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Developer Onboarding Is Like An Escape Room

Ashley Swanson

Technical onboarding strives to teach new developers everything, as quickly as possible, while setting them up for success. And yet many onboarding programs create bad environments for learning. Why? Because developer onboarding is rarely informed by how adults learn.

What would the developer onboarding process look like if it used adult learning theories? Like an escape room.

What are Adult Learning Theories?

Andragogy is the science of helping adults learn. It is an academic term that covers the different models and theories on how the adult mind adds new knowledge.  

In broad strokes, adult learning theories define adults as self-directed learners, who learn through doing. As learners, we use our past experiences to absorb new knowledge. And we retain new information when we can put it into practice by solving a problem.  

All that seems obvious, yet engineering onboarding ignore these theories. Programs will be built around rote memorization, the strict enforcement of just one right way to do something, and that just throwing a new hire into the codebase will teach them everything. This is onboarding that stifles learning.[]

Escape rooms naturally prompt our adult minds to learn, because they are designed around actively using new information to solve problems, connect the dots to a larger context, and rewards learning with immediate success. 

By designing your technical onboarding around interactive tasks, you can increase the sense belonging for your new hire, reward their self-directed learning and fit their individual progress into the larger goals of your engineering team.

Onboarding as Puzzle Solving

When a player first enters an escape room, there’s an overwhelming amount of information. The player must orient themselves before they can figure out what’s the first puzzle they need to tackle. Then try to find the information they need to solve that puzzle. 

So what keeps the player from becoming overwhelmed and quitting? Because they get to be active learners. The information in the room is gathered through actions – opening boxes, twisting knobs, pushing buttons – instead of a giant wall of text. The player gets to pick and choose what they learn and when they learn. 

Escape rooms also allow their participants to fail. If a player enters in the wrong code and the puzzle fails to unlock, that doesn’t end the game. It increases the motivation in players to fix their mistakes, adjust their knowledge and try again. 

Good puzzles will also reward different styles of learning. For example, say the answer to a puzzle was a country’s flag. Player A excels at geography and relies on their previous knowledge to unlock the puzzle. Player B does not have any geography experience, so they become a self-directed learner and use the provided information in the room to succeed. 

Ideas for Technical Onboarding

- Define the setting – be clear about the unique aspects of the development environment and work standards

- Give your developers noncritical tasks that challenge their knowledge

- Like an escape room, connect each task to give a sense of progression

- And build your developer onboarding with many learning styles in mind

Onboarding is Team Learning

Escape rooms are meant to be tackled by a team of players, similar to how developer onboarding is a collaborative process between coworkers and the new hire. Knowledge-sharing among team members highlights different learning styles, and giving feedback increases the integration of a team. 

Teams learning together

- Share information they’ve discovered

- Talk about different strategies for tackling a puzzle

- Ask questions 

- Explain about how they solved similar problems

Mentors are vital to escape rooms too. A staff member will act as a guide to make sure players don’t get stuck in a puzzle or design element. The guide will even adjust the difficulty of the escape room if it seems like the players are having a frustrating experience.

Technical onboarding can strike a similar balance between challenging tasks and adjusting to an individual's rate of learning. 

Improving Poor Design

Poorly designed escape rooms are also similar to bad onboarding experiences. Missing information, confusing language or unclear goals can leave a negative experience. This contributes to a high turnover rate of skilled engineers.

Our onboarding tools are built for how adults learn. Edify helps make sure your onboarding design is sound, with learning theories and engineering best practices built-in. Developer onboarding with eddy means that the admin work is taken care of, so your new hire starts solving puzzles right away. Ask for a demo today!

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