How To Onboard Software Engineers The Easy Way With Kristen Buchanan
How do you onboard software engineers the easy way? By using Edify! Rich Blakeman's guest in this episode is Kristen Buchanan, the Founder and CEO at Edify. Edify uses their Slack-native bot application called Eddy. Kristen explains that Eddy collects and organizes useful information from your team. It then delivers this information to your new hires. Result? Your new hires achieve productivity faster without having to depend on another person! Join in the conversation to learn more about Edify. Tune in!
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How To Onboard Software Engineers The Easy Way With Kristen Buchanan
I am thrilled to introduce you to Kristen Buchanan. She is the Founder and CEO of Edify. You’ll learn a little bit more about that during the course of the show. I have to tell you that given what I know about Kristen already, this is going to be an enlightening and entertaining, as well as enjoyable conversation. Kristen, welcome. I’m glad to have you here. If you’d like to say anything else about introducing yourself, great. Otherwise, we’ll jump in with all four feet.
Thank you so much for having me. I will try hard to make sure that it’s at least one of those three E words. Enjoyable, maybe or entertaining, perhaps.
If I asked the right questions, then we’ll probably get to the entertaining. I’ll probably jump right in there because you’re a Renaissance Woman from my perspective. You start with synchronized swimming. You then jumped from synchronized swimming to museum exhibits. You jumped from museum exhibits, not just to doing AmeriCorps, which a lot of people do AmeriCorps in their life, but AmeriCorps with underserved entrepreneurs. You jumped from underserved entrepreneurs to developing and deploying new learning modalities at AWS. You leap from that to deploying and developing the same thing in your own business.
That’s an interesting very quick path. I want to know about its root. In my experience, the root of these things starts when you’re 6, 7 or 8 years old. There are things that you love to do when you’re 6, 7 or 8 years old. They start to develop who you are. Let’s talk a little bit about the 6 or 7-year-old Kristen. What was she like? What did she like to do in the summer? What did she like to do when she was alone in her spare time? What were your passions when you were a child?
I love this question. It’s such a novel way to approach a background. Everyone wants to ask you, “What’s your story? Where did it come from?” What I hope to do is show them the through-line. I agree with you that it started very much when I was a kid. It depends on how you look at it, but I was always being either scolded or checked in on for being a little bit bossy as a kid. I liked to coordinate things as a little kid. I didn’t like to play with the dolls. I just wanted to set them up. I wanted to build these exhibits. I was very into nature, collecting things, and organizing things. I like to organize people and put on little plays and things like that.
I was about 10, 11 when I first got in trouble for one of my first businesses. I was raised a Catholic. If you know anything about that, you’ve probably seen holy cards. They’re like the baseball cards of saints for Catholics. I had figured out how to print them off. I was using our family computer that was in the kitchen, everybody could see, back when you didn’t all have individual laptops, iPads and things like that.
I would print them off and we had a home laminator because my dad was a business owner. I would laminate them and cut them up, and then I would sell them during Sunday school. I got in trouble for doing that. That was one of my first forays into business. It continued from there. As a kid, my parents nurtured those things though. The scolding for being bossy never came from my parents. It came from school administrators.
Other people thought it was appropriate.
Make sure you're comfortable running your own life.
There are a lot of conversations about how young girls are socialized, how we talk to girls about leading something, whether or not they’re supposed to be more demure and less talkative. Over time, I ended up developing a coping strategy because I did want to be the first to talk. I would notice that if nobody else in the room didn’t say anything for about 30 seconds, then it was a green light that I could say something. Over time, I learned to be a little bit more tactful. It certainly was something I’ve always had.
My experience with that is I have a 40-year old daughter. She is a fiercely independent, strong-minded businesswoman. Your story about dolls and you weren’t interested so much in playing with them but just setting them up. We first finished our basement and she had a Barbie room. It was unlike any doll room that you’ve ever seen before. It was just always set up perfectly in the way that she wanted it set up. She didn’t want anybody to touch it.
My sister and I had many arguments about this behavior.
She didn’t want to play it directly. She just wanted to make it right the way she wanted it to be.
I can relate to that. We’d probably be friends.
I get that. The one thing you skipped over was your dad was a business owner. How much did that play into you now being a Founder-CEO?
It has a lot to do with it. My dad did things that are pretty different from what I did. He did commercial real estate for a time. He was in insurance for a time. He was a writer throughout all of that, so that was another business for him. For the most part, as a child, he was self-employed. He was running his own business. I would sit at the table and help him stuff envelopes. I always got the modeling of this as a normal path of life. It’s not abnormal.
There are always balancing forces and parents. My mom is a little bit more risk-averse. She has always had a steady, stable job and made sure that she excelled at that job, which was helpful in many times when my dad’s businesses may not have been weathering a recession well or things like that. I always knew that it was okay to be a business owner. It’s actually good. You could go out and do those things that you wanted to do. I jokingly tell people that I’ve always had an authority problem. It’s not so much that I don’t want to work for somebody else. It’s just that I ask too many why questions. It can be irritating and at the worst, it can end a little threatening for some people. I pattern that after my dad, for sure. I have him to thank for that.
My son is in the second business that he runs. He does have an authority problem. He has no desire to work for anyone else ever. He has in his past worked for other people. He grew out of it and decided that he wants to do things his way, so he does.
A lot of people come to me now because this is also my second business. I started my first business back in 2014 and didn’t go full-time on that until early 2015. A lot of people ask me, “How did you find the comfort or the risk level to jump out on your own?” For me, it was less about concern over those things. My advice to people is to try to make sure that you are comfortable running your own life. Are you comfortable being the one who calls the shots? If not, then perhaps running a business is not quite right for you.
There’s a balance there. I’m thrilled that you said running your own life because there’s a longtime client-friend of mine. He’s a senior executive for a large company, who wrote a book called The Balance Myth. You'd love it. On the cover are a stiletto and a running shoe. The major theory of the book is that if you're striving to create a work-life balance, you have created the wrong assumption. If you're trying to create life balance, then that's something you can accomplish. If you try to separate work from life and try to balance that, you’re going to lose because of the assumption that you’ve made.
I haven’t read that book but over the years, I have on and off read different posts, different people’s thoughts on these things, and listened to different podcasts. Ultimately, I’m not in the happy-go-lucky camp of, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s not true either, at least not for me. What I do is extremely hard work and I am up at night thinking about it sometimes.
At the same time, I create a lot of boundaries in my work. I make sure that I have time for my dogs, my family, my gardening, for other things that I want to do. You’re not going to catch me on the phone at 7:00 PM unless there is an absolute emergency or something is really going wrong. I can’t even think of a time when we did that. Unless we’re having a business dinner, then that’s pretty much it.
I get it. Let’s jump into your business a bit. How do you onboard highly introverted and highly technical individuals into any variety of software technologies quickly, more efficiently and effectively, and get them up to speed in what is a very cross-functional organization now, compared to where they could be put into a box? How do you get that done through your business?
There are a couple of things that go into it. First is making sure that you understand the group of people that you’re working with. For us, we’re talking about software engineers. Many of the characteristics that you talked about are true for this group of people like anything, there are outliers. In general, what we find is that when you can truly empathize with the person that you were trying to support, then it goes a lot better.
I have some experience from two different directions doing this. My background, you mentioned museum studies. When I was studying, I specialized in Adult Learning and Non-Traditional Environments. What that meant was, how do people learn outside of a classroom? The bulk of adult learning is outside of the classroom. You’re not going back to sit in a college course or any place that really is a classroom. In fact, a lot of corporate learning and development are in the basement of the hotel or the ballroom. Now with COVID, we don’t do that anymore, but none of that stuff was working anyway.
We found over the years when I started my first business in 2014 that engineers are underserved in learning and development. It was actually challenging for them to get the knowledge that they needed in order to be successful in doing their jobs. These are smart and very creative people who also happen to be highly paid and highly sought after. It’s challenging for them when they get into a company and they feel like they don’t know how to be effective. That can produce a lot of churns. People will leave an organization because of that.
Learn to communicate with somebody who's not from your field.
When I started to dig into this is because I had friends who were software engineers. They were starting new jobs and we would have coffee and they were frustrated with their experience of onboarding. I would ask them some Socratic questions because my background is in questioning, learning and development.
I found that they were not feeling like they were empowered to ask questions to their managers. We would game plan out, “Here are some things that you could ask your managers that would probably help you get the knowledge you needed.” Over that period of time, from 2014 to the early part of 2020, I had developed that methodology. I called it the Learning Touchpoint Matrix.
Over time, I realized that there were four big areas of software engineering onboarding knowledge. You could apply them actually anywhere, not just in software engineering. They’re true for sales, marketing and everywhere else. Those big four areas are product, what are we building? Whether that's an internal product for our own company or an external product we sell to customers. Process, how are we building that product? Professional expectations, how are we behaving? What are the norms in our culture in this organization? Tooling or tech stack, what's the toolset that we use to build this product?
Pretty much all of the questions that a new hire is going to need to know are going to fall into those four categories. When I was a consultant in my first company, that was about me going to organizations and setting up a spreadsheet with all of this knowledge, and pulling information from whatever tools they were using, Confluence, GitHub or other places, and making sure that that was deliverable to a new hire.
I started to get frustrated because that’s a static spreadsheet. It’s one more thing to keep up to date. In engineering, things change very quickly. I started to look around to see if there were other tools that could solve this problem for me as a consultant. I couldn’t find anything. I would even play around with hacking on tools that existed already like Jira. For some clients, I would automate a workflow of Jira sending an email to say, “Here’s your next task.” That worked okay but it wasn’t what I wanted.
In 2018, a mentor of mine who was a two-time founder of software companies challenged me to think about it differently, "What if you could scale your behavior as a consultant into the software?" I was lucky enough to be able to take a sabbatical from that first business in the fall of 2019 or so. I spent the time reading about human behavior and thinking about what was good about what I offered as a consultant and what wasn’t. That then allowed me to come up with some ideas for a prototype.
That’s a whole story in and of itself going from prototype to funded startup, with customers and all of those interesting things. That’s a long way of answering how to do it but ultimately, the system behind it is simple. It’s about human communication, what are the types of knowledge that we need, and how do we need to receive that information in order to act on it?
What’s interesting to me is that 8 out of 10 people that I would talk to in a software CEO position came from the developing root of it, rather than they came from the commercial side, or rather than they came from a capital market side, or some other twist. You didn’t describe that in technical terms. You described it in behavioral terms because that’s what you’re dealing with when you talked about the quadrant of the four things that could be applied to anything and described it in a way that even a 46-year sales leader could understand. That’s unusual.
I’m honored that you would say that. I would also challenge those others that are perhaps using their own technical language to describe something to ask themselves, “Are you able to communicate this to somebody who’s not from your field?” I could use the learning and development language and the academia of it but it’s pretty useless in this conversation.
Since this is labeled an AI show, let’s jump into a little bit of the technology of it. How does the technology serve your user clients and your business as a result?
At a high level, Edify is a platform that allows an engineering manager or an engineering leader to develop their own onboarding plan and to build it. We lead them through a set of best practices on doing that without interacting with another person, although we have services to help if they need it. Once they’ve developed that, we deliver that information to a new hire via Slack. We have a bot called eddy. Eddy has a little bit of a personality based on a couple of different factors around that new hire when they’re starting like what time zone and things like that.
Eddy is delivering certain amounts of information and types of information every day based on that new hire’s needs. Let’s say that the new hire is you, Rich. You’d get a message from Eddy saying, “Rich, welcome. It’s your first day. Here are the things that you need to do,” and it lists out your tasks. At the end of the day, eddy would come back to you and say, “Were you able to get these things done?” It can then lead you through a process of getting help or delaying those tasks if you need more time.
Eddy has some intelligence to be able to know who can it connect you with to help you solve certain problems. All of this is going to continue for your first 30 days. You then transition to being able to use the product differently as a team member, search and find information, and coordinate better with your team members.
To a degree, can I call eddy an AI bot?
You may technically call it that. It’s definitely a bot. It lives inside of Slack for a new hire’s experience and for a manager. It has got a web dashboard that they log into, which is so interesting. Speaking of human behavior, when we set out to build this prototype initially, our prototype first off was a human as a bot. I didn’t have any money, so I was trading with my Director of Product. She was running her own business and I was helping her with that, so she was helping me with product management.
She acted like a bot in a customer’s Slack environment. The poor thing was running things on Belfast in New York time for several weeks to just prove out that people would use “a bot.” In that process, we learned that the managers did not like using Slack. Slack was something that they had to use for their job because their teams wanted to do it. They didn’t love it but new hires love it. Individual contributors like it. We adapted to that with our product design.
If you want to be a good team member, you need to understand how your teammates like getting feedback or talking to you.
You heard me use the word introverts earlier, describing some of the population that you aim at. I’ve got this long-term belief that, for example, in the diversity and inclusion movement, one of the most underserved populations in tech if you’re looking for a bias, the bias is against highly technical employees who are introverts by nature. People make assumptions about them regarding the fact that their being introverted implies X, Y and Z. Nine times out of ten, or 99 times out of 100, those are not true. Yet we do know diversity or inclusion work around the introverted members of technology. How do you sense the ability and the capability of people who are introverted, who are joining into a new software engineering group to be able to work with your environment and with your toolset?
I would put this under the umbrella of accessibility, the idea of whether or not your company, technology or building is accessible to people. Neurodiversity is something that we are pretty uncomfortable talking about. It’s much easier for us as a workforce to talk about gender or race. While those things do need to be discussed and it’s certainly valid to have questions about power structures around that, especially when we think about hiring and training, we get overly comfortable with the idea that we’re going to get certain kinds of feedback.
We're going to understand that people enjoy training or that they interact with us a certain way. The reality is that when you think about a neurodiverse spectrum, people who may just be introverted or on the Asperger’s or autism spectrum may not give you the feedback or behave in a conversation the same way that you might expect somebody who is not on that spectrum to behave.
For example, this can have impacts on the eye contact that people make, how exhausted they might be from video calls or in-person meetings. They might have a hard time reading body language and the way that we interact. They may prefer to take in information differently. They might want to act on information differently. I was having a conversation with somebody about the complexity of something which sounds very simple, and in pop culture has become very simple or simplified. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple, which is the concept of learning styles.
The research on learning styles is that there is evidence to suggest that there are different modalities where somebody might prefer to go out, physically. Let’s take learning a sport like basketball, for example. Somebody might prefer to get out there with no instruction and start trying to learn how to dribble. Some people might prefer to sit down, watch a video, listen and watch somebody else do it. Those are just two examples of many types of learning styles.
The interesting part of that is that there’s not much research to suggest that outcomes are very different if you have somebody learn in a style that is not their preferred style. What changes is their motivation to learn and to be engaged. That activity is different. What we leave behind, which we ought not to do, is the idea that people and communication are complex. We cannot simplify it even with an AI tool. With eddy, our product, we’re even trying to think about how do we ask learners, how they might want to receive information, interact and deliver feedback.
Something simple that we do in our company in our team now is something we jokingly called the user manual. When you buy a new appliance, you get the manual. We write our own manuals. For example, “I like to receive feedback in this way. I prefer getting praise, not in public or I do prefer getting praise in public.” It gets more complicated than that, but it allows us all to understand how we want to interact with the world and how we want others to interact with us.
Now there’s no excuse. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time with this person on the other side of the business, you can go read their user manual if you want to be a good team member. You can understand how they’d like to get some feedback, talk to you or be talked with. Hopefully, that’s an interesting or helpful answer to that question.
It’s an interesting subject. I’m glad to know that you’re able to adapt, which is probably the most important thing that AI can do. They can give you the flexibility to do versus hard-coded software of any kind. You can adapt, change and morph. Speaking of which, where does AI let you go next?
I love this question because it’s a question about what’s our roadmap, and what’s the way that we're going to respond to customers. The fascinating thing about building a product company that you don't see in building a services company is when you put something new into the world. Some businesses create a product that is the better mousetrap and some businesses create something that hasn't existed before.
Truth be told, there is not an engineering onboarding product on the market. In fact, it presents its own sales challenges to us. That’s what we’re building. We had to put something out there and get customer feedback. What happens is their horizon line changes. It pushes forward and customers can start to say, “Two months ago, I didn’t think this could happen. I didn’t think this would exist, now that I see that it’s working and I can do this, I want this.”
That’s 50 yards down the trail if you will. “I want it now,” and you as a product development person need to say, “How about in a couple of weeks or a couple of months?” You got to make sure that you don’t sell vaporware or things that don’t actually exist. Unless you want to be the classic startup and do things that don’t scale, some of which we do in our own company. That can help you learn, what does a customer need? How are they using this product? What is the next thing that they need to be able to solve that they think they should be able to solve with your product?
For us, what that tangibly looks like is that you can expand the moment of onboarding in many different places in an organization. You can be a five-year veteran of a company and onboard again when you change teams. Let’s say the CTO is rolling out a new framework that we’re all going to start using, that's an onboarding experience for everybody in the company or the engineering team.
We are trying to think about how we might expand our customer’s ability to re-onboard and to constantly support the new learning needs of their team members. We think about it as learning and adapting, and not training. We don’t put ourselves in the learning and development or the HR industries. We think about, “How do we enable engineering teams to grow and adapt to their own changing environments?” That’s what drives us.
On one side, I hear you say that feature enhancement is driven by what the customer wants to buy. On the other side, if I really expand my mindset, this is a change management tool. It can do any kind of change management down to the corporation, the private equity owner, or anyone that’s trying to shift change in the organization that requires behavior change. Your organization can deploy it through this view, which means you’re either going this way or you’re going this way.
Very narrow or widening out. This is such a central question for us in our own business, our product development, our vision. What I can tell you is I’m a very pragmatic person. I have always jokingly said our vision is to serve the engineering organization because there’s so much unmet need there. The tools are not that great from a behavior and knowledge standpoint. We think that there are deep depths to plumb there. If the market tells us otherwise, then we should pay attention to that.
If you catch me not in a business owner and you asked me how am I going to properly lead this business way, and I’m just daydreaming and it’s a Friday afternoon, then what I’ll probably tell you is this is a tool that could be deployed in so many different ways, not just for the engineering. I’ve worked with many organizations that have either been acquired or have acquired a company, and how painful that process usually is.
You have to believe your customer needs your product.
There’s re-onboarding of people, explaining the processes, the knitting together of the value systems, and redoing comments. There’s so much change that has to happen and it’s usually very poorly done. There’s only so much diligence that can be done in the M&A process. You end up with this like, “We’re this company now.”
One out of eight of them succeed.
What ends up happening is they just acqui-hire that group of people essentially and lay off the rest. That’s unfortunate because this is a very human process that really is a change management and behavior process. What’s exciting to me as a person who tries to be a student of humans and of understanding how we are interacting and communicating, and could we do things better to understand each other better, is that this product could do all of that.
All of the other times that are not the Friday afternoon daydream times is where you start to have to say, “What can we raise money on? What can our customers buy? How much will they buy it for? What can they see as useful now versus their Friday afternoon daydreaming time?” It’s a very good tension to have. If you don’t have something bigger that’s driving you, then it can be very challenging to get through the more tough parts of running a startup.
We’re coming down the homestretch here. Two questions. One is this show is entitled AI for Sales. You opened the door when you mentioned it. Have you applied this technology to your own sales team?
Everybody at Edify, when they join, gets the eddy onboarding experience so that they can truly empathize with our customers, and they can understand what are they going through. In fact, we do it not just so that they understand it, but also you’ve heard the phrase dogfooding or drinking your own champagne to make sure that people can offer feedback. Sometimes your customers actually won’t tell you, some of your customers will. We apply it in that way.
Our sales team is small, it’s me and an SDR, as an eleven-person startup. Hopefully, one day that’ll be bigger and different. We don’t necessarily apply eddy in that way. We’re constantly in our team demos so that we understand what are the changes that are happening in this product so that we can connect those dots of what our potential customers are asking for.
That’s a lovely experience of being so close to sales still. I always tell people that if you are a founder and you think that you are going to hire someone to do the sales part that you don't like, you're probably not going to run a successful company very long. You've got to like sales. You have to believe that your customer needs this.
If you have successfully matched the problems your customers are experiencing with the product that you designed for them, and you got good feedback on that and improved it, they will need this product. You have to believe that, then it’s not uncomfortable. It’s not sales in that classical way that people don’t like. By constantly being close to our customers and our product, we can do that as a sales team.
Give me your Friday afternoon after two glasses of wine perspective on where could this technology take the sales profession.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff. In the past years, the concept of sales enablement has become institutionalized. It wasn’t always that way. Some organizations do it well and others don’t. There are tons of tools. There are whole learning management systems for sales. There are training systems, collateral holding systems, and knowledge management tools.
It’s all in the name of, “Let’s give our sales team what they need to be successful in a conversation,” which is too simple of a question. That is diminishing the value of sales in an organization. I used to joke that whenever I used to onboard people in person at AWS Elemental, I always knew when I was onboarding salespeople versus engineers, not just because I had the roster but because salespeople dress nicer and they asked better questions. That’s a whole other conversation we could have.
You can’t have a business without sales. You can't have a business without engineering, at least in this kind of business, but you absolutely need sales. When we think about what eddy could do one day if we were to expand out from onboarding for engineering and solving engineering challenges, I think that this would be a tool that salespeople could engage with and get a lot of value out of, practice their conversations.
Eddy could be smart enough to help them, check through their messaging, whether that’s LinkedIn, outreach in their email and messaging so that somebody could help them walk through it. They could use eddy to switchboard through, “Who’s a senior member of the team that I can learn from?” We need that. We talk about engineering churn a lot, but sales have very high churn. It's pretty commonplace to say, “That person only spent a year here.” Why shouldn’t we be trying harder to keep our talented salespeople here? It’s not just about comp. It’s about how are they engaged and supported at the organization. A tool like eddy could be a useful one for them.
You challenged me, whether we would hit all of the E’s or not. I would make my own assessment that we did. This has been a great conversation, Kristen. I’m glad that you came on as a guest. The audience will have drawn a lot from it in a lot of different directions and take pieces away from it. With that, we’ll wrap things up. I thank you greatly for taking this time out of your busy day. That said, we wish you a good day and see you on the next episode. Bye now.
About Kristen Buchanan
Kristen Buchanan is the founder & CEO of Edify – the frictionless way to onboard software engineers. After years of building software engineering onboarding programs for teams all over the world, Kristen saw a gaping hole in the tools they needed to bring on their new hires and help them become successful. She founded Edify soon after, allowing engineering leaders to develop their own functional onboarding plans tailored to their teams that attract, keep, and grow great employees while helping them get back the time they need.