Staff Engineering

In August of 2019 I became a Staff Engineer, which is what a lot of companies are calling their "level above Senior Engineer" role these days. Engineering leveling is a weird beast, which probably a post onto itself. Despite my odd entry into a career in tech, my path in the last 4 or 5 years has been pretty conventional; however, somehow, despite having an increasingly normal career trajectory, explaining what I do on a day to day basis has not gotten easier.

Staff Engineers are important for scaling engineering teams, but lots of teams get by with out them, and unlike more junior engineers who have broadly similar job roles, there are a lot of different ways to be a Staff Engineer, which only muddies things. This post is a reflection on some key aspects of my experience organized in to topics that I hope will be useful for people who may be interested in becoming staff engineers or managing such a person. If you're also a Staff Engineer and your experience is different, I wouldn't be particularly surprised.

Staff Engineers Help Teams Build Great Software

Lots of teams function just fine without Staff Engineers and teams can build great products without having contributors in Staff-type roles. Indeed, because Staff Engineers vary a lot, the utility of having more senior individual contributors on a team depends a lot of the specific engineer and the team in question: finding a good fit is even harder than usual. In general, having Senior Technical leadership can help teams by:

  • giving people managers more space and time to focus on the team organization, processes, and people. Particularly in small organizations, team managers often pick up technical leadership.
  • providing connections and collaborations between groups and efforts. While almost all senior engineers have a "home team" and are directly involved in a few specific projects, they also tend to have broader scope, and so can help coordinate efforts between different projects and groups.
  • increasing the parallelism of teams, and can provide the kind of infrastructure that allows a team to persue multiple streams of development at one time.
  • supporting the career path and growth of more junior engineers, both as a result of direct mentoring, but also by enabling the team to be more successful by having more technical leadership capacity creates opportunities for growth for everyone on the team.

Staff Promotions Reflect Organizational Capacity

In addition to experience and a history of effusiveness, like other promotions, getting promoted to Staff Engineer is less straight forward than other promotions. This is in part because the ways we think about leveling and job roles (i.e. to describe the professional activities and capabilities along several dimensions for each level,) become complicated when there are lots of different ways to be a Staff Engineer. Pragmatically, these kind of promotions often depend on other factors:

  • the existence of other Staff Engineers in the organization make it more likely that there's an easy comparison for a candidate.
  • past experience of managers getting Staff+ promotions for engineers. Enginering Managers without this kind of experience may have difficulty creating the kinds of opportunities within their organizations and for advocating these kinds of promotions.
  • organizational maturity and breadth to support the workload of a Staff Engineer: there are ways to partition teams and organizations that preclude some of the kinds of higher level concerns that justify having Staff Engineers, and while having senior technical leadership is often useful, if the organization can't support it, it won't happen.
  • teams with a sizable population of more junior engineers, particularly where the team is growing, will have more opportunity and need for Staff Engineers. Teams that are on the balance more senior, or are small and relatively static tend to have less opportunity for the kind of broadly synthetic work that tends to lead to Staff promotions.

There are also, of course, some kinds of technical achievements and professional characteristics that Staff Engineers often have, and I'm not saying that anyone in the right organizational context can be promoted, exactly. However, without the right kind of organizational support and context, even the most exceptional engineers will never be promoted.

Staff Promotions are Harder to Get Than Equivalent Management Promotions

In many organizations its true that Staff promotions are often much harder to get than equivalent promotions to peer-level management postions: the organizational contexts required to support the promotion of Engineers into management roles are much easier to create, particularly as organizations grow. As you hire more engineers you need more Engineering Managers. There are other factors:

  • managers control promotions, and it's easier for them to recapitulate their own career paths in their reports than to think about the Staff role, and so more Engineers tend to be pushed towards management than Senior IC roles. It's also probably that meta-managers benefit organizationally from having more front-line managers in their organizations than more senior ICs, which exacerbates this bias.
  • from an output perspective, Senior Engineers can write the code that Staff Engineers would otherwise write, in a way that Engineering Management tends to be difficult to avoid or do without. In other terms, management promotions are often more critical from the organization's perspective and therefore prioritized over Staff promotions, particularly during growth.
  • cost. Staff Engineers are expensive, often more expensive than managers particularly at the bottom of the brackets, and it's difficult to imagine that the timing of Staff promotions are not impacted by budgetary requirements.

Promoting a Staff Engineer is Easier than Hiring One

Because there are many valid ways to do the Staff job, and so much of the job is about leveraging context and building broader connections between different projects, people with more organizational experience and history often have an advantage over fresh industry hires. In general:

  • Success as a Staff Engineer in one organization does not necessarily translate to success at another.
  • The conventions within the process for industry hiring, are good at selecting junior engineers, and there are fewer conventions for more Senior roles, which means that candidates are not assessed for skills and experiences that are relevant to their day-to-day while also being penalized for (often) being unexceptional at the kind of problems that junior engineering interviews focus on. While interview processes are imperfect assessment tools in all cases, they're particularly bad at more senior levels.
  • Senior engineering contributors have a the potential to have huge impact on product development, engineering outcomes, all of which requires a bunch of trust on the part of the organization, and that kind of trust is often easier to build with someone who already has organizational experience

This isn't to say that it's impossible to hire Staff engineers, I'm just deeply dubious of the hiring process for these kinds of roles having both interviewed for these kinds of roles and also interviewed candidates for them. I've also watched more than one senior contributor not really get along well with a team or other leadership after being hired externally, and for reasons that end up making sense in retrospect. It's really hard.

Staff Engineers Don't Not Manage

Most companies have a clear distinction between the career trajectories of people involved in "management" and senior "individual contributor" roles (like Staff Engineers,) with managers involved in leadership for teams and humans, with ICs involved in technical aspects. This seems really clear on paper but incredibly messy in practice. The decisions that managers make about team organization and prioritization have necessary technical implications; while it's difficult to organize larger scale technical initiatives without awareness of the people and teams. Sometimes Staff Engineers end up doing actual management on a temporary basis in order to fill gaps as organizations change or cover parental leave

It's also the case that a huge part of the job for many Staff Engineer's involves direct mentorship of junior engineers, which can involve leading specific projects, conversations about career trajectories and growth, as well as conversations about specific technical topics. This has a lot of overlap with management, and that's fine. The major differences is that senior contributors share responsibility for the people they mentor with their actual managers, and tend to focus mentoring on smaller groups of contributors.

Staff Engineers aren't (or shouldn't be!) managers, even when they are involved in broader leadership work, even if the specific engineer is capable of doing management work: putting ICs in management roles, takes time away from their (likely more valuable) technical projects.

Staff Engineers Write Boring and Tedious But Easy Code

While this is perhaps not a universal view, I feel pretty safe in suggesting that Staff Engineers should be directly involved in development projects. While there are lots of ways to be involved in development: technical design, architecture, reviewing code and documents, project planning and development, and so fort, I think it's really important that Staff Engineers be involved with code-writing, and similar activies. This makes it easy to stay grounded and relevant, and also makes it possible to do a better job at all of the other kinds of engineering work.

Having said that, it's almost inevitable that the kinds of contribution to the code that you make as a Staff Engineer are not the same kinds of contributions that you make at other points in your career. Your attention is probably pulled in different directions. Where a junior engineer can spend most of their day focusing on a few projects and writing code, Staff Engineers:

  • consult with other teams.
  • mentor other engineers.
  • build long and medium term plans for teams and products.
  • breaking larger projects apart and designing APIs between components.

All of this "other engineering work" takes time, and the broader portfolio of concerns means that more junior engineers often have more time and attention to focus on specific programming tasks. The result is that the kind of code you end up writing tends to be different:

  • fixing problems and bugs in systems that require a lot of context. The bugs are often not very complicated themselves, but require understanding the implication of one component with regards to other components, which can make them difficult.
  • projects to enable future development work, including building infrastructure or designing an interface and connecting an existing implementation to that interface ahead of some larger effort. This kind of "refactor things to make it possible to write a new implementation."
  • writing small isolated components to support broader initiatives, such as exposing existing information via new APIs, and building libraries to facilitate connections between different projects or components.
  • projects that support the work of the team as a whole: tools, build and deployment systems, code clean up, performance tuning, test infrastructure, and so forth.

These kinds of projects can amount to rather a lot of development work, but they definitely have their own flavor. As I approached Staff and certainly since, the kind of projects I had attention for definitely shifted. I actually like this kind of work rather a lot, so that's been quite good for me, but the change is real.

There's definitely a temptation to give Staff Engineers big projects that they can go off and work on alone, and I've seen lots of teams and engineers attempt this: sometimes these projects work out, though more often the successes feel like an exception. There's no "right kind" of way to write software as a Staff Engineer, sometimes senior engineer's get to work on bigger "core projects." Having said that, if a Staff Engineer is working on the "other engineering" aspects of the job, there's just limited time to do big development projects in a reasonable time frame.

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