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Staff Engineer: Leadership beyond the management track - Book Notes

I recently read Will Larson's book Staff Engineer: Leadership beyond the management track. As the name suggests, the book covers a career alternative for more senior engineers that don't feel comfortable with management positions and still want to be involved in complex technical problems. Besides being a broad role with responsibilities varying from company to company, the book defines some key archetypes and develops along the chapters what is a job description for each of them.

I discovered this book after listening to the amazing podcast Staff+, presented by Paulo Vasconcellos, Marlesson Santana, and Flavio Clesio, talking about this new technical path for engineers. The whole conversation grabs my attention because I don't see the management track as a good path for me since the beginning of my career.


Difficulty in finding resources for professionals above senior software developers
Very mysterious notion of impact for more senior engineers
If you want to advance in your career without becoming a conventional manager/manager?

Four Staff+ archetypes

  • Tech Lead: guides the approach and execution of a particular team
  • Architect: responsible for the direction, quality and approach within a critical area
  • Solver: digs deep into arbitrary complex problems and finds and appropriate path forward
  • Right Hand: Expands the attention of an executive by lending his scope and authority to operate particularly complex organizations.

What do Staff Engs actually do?

  • It depends a lot on the team's needs and the engineer's strengths.
  • Work on strategic projects and bring technical design while helping the progress of the team.
  • Senior SE + setting & editing technical direction, mentorship and adding engineering context to organizational decisions.
  • Does not have to be a hero and solve everything: the main goal is to help the team evolve.
  • Balance between mentorship and sponsorship.
  • Staff+ will often be in organizational decision-making rooms: it's time to bring engineering context to the table.

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Operating at Staff

  • write an engineering strategy
  • Keep aligned with authority positions
  • blend your vision with others
  • create space for others

Important takes

  • more senior -> less time to accomplish tasks
  • avoid snacking -> do easy low-impact tasks
  • avoid preening -> do easy high visibility tasks
  • avoid chasing ghosts -> do low-impact but very complex tasks

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Managing technical quality

  • Maintain technical quality and business deliveries
  • Accountability
  • System Thinking
  • data models tolerant to evolution
  • technical vectors : Create technical decisions with vectors that point in the same direction
    • Give direct feedback when someone acts out of alignment with the planned approach
    • Redefine the engineering strategy
    • Communicate your approach from existing and future processes/tools.
    • onboarding process
    • Conway's Law: organizations build software that reflects their structure.
    • points to consider in the quality definition
  • to lead you have to follow: not only to adopt good practices, but also to share them with the teams
  • never be wrong without creating a bad ambient, be right while creating space for others

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Creating space for others

  • ask the right questions to avoid missteps
  • bring everyone to the table
  • take notes
  • does not need to ponder over absolutely everything
  • sponsorship: Promote that person, give visibility, opportunity, advice, context, but the final responsibility lies with the person.

Build Network of peers

  • be easy to find
  • be visible
  • internal networks - within squads, for example

Present to executives

  • from a certain point in your career, what will make the difference will be how you can effectively influence executives.
  • don't fight feedback

Getting the title where you are

  • path not very clear in companies, some may even "prevent" certain promotions
  • opportunities for staff are not equally divided
  • sometimes it's good to test engineering management career

Promotion packets

  • what were the staff projects you did? what was the impact obtained? how did you improve the company? How much money did your impact generate?
  • have answers to why you are looking for this promotion?
  • do not be anxious, these promotions often take time to be presented
  • bring the matter up to 1:1 with your manager
  • write a promotion package document
  • edit with your peers and manager
  • periodically review this document

Find your sponsor

  • staff engineer is not just a faster senior engineer
  • dont play team games alone, you will lose
  • find people who give visibility to your achievements and increase your value in the company
  • be direct with your sponsor: show that you want to be a well-known staff within the company
  • if that doesn't work, consider switching companies

Staff projects

  • it's not written anywhere, but usually you have to deliver a staff project to get the promotion
  • complex and ambiguous projects
  • diverse stakeholders from different areas

Get in the room, and stay there

  • not only participate once in important decisions, but consistently be there
  • be someone important in the room: bring important ideas or questions
  • important to have someone sponsoring your presence there
  • be aligned with your manager
  • speak clearly and concisely : contribute by speaking less
  • prioritize being useful

Being visible

  • make sure your work is being seen
  • write long-lived documents
  • lead forums within the company
  • contribute to the company blog
  • share notes about your work

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