Software Company as an “Employee Incubator”

It takes only a few substandard hires to bore a hole into your bottom line. It’s actually amazing how much money a company can lose over a few employees who don’t work out. So, like other businesses that champion onboarding and other strategies, I try to create an environment that will help my new employees succeed. When I am considering new hires, I’m prepared to make a significant monetary investment in 1) the interview process; and 2) the first six months of a “fledgling” programmer’s term with the company. One thing I’ve learned: early investment pays off early and reaps dividends later.

The Interview

During the course of the interview, the prospective software programmer or civil engineer must show you that he or she will perform well on the job. Too many interviews, though rigorous in their review of past job experiences and transcripts, don’t tell you if the candidate will function well in your work environment and with the standard work responsibilities of your firm. I give prospective programmers several tests to assess their knowledge and capabilities, all of which helps me determine if the employee will work out at CivilGEO:

  1. A programming assignment that consists of defined and specific tasks. This exercise assesses the programmer’s ability to pick up where another programmer left off, write code for a small application, or problem-solve in a defined amount of time. These are all tasks that a programmer at CivilGEO typically tackles during the course of a normal work day. In my book it’s all fair game.
  2. Written test that gauges his or her understanding of key coding language and assesses their grasp of the fundamentals. If a programmer needed a license to write code, this test would be key. It’s rigorous but I’m proud of it.

More of a trial “day at the office” than an interview, the prospective employees are placed in a situation they are sure to encounter as team members at CivilGEO. This approach hasn’t let me down yet.

The “Incubation” of a Programmer

Mentoring at CivilGEO
Let’s say we hire a new software developer or civil engineer. Now a well-orchestrated system of “incubation” kicks in. This takes the form of a number of internal programs designed to equip the new hire with the tools, wherewithal and confidence to succeed in the company. Similar to the mentoring program Kate Heddleston shares in her article, “How to Onboard Software Engineers,” we also pair mid-level programmers with a new hire.

Senior level programmers are typically too busy to take on the role as mentor and, honestly, seniority does not always translate to skill as adviser and guide. Mid-level employees, having more recently completed the program themselves, can still remember what it feels like to be “green.” The new hire has immediate access to an “insider’s” view of how the firm operates, much of which can’t be communicated in any other format. Most importantly, the programmer begins to work on code as a team member, the cornerstone of the Agile Methodology process we use at CivilGEO.

Ideally, members of CivilGEO’s programming team need to work as one well-oiled unit. Our mentoring program reinforces my philosophy that developers need to collaborate, share information about coding issues, progress and/or set-backs and combine resources on a daily basis. Solid relationships between programmers are absolutely key to operating at this higher level of code development.

Corporate Processes Simplified

Newcomers review training videos, summaries of basic corporate procedures and other printed materials that help them orient to life at CivilGEO. If the same questions or issues keep reoccurring, this signals the need to create a simple and separate document that addresses it. These core materials answer common questions of new hires and function to shorten the learning curve.

Exercises to Gain Skill and Confidence

New hires are expected to hit key programming benchmarks in the early months. This consists of completing a certain number of tasks designed to both challenge the programmers as well as help them gain confidence in writing code. These exercises help a new hire progress to more challenging assignments and helps us track the programmer’s growing maturity and overall progress.

Teachers In-House

Both junior and senior employees take advantage of “lunch and learn” opportunities. At these times, staff with particular expertise or knowledge share their know-how and practical tips.  These “lunch and learn” sessions are by far the best way to use a spare hour over the lunch break. Part demonstration, part discussion and part opportunity to discuss new technologies or developments in the field, this lunch break to learn succeeds on multiple fronts.

From Incubator to Well-Integrated and Contributing Team Member

The goal is “reliable independence” says Heddleston. This describes someone who “is able to reliably and independently build software on your team.” With oversight from staff at Human Resources and an appointed “mentor” programmer, new hires move through a process that, like an incubator, helps the programmer/organism develop into an efficient, confident and well-integrated team member at CivilGEO.