Engineering Career Series: How we onboard engineers across the world at Yelp
Kevin Knaust, Technical Recruiting Manager; Ronni McCoy, Technical Recruiting Program Manager
- May 20, 2021
Like most companies, Yelp has had to make substantial changes to the way we onboard new team members over the past year. Yelpers have always been naturally good at fostering a welcoming and supportive atmosphere for new employees. Translating this into a welcoming and supportive virtual atmosphere hasn’t happened organically. As we grow distributed teams across the United States, Canada, and Europe, the new ways in which we prepare, welcome, train, and support our employees have become, and will continue to be, important for the advancement of Yelp’s Engineering & Product organizations.
Going into 2020, we knew we were already outgrowing a number of our programs, and we were presented with even more challenges as we made the shift to remote work, and then permanently distributed teams. This post aims to share some of the ways we’ve adapted to these changes, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Welcoming New Hires
Showing up to an office on your first day at a new job can be nerve-racking. Pre-COVID, we did our best to put new hires at ease. They were connected with their mentor as soon as they arrived, their desk was set up with the right tech and a welcome kit, and they were invited to a team lunch. When we made the shift to remote work and distributed hiring, we knew we had to figure out how to replicate this welcoming environment virtually.
Through partnerships with our IT and Workplaces departments, we now ensure that the all-important first day welcome kit is shipped with new hires’ equipment. Once folks have had the chance to login, they begin their day with a check-in with their new manager and mentor. These chats are casual, and help give every new hire the lay of the land for their first week. Managers also arrange for new hires to connect with other members of their team and anyone they might work with on a regular basis. Previously, these introductions would’ve happened informally around the office and in meetings, but we now intentionally schedule these as one-on-one conversations so that new hires don’t miss out on making important connections.
We also make sure a new hire’s entire team can gather for a virtual lunch, coffee, or watercooler chat on their first day. This gives everyone the chance to welcome their new teammate in a fun atmosphere, and helps new hires start putting faces to names.
Tackling Remote Onboarding Challenges
While we were able to replicate some of the social aspects of being in an office, we were also hit with a whole new set of logistical challenges. “What time do I show up?” turned into “When can I expect a call from my manager?” Managers had to figure out how to connect with new hires in different time zones, or even in different countries. And simply having someone log in to a new computer at the office became an adventure in international shipping logistics.
After hitting a few speed bumps, we worked with teams across Yelp to set up new systems for onboarding new hires remotely. We send a regular cadence of reminders to managers, mentors, and new hires beginning two weeks before someone is expected to start. For managers and mentors, our onboarding team shares checklists to help them prepare, and most have developed complementary team-specific lists in an effort to maintain consistency across onboarding experiences. For the new hire, we share materials ahead of time, like an up-to-date technical primer that outlines the tools they’ll be using when they start. This provides folks with the foundational information they need to hit the ground running on their first day.
Revamping New Hire Orientation
Historically, Yelp held a one-hour orientation session for new hires on their first day. This session, called “Space Camp,” was in-person and typically hosted by a leader from within Engineering. Space Camp was something we knew we were outgrowing. We tried to pack a lot of information into just 60 minutes, which overwhelmed a lot of new hires. And because we invited all Engineering and Product roles to this session, we had to keep the content broad. But this actually resulted in it not being helpful for a number of folks who attended.
We started looking at an overhaul of Space Camp in January 2020. But when COVID hit, we had to pivot. We knew we needed programming that would scale across time zones, be relevant for folks in a wide variety of roles, and provide everyone with a sense of belonging in their first few weeks. In close partnership with our People Operations team, we eventually landed on a blended approach that includes:
- Virtual instructor-led orientation. Led by our People Operations team, this happens on a new hire’s first day, and covers everything from our company values to benefits.
- On-demand e-courses. People Operations maintains a collection of resources for all Yelp employees, while our Technical Talent team maintains resources more specific to Engineering & Product. This includes a collection that dives into our Engineering team structure, culture, and goals for the year, as well as a collection of ramp-up materials for software engineers.
- Virtual meet & greets. All new hires are invited to a virtual meet and greet with our Internal Community Manager within their first 30 days. These chats are fun and informal, and give new hires the opportunity to learn about unique aspects of Yelp, such as Yelp Employee Resource Groups.
In 2021, we’re looking to expand our virtual instructor-led and culture offerings. Currently in the works are virtual whiteboarding sessions called Build Me a Yelp, which are interactive introductions to Yelp’s infrastructure that give new hires the chance to ask questions. We’re also aiming to ensure all Engineering & Product new hires have the chance to connect with the Vice President of their organization in their first 90 days.
Strengthening Mentorship & Local Buddy Programs
Strong mentorship is a crucial part of setting new hires up for success. We assign all new hires a mentor weeks before they start. This way mentors have plenty of time to prepare for their new teammate. Our mentors review and update team documentation, arrange for regular one-on-ones with their mentee, facilitate connections with other teams, set expectations, and provide feedback.
We combined the lessons we’ve learned over time with a few new guardrails once we started making the shift towards distributed teams. We now:
- Make sure all mentors complete a “Mentorship 101” course. More on this below!
- Match mentors and mentees that share the same core working hours.
- Recommend that all mentors have at least one year of experience on the team so they’ll have a good understanding of both Yelp and team-specific norms.
- No longer require that mentors be more technically experienced than their mentee. We view the job of a mentor to be showing the new hire what life at Yelp is like and how to be successful on the team, and we provide other technical resources to help fill in any potential gaps in knowledge.
We also recognize that remote mentorship is just…different. And we may even have cases where there may not be a mentor on the team that has any overlapping working hours with the mentee! In these instances, we encourage managers to find a “local buddy.” Buddies are coworkers who are in the same time zone, and can be a resource for questions and support if the new hire’s mentor and other teammates are offline.
We’ve also worked to find the positives in instances in which the mentor might typically start their day later than their mentee due to a time zone difference. Providing the new hire with items to complete on their own such as onboarding courses or small code fixes gives them a chance to feel productive and collect questions before they connect with their mentor each day. But once their mentor is online, we encourage everyone to default to over communicating. This includes sending messages to indicate availability to field questions, utilizing icons and status updates, and making sure working hours are publicly displayed on calendars. Some mentors have even experimented with keeping a call open on Slack or Google Meet throughout the day to simulate the ability to simply turn to the left and ask a quick question.
Training for Mentors
We know that “no process” is another name for “bias,” so as we ramped up hiring going into 2021, we established a formal training program for all mentors. Training helps to ensure all mentors are providing a consistent experience for their mentees.
The first step for any new mentor is to complete an on-demand e-course focused on the fundamentals, like “why be a mentor?” and expectations for mentorship at Yelp. We regularly refresh this content to ensure the information is up-to-date and remains useful as the company (and the world around us!) changes.
We also create spaces for mentors to connect and discuss any questions, issues, or lessons learned. All mentors are invited to participate in live quarterly discussion sessions facilitated by experienced mentors and managers where they can bring questions to discuss with the group and compare approaches to common scenarios. If mentors have questions they’d like to discuss on the spot, they can turn to an internal channel to pose them to everyone who’s ever been a mentor.
Beyond providing fundamental training and spaces to connect, we’re exploring additional workshops to level up specific skills and help to build out a strong and lasting mentorship culture. In the previous section, we mentioned that providing feedback to their mentee is a part of a mentor’s responsibilities. We know this is a significant determining factor in how quickly the new hire can ramp up. So, we recently started offering a live training session on giving and receiving feedback to all mentors. We have plans to continue supplementing this workshop over time.
Ongoing Learning & Mentorship Programs
In addition to our new-hire and mentorship programs, we’re working to establish ongoing learning opportunities for everyone on our team, regardless of their tenure or role.
Like onboarding, this is an area where we’ve worked closely with our People Operations team. In 2020, we launched the Leadership Essentials and Development (LEAD) program for new managers. This program covers management basics like effective one-on-ones, coaching, and feedback, providing managers with the foundation they need to help their teams grow. In 2021, our People Operations team is expanding on this program by offering learning opportunities to support senior leaders.
We’re also working with teams across Engineering & Product to develop learning content that’s tailored to a wide range of audiences. Below is a little taste of what we have going on in this space:
- We’ve launched an internal podcast series. Hosted by leaders on our Product team, the series covers best practices and ways to upskill.
- We’re working with a group of Engineering Managers to develop resources on understanding, supporting, and working effectively with neurodiverse individuals.
- We’re hosting virtual workshops focused on agile skills development.
Finally, now that we’ve made a permanent shift towards distributed teams, we’ve established working groups to help ease this transition. We know this can be a tricky thing to nail, and we’re doing our best to get it right. These groups are focused on improving distributed mentorship and belonging programs, as well as establishing organization-wide policies for things like asynchronous standups, sprint planning, and roadmapping. It’s our hope that we’ll be able to provide everyone with the skills and resources they need to do their best work, no matter where they’re based.
Up next: Career Paths for Engineers at Yelp
While it’s crucial to provide an informative and inclusive onboarding experience, and follow that up with continued opportunities for learning, we know creating the space for learning isn’t enough on its own. We also need to provide everyone with the same structured framework for growing a career at Yelp. In our next post, we’ll dive into our career paths framework, including the history behind our current leveling system, and how we view career growth as an ongoing conversation.
Lastly, if you’re finding these posts interesting and Yelp sounds like the kind of company culture that you’d like to be a part of… we’re hiring!