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Virtual onboarding in the time of COVID-19: The new hire’s new normal

When I visited the Pinterest HQ to try out my commute in early March, I didn’t realize the trip would be my first and last in 2020.

Cindy Xinyi Zhang | Data Scientist, Experimentation and Metrics Science

On March 2nd, exactly one week before my full-time position at Pinterest started, I went to the company’s headquarters to try out my commute. I jotted down the time my bus arrived and noted exactly when I reached the building to calculate my precise commuting time. After all, you don’t receive the fancy ‘Data Scientist’ title without being at least a little nerdy. It was a busy Monday and I couldn’t find a seat on the bus.

A few days later, the recruiting team would send an email saying that Pinterest’s offices would be closed indefinitely and all employees were required to work from home; my new hire onboarding process was to be held online. That busy Monday trip turned out to be my only opportunity to visit the company’s offices in 2020.

I’m not a total stranger to Pinterest. I interned here last summer and loved everything about it. And now, I’ve been amazed by how well the company has been able to adapt to the new situation.

Enjoying an intern activity in 2019

[Virtual] Bootcamp

Act 1: Physical Onboarding, circa 2019 (as an intern)

The two-week onboarding bootcamp of a Data Scientist at Pinterest consists of two main components: Pintro and Basecamp. Pintro is a general introduction to Pinterest, including the mission of the company, benefits, understanding the user (Pinner), internationalization, interview techniques and more. Basecamp, geared toward new software engineers, data scientists, and product analysts, includes sessions on internal tools, data and engineering architecture at Pinterest. I became so passionate about our mission to inspire people in the first part, and dived deep into the engineering effort to make it happen in the second part.

Picture this: day one. The first slide pops on-screen, talking about topics that will be covered in the bootcamp: APIs, engineering architecture, security, Kafka, Django, Memcache, and more. For the statistics person that I consider myself, these names could mean less than a new language. My student bubble burst a bit, putting my inferiority complex in overdrive. Lucky for me, the bootcamp was purposefully designed to bring some common ground to people from a diverse range of backgrounds, and to develop a shared vocabulary companywide. It was fun learning how to swim with everyone else, and such a relief to know that I was not alone. I can honestly say, I absorbed more information in that week than I ever have!

After Basecamp, I moved onto my project focusing on human computation. My manager and mentor proposed a well-defined project with a clear timeline and milestones. They gave me enough independence to tackle it in my own way, while showing me a clear path towards success. My final proposal included a strategy that increased the accuracy of human labelling by 12%, with the potential to save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. As an intern, achieving such real-world impact through my project was exciting, especially since it could be measured on the same scale as the value of a San Francisco Bay Area house! I couldn’t have done this without Alanna — the best mentor!

My mentor Alanna & I at the office

During the internship, one of my regrets was that I buried myself so deep in my own project and left some of my questions unanswered if they were not directly related to my daily work. I didn’t think enough about the big picture: What is the underlying structure of our databases? What techniques are behind the databases? How do the fascinating internal tools work? Are there any gaps or overlaps among those tools? I realized that learning the context around my role is critical. Data Scientists work with data that’s already logged, stored, or even cleaned and pre-aggregated. It would be dangerous for me to assume that the tables would always be — magically — 100% error-free. It is absolutely necessary to know how engineers make things happen. Thankfully, I had a second chance when onboarding as a full-time employee to find answers to all these questions.

Act 2: Virtual Onboarding, circa COVID-19 (as a full-time employee)

New hires who joined Pinterest on March 9th were the first cohort of virtual onboarding, and I didn’t mind being the guinea pig for this new normal. All presenters were also new to this situation and many of them mentioned how different it was from just the previous week. They asked that we turn on our cameras, if we could, so it would be easier to see our reactions and interact with us. During presentations, they encouraged us to engage as much as possible through chats or just by jumping in with questions. The best part — most technical classes included a live coding lab.

On day one, our very first class was “How to spin up your very own Pinterest.com website in under an hour,” and it was such a confidence booster. As we went through the classes, senior engineers would monitor the Slack channel or Google Meet chat for possible issues. With the ability to share our screens, debugging the code or fixing configurations became painless. Luckily, the documentation had evolved, and the seasoned presenters knew of potential issues before we encountered them. In summary, nothing beats learning by doing.

I’d say that I loved the online Basecamp even slightly more than the first one I had in person. I definitely missed the part where I could chat with the new hires/interns sitting next to me, but in the virtual setting, I was able to revisit recordings and pause to take notes on important topics that I wasn’t familiar with. As someone who just graduated from school, rewatching “lectures” greatly helped my transition from academia to industry. Our Technical Program Manager Krystal organized all of the resources seamlessly including slides and useful links.The satisfaction of finally putting the pieces together in my mind and finding answers to my earlier questions was the best antidote to my anxiety around the virtual onboarding situation.

Apparently, I was not the only one who noticed that new hires wouldn’t be able to have conversations with each other like in the old days. To solve for this assimilation gap, new Pinployees were paired up in 1:1s and introduced to each other in a dedicated Slack channel. You might think that virtual conversations can never be as good as in-person ones, but (my pairing buddy) Colleen, and her cute kitten, would prove that they can be just as fun, if not more. Thank you Krystal and the People Team for being so thoughtful!

Onboarding Checklist & Buddy Onboarding Program

On my team, my manager Aidan prepared a thorough checklist for new hires. It covered the first 4 weeks with supportive links and prepared me more specifically for my role. I also continue to benefit from the Buddy Onboarding Program where each new hire gets personalized mentorship from an experienced team member. My onboarding buddy was Shu and we still hold 1:1s every week to discuss project details and Pinterest culture. The Buddy Onboarding Program was planned for 6 weeks, but we decided to keep it going in this new, virtual world. It’s such a relief to know an experienced teammate has my back when I am exploring new territory.

Another ‘secret’ haven that I discovered is the library of presentation videos by seasoned data scientists (we call it Analysis Weekly). It is the best place to learn how data scientists work at Pinterest, including what problems they are solving, what models or approaches they use, and how they turn data into stories. I think of it as the data science track in ‘Pinterest University.’

To continue adapting to this new reality, my team holds virtual team lunches and happy hours every week. We share updates on our personal accomplishments or discoveries, and reading, riding bicycles and our pets are the hot topics. Recently we’ve been trying out themed virtual lunches, where people suggest topics for discussion in advance. I had a good time scaring people with the thought that GPT-3 will one day take our jobs away. Another highlight from our virtual social events was the virtual escape room, where we solved puzzles online and also enjoyed Boba drinks. More ‘off-site’ events will come in the future: salsa making, painting pictures, etc., anything goes!

Tips for Virtual Onboarding

While the world around us changed before our eyes, my first six months at Pinterest felt like just a few days. Looking back, here are a few tricks that I found useful and will continue to follow. I hope they will be helpful for you, too.

At my desk in our new, virtual world

Search before asking

A remote situation is not always conducive to the multitude of questions that most new hires have upon starting at a company. With the proverbial “overhead cost” of asking a question being higher, I have been trying to ask with intention, and do my own due diligence first.

My protocol for asking a question: Google it; Search it in Slack history; Search it in our wiki or shared Google drives; if I’m still stumped, I’d ping my onboarding buddy or the subject’s corresponding Slack channel. More specifically, we can search inside Pinterest’s internal tools. For example, I would search others’ code in Datahub (Pinterest’s in-house big data portal), or relevant code in OpenGrok (A tool for across-repo searching).

Attend Workshops

Pinterest offers several professional development workshops which are promoted in our Slack channels and internal emails. So far, I have attended:

  • Productivity and Prioritization
  • Projecting Confidence & Credibility
  • Influential Communication
  • Strategic Thinking Skills
  • Feedback Skills
  • FutureU (Pinterest internal program on career planning)
  • Leadership by Harvard Business School Professors

I found these resources to be a strong complement to my orientation. They have been especially practical and helpful in my transition from student to employee.

Keep a day to day work doc

With my living room being my office, I needed a ritual to end daily work properly and establish a boundary between life and work. I usually spend 10 minutes at the end of the day writing down what exactly I did. It is surprisingly insightful for me to identify any bottlenecks to my work and later focus on addressing and solving them. What percentage of my day is spent on actively working and learning? What is the most time-consuming task? Was it worth the time? How long did it take me to fix my earlier mistake, and am I making the same kind of mistake? I’ll be sure to continue asking myself these questions and more, even after we go back to the office.

Starting my first job in such a difficult time is not what I had in mind while dreaming about and planning for my future in school, but I am very grateful for all the help I’ve gotten so far, and especially appreciate how Pinterest is supporting its employees in so many ways. It is a warm place for me to feel healed and inspired. I’m looking forward to finally meeting my team in person. Hopefully the time comes soon!

Back in the day at Pinterest HQ!

Virtual onboarding in the time of COVID-19: The new hire’s new normal was originally published in Pinterest Engineering Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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