Onboarding During a Pandemic


by Patrick Noonan

Onboarding During a Pandemic 

We live in an extremely connected world with ubiquitous access to the internet by all our devices: from refrigerators to speakers to the personal computers in our pockets.  The rapid pace of technological advancement and internet connectivity has also led to huge shifts in the labor market: never has it been so frictionless to hire and onboard employees in any part of the world.  The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this already existing trend and forced the business world to rapidly adopt a remote-working infrastructure.  

My Personal Experience – The Job Search and Hiring Process 

When the pandemic hit, I was actively seeking employment in the data science world.  Beyond the existential dread and shock of COVID-19, I worried that job opportunities would disappear as companies reduced headcount in an effort of self-preservation during these uncertain times.   I was in talks with several companies (at various stages of the interview process) and all of them removed their job listings as the crisis became more apparent.  I stayed positive during the initial months of the crisis by continuing to work on personal projects and applying to jobs. Eventually, there seemed to be more data science jobs – all of them remote.  Companies that had previously not considered offering telecommuting were now adopting a 100% remote workforce due to the pandemic.   

I found the Voice Systems Engineering opportunity on LinkedIn and it was intriguing: join a newly created “Data Driven Decisions” team to analyze challenging business problems using the latest ML and AI principles, implement self-evolving algorithms to improve the core business and collaborate with stake-holders to solve company-wide data needs.  The opportunity to leverage cutting-edge data science tools and make a company-wide impact were exactly what I was looking for.    

A few days after submitting my application, I was contacted with a chance to schedule an initial interview using Hirevue technology; an automated HR and onboarding service.  The initial round consisted of video questions and recorded responses.  It was intimidating at first, but Hirevue allows applicants to practice video responses leading to increased comfort in front of the camera.  I set up my appointment, did a few practice rounds and confidently answered the questions.   

After passing the first round, the next step was a series of live video interviews with several stakeholders, potential co-workers and leaders in the company.  Scheduling across time-zones was easily handled with Hirevue.  The interviews were friendly, yet focused – I received many poignant questions that dug into my experience, expectations, problem-solving skills, and technical knowledge.  I was also given ample opportunities to do my own prodding and information-gathering.  After several rounds of interviews I was still interested and hoped the feeling was mutual; I was delighted to receive an offer which arrived via Pandadocs: I e-signed the contract and the hiring process was complete. 

As the start date approached, my initial excitement of the new job started to wear off.  Slowly, worries crept in – how will I be onboarded remotely?  Will I be able to develop rapport with my co-workers?  Will I be forced to use a clunky company-issued laptop?   

Onboarding During a Pandemic  

As it turns out, my worries were completely unfounded.  The onboarding process was smooth, customizable and flexible.   

The first step was to access the Microsoft ecosystem.  I was given clear instructions on how to register my account using two-factor authentication.  In a few minutes, I already had access to all the key portals used to collaborate and communicate within the organization: Outlook for email, Teams for message and video chat, OneNote for note taking, and OneDrive for file collaboration.  The next step was connecting to the company network.  Being a technophile who is picky about which hardware I use, I was relieved to learn that I could continue using my personal laptop by accessing the network using a VMWare Horizon Client and a dedicated Windows Virtual Machine.  The VM is ideal because it is easy to increase processing power, create backups and access network drives.  There is no danger of losing work due to a laptop meltdown or hardware failure.  A big advantage is that the processing power is not used up by the local machine, but rather the virtual environment – all that is needed is an internet connection!   

After gaining access to the VM, I could now access the desktop version of PowerBI and Excel which are important tools for data analysis.  PowerBI gives use the power (pun indented) to create dynamic dashboards to allow for real time decisioning by stakeholders across the organization.   

While PowerBI is an important tool for data sharing, most of the analytical heavy lifting is accomplished in Anaconda, a framework for utilizing Data Science and Machine Learning tools –  specifically leveraging Jupyter Notebooks. It was seamless to install and launch Anaconda on the VM and before I knew it, I was querying our internal database, manipulating large sets of data and experimenting with an initial iteration of Topic Modeling.   

There were technical challenges of course: gaining the right permissions, installing the correct packages and connecting to internal servers.  Fortunately, VSE has a very collaborative and open work environment – everyone is available for a quick chat on Teams to help each other work through problems and discuss projects.  Teams calls not only helped solve technical issues but also to get to know co-workers and develop trust.  Although we were geographically distant and only communicating through screens, it felt natural and relaxed – as if we were in the same room together.   

Beyond the technical aspects of remote work, there is also the question of company culture.  How do employees interact?  How does a company support and cultivate a distinct culture?  What are the important company rituals which foster a sense of community and connectedness?  

Holacracy and Corporate Governance 

VSE operates under a unique system of governance called Holacracy, which essentially is a peer-to-peer “operating system…empowering all employees to take a leadership role and make meaningful decisions.”  Instead of departments and rigid job titles (manager, director, VP), VSE consists of circles and roles.  I joined the DDD (Data Driven Decisions) circle which is tasked with implementing The Sentient Enterprise vision: creating robust data structures and algorithms that allow for autonomous decision making using the latest AI and ML models.  In my roles as Analyst and Sentient Ambassador, I’m responsible for carrying out this vision using the latest and greatest data science tools and models.   

While all of this sounded exciting, it didn’t make complete sense until actually experiencing it.  In my first DDD forum meeting, we divided up potential projects: instead of rigidly assigning projects to each analyst, it was a collaborative discussion on who should take the project based on skill set and interest.  Through this organic process, I ended up with projects that I felt most excited about – including implementing Topic Modeling on our core data set using LDA models.  This project feeds my desire to push the limits of my data science knowledge and capabilities but also adds value to the company.  Based on previous projects and expertise, I also took on exciting projects involving web-scraping and market research.  Holacracy empowers each employee to pursue the work they find most impactful and energizing while eliminating the bureaucratic constraints typically found in traditional corporate structures.  

Communication and Camaraderie 

In the first week of work, I had a daily chats with the Lead Link of my circle (not quite a manager, more of a facilitator to help answer questions and set priorities) as well as other members of the DDD team.  The chats were informal and productive; we covered things like internal data sources, product nuances and company processes.  Additionally, part of the onboarding process was to meet with 2-3 business stakeholders per week in order to better understand their function in the company, potential data processes that could be automated and to start building a positive working relationship.  This provided a nice opportunity to better understand the data, the company and the role – in addition to fostering a feeling of community and partnership with my new co-workers.   

In addition to the work-related meetings, there are remote weekly happy hours, birthday celebrations and occasionally virtual game nights.  All of these events help to build a feeling of community and trust amongst co-workers.   

Ad-hoc teams chats are also a great way to quickly share ideas on a project, brainstorm next steps, or just chat about the upcoming vacation you’re excited about.   

The Next Step 

Despite being 1,000’s of miles away from the rest of my co-workers, the tools, systems and processes enable everyone to collaborate in real time – distances are now irrelevant.  

It has been an exciting experience to complete the hiring process but I sense that it’s just the beginning of a larger journey.  The possibilities of career growth and evolution are myriad – tasked with the purpose of redefining the data world at VSE, the potential is infinite! 

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