Your Next Staff Plus Role

Overview

This post is my perspective & experience on what it means to move at a senior (Staff Plus role) Individual Contributor role in another company. This is inspired by writings from StaffEng.com and in particular writings by Tanya Reilly & Will Larson on what the role entails and how to grow into it. This post is more on what to expect when you make a lateral move to another company and how to navigate this.

First off — a bit about my background. I have been working as an individual contributor for the last 20+ years. I have grown from an entry level engineer at a startup to a senior engineer and finally to what is called a Principal Architect or a Staff Plus level. In my previous stint I was a Distinguished Engineer at Walmart and now I am a Staff Engineer at Uber. As you can see some of these titles change based on size of the company and the culture. However the role description is more or less the same — they are the equivalent of a director / senior manager in the management chain.

What to Expect

If you have moved as a senior IC to another company — Congratulations — these roles are very hard to fill and the bench mark is very high — so that in itself is an achievement.

When you have grown from within the company to a senior IC track — (again not many companies have well defined job descriptions of the senior IC track), you already have a perspective of the company culture, are likely to have worked on many aspects of the Company’s business problems — and have a good vision of where the company is headed and its problem space. When you move as a senior IC to a new company — your first challenge is really to understand the breadth on which the company operates, the problem space it is in — and what the challenges are. You might come across some immediate problems which are either getting solved or in the process of doing so — though you might not have enough context to fully contribute, showing your experience and thought leadership and how you solved for these kind of problems in an earlier experience should come across even if you are new.

You will also have to get an understanding of the company’s tech stack, likely have to ramp-up on new programming languages, tools and frameworks. The coding and ramping up part is easy enough to do as you are hands on and have the experience of continuously learning.

The abstract part which involves understanding the more cross cutting problems that you need to deal with is very likely how you can make an impact and where your time is best served.

The First 6 months

Your very first goal should be to understand the lay-of-the-land. For this, I suggest putting in your first 6 month plan on some high level outcomes you want to achieve. In this I would put in a mix of the following goals

  1. Team connects and connects within your immediate organisation
  2. Connects with leaders and other senior ICs in your larger organisation
  3. Jump into an execution mode on a team’s immediate deliverables — this is the best way to learn the stack and tools and processes
  4. Get involved in Operational Excellence meetings and Incident RCAs.
  5. Be part of the On-call support for the first year.
  6. Attend as many knowledge based trainings and sessions you have access to
  7. Identify cross functional reusability, based on company OKRs
  8. Have monthly connects with your skip level manager to provide visibility into what you do.
  9. Monthly connects with senior engineers and leaders in different orgs also helps to get a perspective on what is happening in other areas.
  10. Mentor a few engineers.

Track all of what you do in your own personal doc that helps in measure the progress to your goals. This practice is extremely helpful to keep you grounded and focussed.

Impact

As a Staff Plus engineer — the impact is not about product features or delivery of a project. It is more about being the force multiplier. Very often when you are new — you might not even know the problem space — so solving a problem especially at a horizontal level can be challenging. To do this, make sure you exercise strategic thinking. Some questions I ask myself

  1. How is this problem helping the overall direction of the company
  2. Am I helping with decisioning at a larger level
  3. For every tactical item you see — keep asking the Why till you arrive at the big picture.
  4. Ask tough questions to your leadership on strategy, vision and direction of the company

Keeping up regular connects, even if there is no concrete agenda (other than listening and learning) , is in my view a key piece of finding opportunities that you can contribute to. The other key part is to know whats top of mind at the leadership levels and find the relevant sponsors with whom you can build connects and help kickoff any initiatives. These are not of-course one-off initiatives, but ones that solve a problem for your team or organisation

On the Ground yet Off It

As senior engineers, we love to code , seeing it in production and monitoring the metrics and improving it iteratively gives us a sense of satisfaction. At the Staff Engineer role we have to step out of our immediate comfort zone and try to address the uncomfortable problems — ones that are biting productivity, growth related problems or challenging certain dogmas. We also have to ensure that the we are mentoring our next level and giving opportunities to lead from a technical front to the next level of upcoming engineers all the while maintaining a good oversight on what is on happening the ground. Many a time, when things go south, you will be called to come and fix — and not having context at this point will be difficult for you & also for the team. Of course all of this will take time, and navigating and getting rooted to the new culture is itself going to take some bandwidth and getting used to. I would not be disheartened, if the output is not measurably huge during the first 6 months or a year — at StaffPlus levels the impact comes with understanding and little tenure.

Navigating the Organisation

As your tenure increases, and you will start to fit in the pieces of the puzzle with continued the focus on getting into more horizontal problem areas — and volunteer for projects that will create a horizontal impact. As a Staff Plus engineer , it’s important to be grounded while going across and connecting the dots. For this make sure you are associated to a team, attend all the team events and have your skin in the game for the teams deliverables — have good connect with the leaders on that team. In my view, having an anchor team is important as it’s all too easy to get lost in the high seas of abstract problems, so having a team that you can feel part of keeps you motivated.

Thought Leadership

Encourage thought leadership from the engineers by bringing together the leads and talking through the various problem spaces. This will not only foster idea generation but also help with reusability and creating other force multipliers. Many a time, what gets hard to do in a group, is to look at an abstract problem and make it something concrete. This is where Staff Plus thought leadership needs to come in and be that influencer that can take the abstract thought and translate it into something meaningful and actionable.

Tracking your work

At Staff Plus level, it’s all too easy to get lost in meetings and other discussions. These suck your time, so it’s necessary to prioritise the meetings that are necessary, the ones that are pro bono, and note everything down in a daily or weekly log. This helps in getting a sense of any work that is being done that is not in line with your priorities.

Mindset

It’s important to keep a growth mindset, where you are not looking at only what you are learning or doing, but keeping in mind the growth of the company and the growth of engineers around you. You will be the culture ambassador of the company both internally & externally. With this mentality be prepared for the long haul, where there might be the chaos of organisational changes, but you are tunnel visioned on what growth means and how you are contributing.Though you might not agree completely in some of the decisions , as long you have been part of the decision process, and have committed to the decisions, you an evangelist for the company & its decisions.

And finally

I came across staffeng.com, purely because I was at times in a quandary to figure out how I should be thinking and doing, and this was a most refreshing resource for me to reset, and say “Yes thats how it is for me too”. I will also recommend Will Larsons Staff Engineers book as a good read and The HBR Guide to Managing Up & Across as some background information for those who are getting into staff roles in an industry that is still very much nascent in having a proper meaning and definition to this role.

Thanks to tanya reilly and Moiaz Jiwani for their inputs into this.

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