People make or break DAOs so onboarding good people is critical. However, it is also notoriously difficult to get onboarding right, and not only for DAOs - onboarding challenges cost businesses millions every year and there is a growing recognition that organizations with strong onboarding protocols outperform those with a "sink or swim" approach. Onboarding is where organizations and contributors make their first impressions on each other, set expectations and establish the tone of their new relationship. Getting this wrong has substantial costs in terms of reputation, time, morale, money and opportunity costs when potentially great contributors decide to go elsewhere.
In this article I will reflect on my own onboarding experiences into the Fraud Detection and Defense (FDD) squad in Gitcoin DAO. These reflections might help the ongoing efforts to refine the onboarding process and also provide some pointers for prospective contributors.
In December 2021 I decided to start contributing to the DAO. Gitcoin was the obvious choice for me. Public goods funding was my gateway into the web3 space a few years earlier and I was arriving thoroughly green-pilled. I'd also been a winner of a Gitcoin RFP a few months before and met a few people from the DAO as a result. I was happy to chat with some of the core DAO members about potential routes to work. These initial conversations led me to the FDD stream, where I felt my background in data science could be put to good use. The first steps were quite organic and very informal, mostly consisting of discord DMs.
Everyone I spoke to was extremely friendly, welcoming and encouraging of my onboarding into the DAO, but at the same time I didn't feel like I was getting the information I needed to progress. I eventually got access to some previously-hidden channels in the Gitcoin DAO discord and was directed to a DAO-level onboarding call. The call gave very useful context to the DAO and made clear that the appropriate next step was to seek out members of a specific workstream and to submit a Typescript application form.
I started joining some of the community calls, lurking in some of the channel discussions to try to absorb some of the discussions and occasionally chipping in some comments, but overall I felt fairly directionless. The outcome from most conversations was redirection to another DAO member, who would then redirect me to someone else. This was a double-edged sword because on the one hand I got to connect with several key people in the DAO but at the same time didn’t have a single point of contact that could give straight answers. I knew the people I was connected to were busy and I was wary of becoming burdensome by badgering them for action. I hadn't had any response to the Typescript application form I had submitted. At this point, my onboarding stalled, I gradually got sidetracked with other projects and I started to drift away from the DAO.
A couple of months later, my casual surfing of the DAO discord led me to a conversation about a vacancy for a technical writer in the fdd squad. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to rekindle my attempts to onboard, so I immediately reached out to flag myself as a candidate. Again, this began with informal DM exchanges with some core contributors. I gave some credentials and some examples of my writing and the conversation quickly progressed to organizing a call that would act as an interview. At the same time I was directed to another DAO member who was better placed to give some specific onboarding advice. At this point I was very enthusiastic but still a little clueless about the specific actions I needed to take to move things forwards. A key unblocker was the link to a fdd Notion document that included a lot of answers to my outstanding questions. I hadn't seen this document before (the existence of these Notion docs is a good example of an unknown unknown - it's really useful once you have it but hard to know that exists to look for it)!
The interview was the point in time when things really started moving. The call itself was a friendly conversation where I explained what skills I have to offer and how they might be useful to the fdd stream, and reciprocally the interviewers gave some more context that helped me to understand how the stream operates. I was given dates and times for weekly meetings and luckily I was available for one that evening. At the same time, I had an open dialogue with my onboarding guide and things were gradually starting to crystallize.
Immediately after the interview I started getting tagged into discord threads and receiving DMs from key people from inside the fdd stream. Some DMs were simple introductions, some included onboarding advice, some suggestions for collaborations or requests for input. I attended the weekly call and introduced myself to the fdd team, and tried to contribute to the discussions as best I could. In the span of twenty-four hours my situation had flipped from information drought to deluge. I set up a kanban that evening to try to keep track of the links, threads, slide-decks, Github repositories and Notion docs that had flooded in during the day (and, due to time differences, the night).
It would have been very easy to be overwhelmed at this point, but this was mitigated by the very welcoming team and truly intriguing work. I decided to lean into it - I was not feeling entirely in control but I had enough information, connections and ideas to be pretty confident things would fall into place quickly if I just kept digging in. And indeed, after the initial flood the signal to noise ratio of the incoming information improved drastically and I started to get more comfortable with my new role in the DAO. A few days later I was directed to an onboarding checklist, which helped to identify the missing pieces. It would have been helpful to have this right at the start to constrain the unknown unknowns and indicate what questions should have been asked early on (in fairness I have since learned I joined just before this checklist was launched).
The next step was simply to start working on specific projects. I began by selectively progressing conversations about opportunities that piqued my interest. I was very clear in my own mind that the aim of each of these conversations was to nail down a specific brief with deliverables and timeline, and also make sure the person I was speaking to had authority to sign off some budget to cover my time on the task.
At this point I feel much more comfortable navigating the DAO. It requires a bit of hustle, but the opportunities are abundant and the support plentiful. At the time of writing I am at the beginning of a “trial period”. This is a six-week probationary phase before becoming a “full contributor”. Transitioning out of the trial period will require a reflective discussion with the onboarding guides about what has been achieved so far, and completion of a questionnaire about the onboarding.
To recap the onboarding steps I took to get to this point:
My experience of onboarding is, I think, fairly typical. I very nearly drifted away from the DAO after my initial attempt to onboard fizzled, but turned it around later on with a lot of help from personal guides. There are several specific lessons I learned during the process:
1) DAO onboarding is a two-way street.
Responsibility for onboarding doesn't sit entirely with the DAO. Chances are the members doing the onboarding are extremely busy managing their own contributions to the DAO and don't necessarily have individual responsibility for bringing new people into the fold. They might be doing it voluntarily and/or part time, alongside many other tasks. Arriving at the DAO without a specific offering is not helpful (although I am told this constraint is relaxed somewhat in other streams relative to FDD). I made this mistake first time around - I arrived "wanting to contribute to the DAO" and a vague sense that I had some useful skills, but lacking a clear niche I could fill. Second time I arrived able to speak to specific people about specific tasks that I could tackle. I already knew the gap I could fill from reading discussions on the discord. At the same time, my expectations about the onboarding procedure had been adjusted and I arrived with a bit more hustle in my mindset.
2) The personal touch is important.
The DAO-level onboarding is like taking a train to a new city at rush hour - sure you have access but you don't know where to go or what to do to make the best of it, and the pace of activity can be overwhelming. To overcome this, a local guide is priceless. The stream-level onboarding provided me with this local guide (several, in fact). I've seen this more personal approach to onboarding compared to a hotel concierge service. It can also be thought of as a personal Morpheus - a green-pill guide that can "show how deep the rabbit hole goes" and how best to explore it. They can help to make introductions, explain procedures, point out relevant meetings and resources, and generally provide encouragement. Person-to-person interactions were certainly invaluable in my onboarding experience.
3) Some structure is good too.
The personal touch is great for small numbers of contributors, but it puts a lot of load on the guide and also requires the contributor to know what questions to ask. The "unknown unknowns" are sometimes quite insidious and often only reveal themselves too late, for example after a key meeting has already been missed or an opportunity has already expired. The onboarding guide can't really be expected to keep track of all these various unknowns especially considering they are probably onboarding multiple people simultaneously, and the new-starter doesn't necessarily know they exist to ask about them. Also, it's not always clear to the contributor that things are moving behind the scenes - they might feel forgotten despite people working away to onboard them but not keeping the communication quite up to date. Some additional structure to the onboarding that allows a new contributor to track their own progress and see where in the onboarding process they are could really be helpful.
4) Sometimes the communication will be very asynchronous.
By its nature the DAO is international across many time zones. I seem to be offset from my key contacts by a solid 8 hours, meaning my discord pings like crazy just when I'm eating dinner or settling down to sleep. Similarly, questions asked in the morning might not get answers until the evening. This is just a reality that has to be embraced - communication within the DAO will often be very asynchronous and some things will necessarily be delayed. Rather than being a drag, this can be a valuable opportunity to focus on some deep work, take time to think over and research responses before sending them or to resolve issues independently to minimize the load on other DAO members.
5) The Gitcoin discord is its own challenge.
The Gitcoin discord has a lot of very active channels and without sharp discord skills it is difficult to keep track of multiple conversations, mentions, shared files etc. Experience on other, smaller servers probably isn’t really sufficient preparation for a server like Gitcoin’s where the sheer size and pace means information can be lost to history in a matter of minutes! Time browsing the discord before onboarding is certainly valuable, but some explicit onboarding support relating to navigating the discord server could be really useful for new starters.
6) The DAO onboarding currently does several things very well.
The personal route to onboarding into the FDD stream is priceless. I was immediately made to feel valued and welcomed and it really made me want to contribute with energy and enthusiasm. The guides were helpful, honest and available. The stream really does a good job with this. The DAO-level onboarding call was also a useful starting point and there were definitely useful pointers in there about how to take the next steps. I think in some cases the combination of this DAO-level onboarding and the personal route at the stream-level is already a viable system for onboarding new starters.
7) There are bottlenecks to address.
Although the current system worked for me in the end, it very nearly didn't. This was my own fault - my mindset was all wrong - I was expecting too much scaffolding without doing a good job of communicating what I bring to the DAO in return. On the other hand, some more easily accessible onboarding information might have helped me come to this realization sooner and arrived better prepared. A more robust formalized procedure, communicated up-front could help ensure someone has oversight of these actions and the new starter knows what to chase up and when. Similarly, it would be easier to stay motivated during the onboarding if new-starters can know where they are in the process and what is yet to come.
In summary, I am delighted to have onboarded into the fdd squad. I am actively working on interesting projects, connecting with great people and generally enjoying getting stuck in. However, there are clearly improvements that could be made to the onboarding procedure. Similar issues are acutely felt in all kinds of organizations and there may well be examples of best practise or lessons from the growing literature that can be applied in the context of DAOs. There are also several other DAOs that are beginning to report more openly about their onboarding challenges and successes. Diving into this material is way outside the scope of this article, but I'm aiming to come back to it later in collaboration with some other DAO members. These challenges are only going to become more acute as DAOs become more popular and onboarding bottlenecks are exacerbated by scale, so it seems like an opportune time to allocate some resources to developing a more robust onboarding strategy.