Staff Engineering: Explained. Know what staff engineering means and… | by Daniel Foo | Nov, 2022

Know what is meant by staff engineering and the roles and responsibilities of a staff engineer.

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Staffing engineering was popularized by Will Larsen in his book “Staffing Engineer: Leadership Beyond the Management Track” in early 2021. As the concept gained more popularity, the Staff Engineering track has served as an emerging complement to the technical career framework over the years.

Image showing progression of the Engineering Management track from the book
Source: Staff Engineer: Leadership Beyond the Management Track by Will Larson, 2021.

While the term “staff engineering” may be relatively new, the nature of the responsibilities is not. Most engineering professionals with 10+ years of experience will be involved in some form of staff engineering responsibilities. Prior to the popularity of staff engineering, titles such as systems architect, software architect, enterprise architect, principal developer, principal engineer, etc. were more prevalent in the industry.

A few years ago, after being a lead developer and leading several projects of varying complexity, I had to choose between staffing engineering and management. Being an architect was one of my dream roles when I was a developer, and after some of the other architects in the company highly supported me for the role, I eventually chose to move up to engineering management. While the management journey has been intellectually rewarding, Staff Engineering is a role close to my heart, especially as I have direct management responsibilities for several Staff Engineers.

This article will explore what Staff Engineering means and what a Staff Engineer does.

Setting technical direction is one of the most important tasks, but usually one of the most frequently unmet tasks as an employee + engineer. Realistically, how often do teams need to choose a cloud provider, or how often do teams need to decide whether to go with functional or object-oriented programming? When staff+engineers often have to make strategic technical decisions for the team, the team may face a different challenge. However, tactical activities are critical for staff + engineers to support alignment on technical direction.

Defining a technical strategy, sometimes referred to as an engineering strategy, requires a lot of input and proactive craftsmanship from the staff + engineering team. Engineering strategy depends on product strategy, and product strategy depends on organization strategy. The staff+engineering team needs to ensure that the technical strategy aligns with the bigger picture for the products and ultimately the business to be served. Technological strategy is not always about using the latest technology, it is not equal to product strategy, and it is not always about the latest ideas. I wrote some more thoughts technical strategy,

Depending on the nature of the engineering team, some teams have functional-level technical direction, for example, backend direction moves from RESTful API calls to event-driven architecture, SRE direction from Kubernetes cluster to serverless architecture Grows, QA invests in contract testing, etc. Some teams (often B2B in nature) have product-level technical direction, for example, moving beyond shipping software as a package or sending consultants to the implementation and integration of software-as-a-service solutions. The former requires greater depth, while the latter requires greater detail in technical excellence. Either way, the staff + engineering team needs to demonstrate a lot of leadership to steer these directions towards success.

Staff+ Engineers are expected to be some of the most experienced technical members of the engineering team. They are often regarded as technical experts and mentors in the team, and team members should reach out to them when faced with technical challenges. Providing mentorship to less senior engineers can be one of the most valuable activities for an engineering team and one of the most rewarding experiences in one’s career. Technical leaders create more technical leaders.

Providing technical mentorship means sharing past experiences, both successful and unsuccessful, of dealing with technical challenges. Sometimes this can lead to sharing of thought processes in addressing major engineering challenges. Note that mentorship is about sharing relevant engineering experience rather than telling the mentee what to do.

For example, “This is what I would do if I were you…” either “You should…Those are bad examples. A good mentoring conversation would look like this”In this previous project, I chose multi-edge replication over geo-replication for data storage because 80% of customers are within the region, and the cost was not justified due to the volume and criticality of the data at the time. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad idea because the remaining 20% ​​of customers contribute more than 70% of revenue. Some of them have use cases we were unaware of that could benefit from geo-replication.” see the difference?

Providing technical coaching can be trickier than mentorship. Coaching conversations take a little more skill and structure to be effective. It is the interaction of the guiding engineers to discover the root cause of the issues or to fully understand and become aware of the actual issue. Then, guiding the engineer to find solutions by asking provocative questions. Again, don’t be tempted to give instructions or strategic steps on what the Staff+Engineer should do, but rather inspire the Engineers to find their solutions.

Staff + Engineers are often involved in making business-critical decisions, if not driving critical and high-value projects. Unlike traditional businesses, where technology is a cost overhead, many modern business models have technology as an enabler for revenue-generating activities. Giving employees+engineers a seat at the discussion table makes strategic technology investments and direction necessary. This means that the staff+engineers should be equipped with sufficient business domain knowledge to provide relevant inputs to the business stakeholders.

Technical leadership from staff + engineers goes beyond system implementation. Employees + Engineers who understand the direction of the business, provide engineering perspective to the business. Based on systems already in place or in place, provide business context in the form of staff + engineers to identify cloud spend forecasting and optimization, review vendor costs, investment in equipment or alternatives, skill sets in the team, technical milestones does. Timeline for delivery, post-production needs for customer integration and migration, technical support and so on.

Technology choices potentially unlock business capabilities. For example, when customer data is not in the same database, the ability to cross-sell multiple products may depend on how open the customer data is and how to allow the data to be shared securely. Whether there is any suitable mechanism or platform for , in a fast and efficient manner. Such engineering capability unlocks business potential, and Employees + Engineers play a vital role in bridging the gap between business and engineering.

Innovation is the DNA of every tech company. Lack of innovation is an early sign of the downfall of a tech business. While many companies maintain practices such as 20% time (20% of engineers’ potential is used for innovation work) or innovation sprints (once every five sprints will be used as an innovation sprint), R & D is embedded in the daily responsibility of an employee + engineer.

However, this does not mean that employees + engineers can aimlessly start playing with irrelevant technology. Freedom to do research is not free time after all. Staff + Engineer maturity is expected to identify target areas for R&D work that have the potential to benefit the engineering team and the business.

R&D work may include studying a white paper for a technical approach, developing a proof of concept for a new service in a cloud provider, testing an optimization technique that can either improve performance or reduce costs. Could do, a pilot implementation for a new one. SDK, etc.

Such R&D tasks are often started as fun pet project ideas for less senior but motivated engineers. Staff+ Engineers will be expected to disseminate R&D results to benefit the engineering team or business. One of the results of R&D is to deliver a white paper for internal communication.

Staff+engineers can sometimes spend meaningful portions of their productive time writing documentation, whether for strategic justification on technical direction (to answer questions like why do we need to do it again?) or for engineers For strategic implementation (right now to answer questions like I understand why, but how do I do it?)

Do Staff+Engineers still write code? For most companies, the answer is yes, but to what extent. It would depend on whether it is the best way for the business to spend the employees+engineers time on that project. For example, to implement a time-critical proof of concept, an employee + engineer will learn from recent R&D along with an understanding of the product domain to build the proof of concept and share the solution with the rest of the engineers .

If staff+engineers could have taken thrice as long to explain the concept, train the team, review and provide revisions on the solution.

For Cadence-Based Product Delivery Cycles, Can Employees + Engineers Write Code? Yes they can. But what about them? Probably not, if other less senior engineers can achieve it. Staff + engineers need to ask themselves, is this code the best way for me to contribute to the engineering team and business?

Although staff engineering is typically an individual contributor role, it would be unrealistic to assume that the staff+engineer would have zero management responsibilities with respect to technical leadership. Often, an employee + engineer will manage technology initiatives with the following properties:

  • experimental or fraught with a high degree of uncertainty
  • Coordinate cross-functional or cross-business domain technical integration
  • Manage stakeholders who require detailed technical information
  • Occasionally, there are a small number of direct reports (engineers) during the people manager’s absence.

However, the percentage of management responsibilities should not exceed 30% of the Staff+Engineer strength.

A well-defined career structure for Staff + Engineer is generally more common in large tech firms than in smaller organizations. Many smaller teams may not even have a defined career outline, and titles are thrown around freely.

Title in various companies: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google

If you are in technical leadership and don’t think traditional Engineering Management Is for you, staff engineering is definitely a good option, you should focus on developing your career. Who knows, the staff engineering career path may soon overtake the mainstream? For now, many companies adopting Staffing Engineering have a parallel track to Management and Staffing+.

It would be an incomplete discussion if the career framework does not include compensation. Traditionally, some of the most experienced engineers would be equivalent to entry-level managers. Both the roles are equally challenging in different ways. Over the years, as appreciation for staff engineering contributions has grown, some high-impact staff + engineers have the potential to make more than a manager, especially those who actively add business value through an engineering lens.

The limit for individual contributors in the Staff+ capacity has recently been increased. In other words, if one is creating high-quality, impactful, effective solutions for the business immediately, it is possible to get a higher compensation package as an employee + engineer than as a manager.

Staffing + Engineering may be a relatively new term, but it is not a new concept in the tech industry. Staff + responsibilities have always been there in business, presented in various forms. Personally, I’m glad to see that more tech companies are starting to differentiate between engineering management and staff engineering and provide room for both tracks to grow, instead of forcing every engineer to go into the management track. They do, which can sometimes be a mistake. If you are intrigued by the engineering responsibilities of the staff, continue to pursue your craft with passion, and know that the future is bright for you.

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