With Avanti Ketkar and Maria Robledo
"Here's your laptop, a link to all the documents and content, and the team you'll be leading. Good luck!"
Welcome to day one. This is fine.
Sounds familiar? It's not an uncommon onboarding reality for new employees in many companies and industries. While an abundance of information and access to a sea of new coworkers is overwhelming for any new employee, it can be particularly stressful for a new-to-the-company engineering leader. It's hard to feel confident and brimming with mojo to lead a team when you have minimal context or understanding of the company's culture, new development tools and processes, low trust in the bank, and a short runway to ramp up.
At Shopify, we don't subscribe to an onboarding model of "learning by fire" immersion. While intensive and challenging, our engineering onboarding program is built with intention and care to ensure that all new engineers, regardless of level, have the context and tools required to succeed in their craft and on their team.
This thoughtfully-curated onboarding experience is critical for leaders who come from another company. Although they bring their valuable experience and craft knowledge, those new to Shopify are new to everything Shopify. Their management peers who have been promoted internally to a leadership position might have years of context, understand the tooling and development practices, and have formed relationships.
When you’re new to a company, and leading a team, you don’t have in-depth company and product knowledge to lean on to help you confidently make decisions and feel impactful out of the gate. It takes time to get to know the organization, the culture, and the tech stack. Onboarding helps bridge that gap and reduce the time to impact by providing focused context and the opportunity to build relationships.
So, what’s it really like for new engineering leaders at Shopify? I asked Avanti Ketkar and Maria Robledo, who both joined the team this past year, to spill the tea about their first few months. They share their perspectives on how the onboarding experience helped them build context, relationships, and trust, and how that has helped them successfully integrate into their teams.
Tell Me About Your First Impressions.
Maria: Shopify was well organized and ready to welcome new hires. I received information before my start date to help me prepare. My hardware and well-appreciated swag arrived days in advance. I knew what to expect on my first day, and after a couple of hours, I knew what to expect over the next six weeks. At some companies, “onboarding” is over once you receive your laptop. This introduction was just the beginning of my onboarding experience.
Avanti: Shopify has one of the best onboarding programs I’ve experienced. It was evident how much time, thoughtfulness, and planning goes into getting engineers up to speed. The program enables all new employees to connect with the company’s mission and connect with merchants at a deeper level. It covers the fundamentals of many aspects of the business, including product, engineering, marketing, and support. Building this context is crucial to being effective in any role at Shopify. While onboarding, I always kept my engineering leadership role at the back of my mind.
Maria: The first week is about creating a shop and understanding the admin. Usually, I learn by doing, and it's tough. It's impactful to have time to understand the product and to learn about merchants and their potential issues. To have time entirely dedicated to that was amazing.
What Surprised You the Most?
Maria: The first thing that stood out was the time I had to properly onboard. And onboarding not just to my team but also to Shopify in general. We went through the process of setting up test shops to build empathy with our merchants and walk in their shoes. It was incredible to have the time to do that at the start. Shopify truly is merchant obsessed.
The second surprise was that my primary objective early on was to focus on learning and building relationships. I had time allocated to learning about Shopify, my team, our engineering practices, hiring, and building my internal network. WHAT?! This was a new experience, and I was a bit hesitant. I thought, "For more than a month, I won't have any responsibilities other than getting to know my new company? Let's see if this is true after one week." Well, it was true.
Avanti: Yes, the extent of onboarding was surprising. In the beginning, I sometimes thought I was learning TOO much. We had many teams onboarding together, and I wasn't sure I needed all of this context. After working with my team for a while, I realized the importance of some of the context and projects. For example, when I started on my team, I wanted to do a PR (pull request) and needed a test shop. I could draw from what I'd already done in onboarding and ship quickly. More surprising than the extent of the onboarding was how much you use it to connect the dots later, and it becomes more apparent how valuable that onboarding content is.
Maria: Admittedly, onboarding also caused me some mild internal conflict. In my first days, I felt guilty about not being productive in terms of delivering impact for the company. I am not used to having “learning” as the primary focus. Fortunately, my manager, colleagues, and coach helped me overcome my perception.
The Onboarding Program Goes Into Our Missions and Values. Have You Seen These Being Used “In the Wild”?
Maria: In many companies, the mission is thoughtful, and values are clear and well-documented. But that doesn't mean they're relevant or helpful in employees' day-to-day lives. At Shopify, we try to use the mission and our values to inform decision-making.
Our mission to "Make Commerce Better For Everyone" isn't just something that's said; it's something that's lived. I know, I know. That sounds like I'm drinking the Kool-Aid. But it's true! I see it used to drive innovation and new product features, to help merchants troubleshoot issues, resolve conflicts, and make decisions. All company values shape the culture, but "Be Merchant Obsessed" stands out over the rest. I built a shop during my first week to understand the merchant journey. Building a shop gave me a clear view of the product and the user experience. In my second week, I read and heard actual merchant requests, learned how to solve them, and got a first-hand understanding of the impact we generate by providing timely answers.
Avanti: Yes. At every step, actually. Particularly, the merchant obsession piece always comes up. I am working on a project where we are focusing on the consumer side. And it's incredible that we still talk about merchants more than the buyers because we are merchant obsessed. We are a merchant-focused company, and irrespective of what we are doing, that remains our focus. And I think it's great to see that exemplified over and over.
Yes, Merchants are Great and We are Obsessed with Them. But Talk About Shopifolk! Great People Work Here.
Maria: It’s true. I think it comes back to our values. Every Shopifolk I’ve met has been kind, friendly, and welcoming. Everyone has gone far and beyond to make me feel I am in the right place at the right time. I acknowledge that this sounds like a hackneyed phrase, but it's true.
Avanti: Yeah, absolutely. I've also built great connections with people from my onboarding cohort. One is an engineering leader, and we still do monthly one-on-ones. We share context and stay in touch. So it was helpful to have those connections. I also work closely with someone I onboarded with on a project. So it's been a great experience and important in a remote company.
How Has the Onboarding Experience Impacted Your Integration into Your Team?
Maria: New to the team, I had the space, tools, and information needed to quickly become a productive team member. After onboarding, I would say that you have a high-level understanding of Shopify, where to find information, and who you should talk to. That's impactful and helps you focus on continued learning within your team. I invested time in learning and observing key processes of the organization (e.g., hiring, sourcing, assessing performance, establishing delivery goals for the upcoming cycle) and understanding our goals, teams, and projects. I didn't suffer from context switching and was able to build critical context fast to ensure future impact.
Avanti: I think in my case, there was a lot of general knowledge that I had about Shopify after onboarding. Like how to set up shops and how the admin works. Those were foundational pieces that I could build on with team-specific context and the deep technical knowledge needed to build shipping products.
Learning is Never Over. How Do You Continue to Grow?
Maria: I'm very intentional about when I'm learning and what I'm learning. I block time in my schedule specifically for learning. Otherwise, the day gets away from me, and then I don't have that time. So I'm very protective of that time. I also focus on all the areas that are part of my products to ensure I understand where we are heading.
Avanti: Learning and development are a big part of Shopify culture. Many resources are available to help you accelerate learning and develop the skills you need to be effective at your job. I looked at my first six months as an opportunity to focus on learning (under the name of a newbie!). I read as many internal documents as possible, took several e-learning courses on various technologies, read books, and learned a ton from conversations with my colleagues. This has been an excellent way for me to enter a new domain and experience the “learning spike.” Dedicating time to this process has been fantastic, and I plan on continuing to take learning seriously. Just like building context, this is already proving to be very useful. Leading a new project and multiple new teams of engineers is becoming a smooth experience only because of all the focus on learning the fundamentals–both on the technical side and the culture side.
What Are Your Top Three Tips for New Hires?
- Building context or learning never ends. Extensive, well-maintained documentation and training are available to provide context on a wide range of topics. I'm new to Ruby on Rails, or I was new to Ruby on Rails. You'll learn a lot in onboarding, but continue digging into your craft, product area, and merchant pain points.
- Engineers here are highly technical. As I see it, it is a product-focused company driven by technology. As I stepped into my engineering leadership role, it was good for me to get closer to the daily development process of my team. As I read a lot of technical documentation and watched videos on architecture and internal system designs, it was vital for me to write some code. I started pairing with developers early to understand the development process and the whole CI\CD pipeline. This was crucial, particularly in my case, since I came from a strong .NET background and was new to Ruby and Rails.
- Develop strategies for managing remote work, navigating time zones, and communicating asynchronously. I'm in California on PST. And a lot of my team are on the east coast. The time zone difference is vast. So being mindful about that and scheduling around it has been handy for me.
- Take it easy. Take your time to learn and set boundaries. Be patient as you navigate your new role. After you build a foundation you'll be able to go deeper.
- Create the network and make connections, and not only professionally. Take the time to get to know your colleagues personally as well, and take advantage of in-person gatherings when you can. Working remotely requires you to build empathy and understanding of others.
- I echo what Avanti said. Be open to learning and ask as many questions as you can. Don't be shy. Ask a lot of questions because people will help you find the answers. Be very intentional about booking time to learn.
What Advice Would You Give a New Leader at Shopify?
Avanti: Maria mentioned it earlier, but build relationships. That is essential and goes a long way, not just with your reports or your team, but beyond that. To lead effectively, you need to understand people. It's much harder to do it remotely when you only see one-fourth of them. Meeting in person has a different vibe where you know more things. Remotely, you have to go an extra step to build those relationships. Understand what they're working on and what they're looking for. Where are the gaps? What support you can give them and vice versa. So having those one-on-one connections has been super valuable for me. And that has made the other work easier because now I know, "Oh, this person can do this, or this person needs help here. I need to plug in here."
Maria: When you're new, you come fresh and have new eyes. Over time, we probably get used to our routine, and maybe we can improve that with a fresh perspective. So for me, it's important that as a new hire, after experiencing the team for a few months, is what things they believe we can do better? What things can we improve? And it's about how you see that we can do better.
Avanti: Also, don't lose touch with your core craft. Even though you're leading a team, sometimes it's advantageous to plug into the ground-level details and understand what's happening at the technical level. Keeping up with your technical craft also helps build trust with your team.
Avanti Ketkar is a Sr. Development Manager on the Shipping and Buyer Trust teams. She has a strong Software Engineering background and focuses on building highly motivated, fast-paced, global product development teams. She participates in several women in technology initiatives and is passionate about promoting diversity in the technology industry. Avanti earned her master's degree in Computer Science from Texas A&M University and a bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering from India.
Maria Robledo is a Director of Engineering on the Payments team. She has a strong academic background and 20 years in the software development industry. Maria is passionate about technology, mobile apps, agile methods, lean practices, team organization inside large-scale companies, and child education through new technologies. She is energized by working in a challenging environment where she can lead teams to understand and solve complex problems, fulfill their goals, learn, and increase their capacity over time.
If building systems from the ground up to solve real-world problems interests you, our Engineering blog has stories about other challenges we have encountered. Visit our Engineering career page to find out about our open positions. Join our remote team and work (almost) anywhere. Learn about how we’re hiring to design the future together—a future that is digital by design.