their own set of internal processes and procedures. Everyone needs to learn them, and they were explained in the boot camp.

Of course, one of the intangible benefits was that you had people that you could meet and socialize with who were also in your circumstances. Even though the boot camp lasted only six weeks for me, I continued to have lunch every day with the people I met on my first day.

Benefits to the company
Those of us in the boot camp learned a lot in a short amount of time. But what was in it for the company? Actually it was a great deal for the project and support teams as well. When they had a need for a new developer, they received a person who knew the general development languages and tools, the specific Kodak development environment, and the Kodak development processes and procedures. Obviously these people could be productive much quicker than if they had started directly onto the team.

There are many alternatives in between
The environment I am describing is especially good for companies that do a lot of hiring of entry-level people. If your company hires a handful of entry-level people, it probably does not make sense to have a full boot-camp environment. However, there are alternatives. You first need to start with an understanding of the training objectives you are trying to achieve. Then determine the best way to accomplish the objectives at your company.

One company I worked at set up orientation sessions for new developers. They explained processes, procedures, and the general environment. The sessions lasted three days and were given once a month. The company tried to hire people with a start date of the beginning of the month, so that this mini-boot camp was the first place they would go when they started.

You also don’t have to provide formal internal training for new people. In most places, you can easily arrange for external technical training at local companies. This combination of internal indoctrination, external training, as well as a mentor (or buddy) can be a powerful combination to get new people up and running as quickly as possible.

The key is to do something. The buddy system you use is fine, but as you said, it is susceptible to a wide variance of quality and value, depending on who the buddy is. If your company will think through what it wants to accomplish in a new employee indoctrination process, I think you will find that the program can easily be strengthened and expanded, to the benefit of the new employee and the company.

 
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