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Onboarding New Employees: How to Optimize DBAs' First 12 Weeks

Here's how to make sure that things go smoothly when onboarding new employees and, specifically, database administrators.

Every business is unique, but almost all businesses face a common challenge: hiring new staff. And, the process doesn’t end once you’ve recruited and hired the new employee. That's only the beginning, especially when it comes to bringing a new database administrator into the business fold. There are various terms for what comes next, including “orientation,” “onboarding” and “integration.” No matter what the process is called, it usually comprises multiple stages, starting with completion of hiring paperwork and (in some cases) ending only when the employee leaves the company. Here's how to make sure that things go smoothly when onboarding new employees.  

Preparation Period

Preparation covers the span of time before new employees arrive for their first day. This is the perfect time to complete as much paperwork as possible: Everything from completion of tax forms, proof of citizenship, and forms covering agreement to industry regulations and corporate policies can be completed digitally in today’s business world. Completing as much paperwork as possible in advance saves valuable time for new employees as well as for training staff during those critical first days.

This is also the perfect time to provide new employees with all they need to know for their arrival on their first day, including where to report, how to obtain a badge, parking procedures, orientation/training schedules and dress code. The end goal for this period of time is to complete repeatable processes that could detract from interaction on Day 1 and to ensure that new employees are prepared to start off with minimal workflow issues and plenty of time to focus on critical corporate orientation tasks.

Orientation Day(s)

Many companies have a formal orientation process that spans anywhere from one day to a week or more. During this time, non-role-specific information about the company should be conveyed. This is the perfect opportunity to provide historical background on the company, what its core values are, how those core values are addressed in the day-to-day goings-on of the company, organizational structure and general skills training. It’s also wise during this time to address compliance training for anti-harassment processes, insider trading, security, and corporate and/or industry regulatory mandates. 

There are a few things that are often overlooked during this period that can add to the stress of a new staff member. Training on topics such as business travel rules, expense reporting, and use of the corporate intranet and service desk tends to take place later on the onboarding timeline--typically after the point when the staff member actually needs the information. Providing introductory training in these areas is key to ensuring new staff members are performing effectively and efficiently as they become comfortable in their roles.

Onboarding Your New Database Administrator

This brings us to the most critical--and longest--period of integrating new employees: the months-long process of bringing them up to speed on the technical role for which they were hired. Once the general orientation process ends, it’s time for new employees to join their teams and begin learning more about how people with their skills are utilized in the company, how their team operates, and how their team interacts with other teams in the enterprise. I prefer to break down this period of onboarding new employees into phases that slowly ramp new hires up to complete productivity.

  • Phase One: Weeks 1-2

During this phase, it's critical that new DBA hires are introduced to key staff on teams with which they will be working. In any organization teams can tend to get siloed;  fostering collaboration from the get-go with new employees will help break down or, even better, avoid departmental walls.  

It’s important to understand that while there will be opportunities to contribute within the first few weeks of hiring, new staff members should not be expected to be thoroughly productive the minute they join the team. The team lead, manager or director must make decisions about how aggressive the onboarding process will be at this time, and these decisions will determine whether employees have long careers with the company or leave before coming into their own at their new jobs.

The first couple weeks is an ideal time for providing new team members with deeper dives into the tools and processes that will be used in their roles: monitoring tools, help desk software, programming languages (including corporate coding style guides), change control processes, on-call policies/procedures and version control practices, to name just a few.

Training should cover these topics at a level that assumes the level of knowledge for the role new employees were hired to fill, or slightly below that level to allow for leveling-up. The key is to not overwhelm new hires, but to provide enough information and hands-on exposure that they can effectively (and safely) explore and learn on their own. It’s also best to talk in a language they’re comfortable with based on their area of expertise.

In the case of DBAs, it’s realistic to assume that they will not have production access to all mission-critical systems during this period. To ensure that they can still work with and learn about these systems, they should be given DBA-level rights to a test or demo environment. It’s especially important during these initial weeks to provide DBAs with access to all the monitoring tools they’ll be utilizing in their role. In many cases these tools will be familiar from previous jobs, but not always. And, even if new hires have used the same monitoring tools in the past, the tools may be used differently in the new company. Further, controlled access to these tools (and time spent perusing their dashboards) will provide a good overview of the organization's various environments (production, staging, development, etc.), instances and databases without direct exposure to the specific environments in which a new staffer could accidentally cause harm.

  • Phase Two: Weeks 3-12

By the end of this phase new hires should be hitting a “moderate” level of proficiency in the new position. Even if new hires are already very good at what they do, it does not mean they’re proficient in how things are done at the new company. That is why I set a soft goal of having new DBAs acquainted with necessary tasks and concepts by the end of the third month. These include:

  • Knowledge of the database instances and associated databases
  • Where and how documentation is maintained
  • Maintenance processes such as backups, restore testing and index maintenance
  • Password management
  • Ticketing process
  • Change management process
  • Security processes and policies
  • Understanding of pain points, regularly occurring performance issues and technical debt with applicable workarounds.
  • Interfaces, ETL processes, and an understanding of how the data is entered, stored and processed
  • Understanding of any other additional third-party tools used by the team

At the end of the third month I assess whether new DBAs are ready to go on-call for the first time. Regardless of how well prepared I think they are, this first time on-call is always a team effort--either with another team member shadowing or simply being available as a resource at any hour of the day for that first on-call cycle. The key at every phase is to make new team members comfortable in their roles and ensure that they realize they’re never really alone.

Conclusion

It’s said that 90% of employees decide whether to remain with a new company within the first six months of their employment, yet most companies provide only the base level of general orientation before turning the process over to the various teams to manage their own process of onboarding new employees. It’s understandable that formalizing and documenting an onboarding process inside a technical team is hard. The process may not appear to directly influence the bottom line, but it really does. The payoff comes over time, after creating a solid team of technicians who not only enjoy what they do but also where they do it.

The process of onboarding new employees also must be reviewed and updated on a regular basis, not only as practices and policies change at the corporate level, but also as staff grow, learn and improve upon existing processes. The first three months of employment are all about acquainting established DBAs into new roles in a new organization. Once that period is over, DBAs can effectively integrate ideas and skills from past experiences into their new environments, leading to growth and wins for the individual, the team and the company.

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