Book notes: Staff Engineer: Leadership beyond the management track by Will Larson

Ivana Huckova
7 min readFeb 20, 2024

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Summary

How strongly do I recommend Staff Engineer? 8 / 10
Favorite part: Interviews with actual staff engineers
Listened, or read: Listened

My favorite part of the whole book was the actual stories of people becoming and being staff engineers. You can find all the stories online, and I would recommend listening to all of them to learn about the different ways people became staff engineers and what they actually do in this role. The one that resonated the most with me is the story of Michelle Bu and Katie Sylor-Miller.

Understanding staff engineer archetypes

At the heart of the staff engineer’s role are four archetypes, each offering a unique pathway to influence and contribute within a tech organization:

  • Tech leads — Steer complex projects, ensuring their team’s alignment with cross-functional goals while fostering growth and technical vision.
  • Architects — Oversee the technical integrity of key domains, aligning architectural strategies with business outcomes.
  • Solvers — Are the troubleshooters who tackle the most daunting problems until a resolution is found, often transitioning solutions to other teams for long-term maintenance.
  • Right hands — Act as strategic advisors to senior leadership, focusing on critical problems that blend technology, business, and organizational dynamics.

Identifying with one of these archetypes can guide your development and focus, aligning your efforts with the type of impact that energizes you.

Core responsibilities of a staff engineer

  • Setting technical direction — Staff engineers play a crucial role in shaping the technological future of their companies, similarly to a part-time product manager for technology. This involves understanding organizational needs and translating them into actionable technical strategies
  • Mentorship and sponsorship — Effective staff engineers leverage their experience to mentor others, but more importantly, they sponsor them. Sponsorship involves advocating for and elevating others within the organization, a key to lasting impact.
  • Injecting engineering perspective — Their unique position allows staff engineers to provide critical engineering insights into organizational decisions, often at moments when such perspectives can significantly alter the course of action.
  • Exploration and glue work — Staff engineers often undertake exploratory work on ambiguous but crucial problems and perform the “glue work” that keeps projects moving forward, ensuring team cohesion and project momentum

Operating at staff level

  • Work on what matters — As career advancement continues, expectations for impactful contributions increase, necessitating alignment with personal life for sustainability.
  • Avoiding distractions — When high-impact tasks are scarce, there’s a risk of engaging in low-impact activities, or “snacking,” which senior professionals must vigilantly avoid.
  • Beware of appearances — “Preening,” or engaging in superficial tasks for recognition, can detract from genuine progress and meaningful contributions.
  • Focus on substance — Before initiating changes in a new company, understanding existing processes is essential for long-term success.
  • Navigating organisational dynamics — Companies operate in a perpetual balance between future innovation and present survival, requiring prioritization of areas needing immediate attention.
  • Choose your battles wisely — Focus efforts on areas aligned with company priorities rather than attempting to sway organizational focus.
  • Cultivate team growth — Investing time in mentorship and team development can leave a lasting impact beyond individual projects.
  • Leverage your influence — Utilize position, relationships, and experience to steer projects towards favorable outcomes with minimal effort.
  • Follow through — Completion of projects marks the transition from risk to opportunity, emphasizing the importance of seeing tasks to their conclusion.
  • Embrace your unique contributions — Focus on tasks that capitalize on strengths and align with passions for maximum impact.
  • The significance of meaningful work — Long-term career success relies on prioritizing meaningful contributions over superficial metrics and aligning with companies valuing substantive expertise.

Does the title even matter?

Advantages that generally come with being a staff — plus title:

  • Allowing you to bypass informal gauges of seniority
  • Facilitating access to “the room”
  • Acceess to interesting work
  • Higher compensation

Writing engineering strategy and managing quality

Developing an engineering strategy involves distilling insights from design documents into a coherent plan that guides the organization’s technical direction, ensuring alignment with business objectives.

Staff engineers are key players in maintaining and elevating the technical quality within their organizations, from identifying hot spots to implementing best practices and finding leverage points for sustained quality improvement.

Mastering technical quality

Managing technical quality is crucial for sustaining organizational success and innovation. Here’s a concise overview of the key insights shared:

  • Recognizing the challenge — Quality gaps between past decisions and current standards are normal and represent opportunities for improvement. Closing these gaps is integral to effective engineering leadership.
  • Navigating solutions — Quality improvement strategies should start with lightweight solutions, progressing to larger ones if necessary. Prioritize understanding and fixing specific problem areas over process-driven accountability.
  • Implementing best practices — Roll out new practices gradually, focusing on engagement and success with a few teams before scaling. Concentrate efforts on one best practice at a time for better prioritization.
  • Leveraging points of influence — Identify and invest in leverage points where additional resources preserve quality and align with organizational goals. Encapsulate technical direction through workflows, tools, and feedback mechanisms for alignment.
  • Measuring technical quality — Develop precise definitions and instrumentation for measuring quality, essential for tracking progress.
    Consider establishing a quality team or program to uphold quality standards consistently.
  • Starting small and progressing — Approach quality management with a methodical, incremental mindset, prioritizing effectiveness over speed.
    By adopting these strategies, organizations can methodically enhance technical quality, ensuring sustainable growth and resilience in the face of evolving challenges.

Staying aligned with organizational authority

In navigating leadership roles, maintaining alignment with organizational authority is very important. Here’s a concise breakdown of key insights:

  • Relationship with direct manager — Organizational authority comes from alignment with your direct manager, who acts as the bestowing sponsor.
  • Tight association with greater authority — Authority in staff-plus roles derives from close alignment with higher authority figures. Unlike previous roles, authority accumulates through association rather than solely personal actions.
  • Aligning with managerial expectations — Ensure transparency with your manager to maintain trust and accountability. Facilitate information flow and provide relevant context to enhance alignment. Approach managing up as a means to streamline communication and reduce friction.
  • Influencing organizational values — Advocate for personal values while respecting organizational norms to avoid conflicts. Strive for a balance between advocating for personal values and maintaining organizational harmony.

Creating space for others

As a staff-plus engineer the organization around you should increasingly benefit from, but should not rely upon, your contributions.

Build a network of peers

  1. You should be easy to find — There is so much pent-up demand for community among staff-plus engineers that the easiest way to build your network is being easy to find as a staff-plus engineer.
  2. Networking internally — If you’re at a decently large or prestigious company, folks leaving and spreading across the industry will help bootstrap your broader network.

Quality over quantity. Slowly build your network with folks you trust, respect, and who inspire you. They will help you solve the hardest problems and trickiest situations that come your way.

Presentations to executives

As you get further into your career, your impact will be constrained by your ability to influence executives effectively.

Communication with executives is challenging because they may lack familiarity with your domain, and they have limited time for the topic at hand. Your goal is to extract as much perspective from the executive as possible, and the best way to do this is by writing a structured document.

Every document’s opening paragraph should follow the SQCA format:

  • Situation: Define the relevant context.
  • Complication: Explain why the current situation is problematic.
  • Question: State the core question to address.
  • Answer: State the best answer to the posed question.

Promotion packets

Write your first promotion packet long before you think or you’re likely to be promoted to Staff, similar to writing a brag document.

Template:

  • What are your staff projects?
  • What are the high-leverage ways you’ve impacted the organization?
  • Who have you mentored and through what accomplishments?
  • What glue work have you done for your organization?
  • Promotions, especially at this level, are built over years, and so temper your expectations.

Edit the promotion packet with your peers, who are often better at identifying your strengths and contributions than you are. Maintaining this sort of document and reviewing it across managers will help mitigate the loss of progress toward your promotion that occurs after a manager change.

Conclusion

The path to becoming a staff engineer is as much about technical excellence as it is about leadership, mentorship, and strategic influence. It requires a commitment to not only solving complex technical challenges but also to developing the people and the organizational culture around you. By understanding the different archetypes, focusing on impactful work, building a supportive network, and contributing to the engineering strategy and quality, you can navigate the journey to staff engineer with purpose and impact. This guide, inspired by Will Larson’s insights, provides a roadmap for aspiring staff engineers to navigate the complexities of this role, emphasizing the importance of leadership, strategy, and mentorship in achieving success beyond the conventional management track.

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