The technical aspects of Staff+ development are well-understood, especially by Staff+ engineers that have a wealth of personal experience to draw on for guidance. Combining this well-developed skillset with the new skills required of a Staff+ engineer is how you’ll start to have a really big impact on the wider organisation, and this can be much more challenging.
The following advice gives you a framework for excelling at the basics of these new softer skills, so that you can focus on creating and inhabiting a Staff+ role that works for you, and your place of work.
As a Staff+ engineer, you’ll be working with senior people in other fields, as well as stakeholders from around the organisation. The combination of these relationships with a senior engineer’s technical skills are one of the most valuable things a Staff+ engineer brings to the organisation and, ultimately, are what makes you different from a technical lead.
Listen to people
What is working well? What is not? What pain-points have people seen or experienced? Stay in touch with engineering teams to make sure you know these things early.
You will also be working with other leaders from around the organisation. Like you, these people have a great view of the organisation and, like you, they have a wealth of experience within the organisation and their own field. If there’s something causing frustration for the engineers, you can be sure that senior management in related fields have also seen the same problems. Perhaps their perspective can reveal a solution, or perhaps it reveals some deeper underlying problems you can drill into.
Don’t make decisions that affect others without involving them
Effective collaboration is rooted in trust. Failing to properly engage teams in decision-making undermines their trust of you, but also implies that you don’t trust them enough to have involved them. Leadership is about setting directions rather than filling in the details and the more you can share with the team, the more details they’ll be able to take on for you. Engaging early and openly fosters a sense of empowerment and ownership from the team, which means the decision (and the solution) is more likely to be a success.
Who would be the best person to convey something?
Unless you’re fixing a technical problem that sits directly under your influence, you are unlikely to be the best person to issue instructions or directives. Think about who has authority over the problem. Their authority might stem from their position in the organisation, or it might be someone who is respected in the area where you’d like to see change. When you’ve identified one or more such people, talk with them one-on-one to pick their brains and share your observations.
Most likely they’re already aware of the problem, and hearing from you will help confirm their own suspicions. They probably have a solution in mind that you can help them develop. As well as benefiting from their proximity to the problem, the shared solution is likely to be better received by the team than if you’d dived in with your own instructions.
Knowledge earned is more valuable than knowledge imparted
Encourage people to discover answers for themselves, and direct them towards those answers rather than instructing them.
Don’t get stagnant
Keep moving to stay on top of things
Working on different challenges in different teams in different parts of the organisation is a great way to assemble a more complete picture of how the organisation works. It takes time for a Staff+ engineer to have a big impact in an area so moving doesn’t need to happen very regularly, but Staff+ engineers are often long-tenured. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to learn and develop in new areas.
There’s nothing worse than a very senior technical leader who is out of touch with the current technical landscape. Still fighting the fights of a few years back, resisting pressure to adopt new technologies, or failing to see real change as it happens: there are lots of ways this stagnation can cause problems for teams.
Keep doing “Individual Contributor” work among your other responsibilities, and try to spend time working with new ideas. It can be hard to set time aside for personal growth when you have so many demands on your attention, but it is essential that you continue to grow and change with your organisation. Pay close attention to the things that excite the engineers around you to help choose where to focus.
Teaching is learning
There’s no better way to master a concept than to teach it several times. Pairing, teaching, onboarding and mentoring are great ways to stay connected with teams, keep fresh with programming practices, and to spread knowledge and empowerment throughout the organisation.
No-one knows what they are doing
Through conversations with my peers and from various Staff+ conferences, it seems to me that the industry still has no clear idea of what a Staff+ engineer is. We’re all on the cutting edge of a relatively new discipline, defining the job as we go and doing the best we can along the way. Don’t be disheartened by this lack of clarity, don’t assume it is just you that feels this way, and don’t let this uncertainty hold you back.
You’re probably doing better than you think
A state of constant existential despair often accompanies the job of Staff+ engineer. Am I doing the right things? How could I possibly even know what the right things are?
If you’re following the tips above then you’ll be working closely with people from across the organisation and it’s overwhelmingly likely that all those people value what you are doing. That’s the true measure of your value as a Staff+ engineer, and your success.
Get feedback often, stay connected to people, try to work on what seems important to them and you.
You are doing great!