Staff Engineering at Carta
Co-authored with Dan Fike
Carta provides two career paths for engineers: management and technical leadership for individual contributors. If you’ve read Engineering levels at Carta, you know our senior software engineer II level (an individual contributor role) can be terminal — but it still features a lot of room to improve your skills (and pay). For those who wish to pursue it, our first level beyond “senior” and into focused technical leadership is staff engineer. Becoming a staff engineer is difficult and isn’t for everyone. There aren’t just more responsibilities and new expectations — you must be dedicated to creating leverage. This can be hard to express and understand.
We wanted to share with you how Carta helps engineers recognize what a staff engineer is and how to best direct their efforts to grow their career. Hopefully, this will resonate with you no matter your seniority.
As you become increasingly senior, expectations become less and less prescriptive; it’s not possible to list all of the individual responsibilities at every level. By providing a framework instead of strict expectations, we can better align Carta’s interests and your own career ambitions.
The roles of a staff engineer
There are staff engineers at Carta who spend 50% of their day writing code. There are staff engineers who spend 50% of their day in meetings. There are staff engineers who spend 50% of their day writing design documents, RFCs, and the like. There are staff engineers who work to improve our hiring process and staff engineers launching peer-to-peer mentoring programs. Staff engineers come in many different shapes.
As a consequence, the title “staff engineer” is not precise enough to understand someone’s actual role.
“[The career ladder] is a tool that applies better against populations than people. This is particularly true for staff-plus engineers, whose career ladders often paper over several distinct roles hidden behind a single moniker.”
— Will Larson
Fortunately, there’s a growing school of thought capturing what Staff Engineers do day-to-day. We’ve grown fond of the work of Will Larson. In his book “Staff Engineer: Leadership Beyond the Management Track,” Larson describes four distinct archetypes for the role: tech lead, architect, solver, and right hand. Here is how we see these roles manifest at Carta:
- A tech lead at Carta is the entry point of new knowledge and direction on their team. As Carta’s engineering managers tend to have strong technical backgrounds, tech leads share the burden around roadmaps, planning, and glue work.
- Carta’s architects are not only designing systems within their project domain. They also act as a source of wisdom for others around Carta. In turn, they gather knowledge about other happenings to discover valuable trends, patterns, and anti-patterns.
- Solver roles generally exist for short periods of time. They’re intended to stabilize and delegate as much as possible. Some particularly gnarly legacy systems or tech debt projects may require solvers for longer periods of time, but their goal is to create a solution that no longer requires their intervention.
- The right hand¹ is not simply a selected surrogate for executive leadership. These engineers can exist in different layers of the organization and further the agenda of their management and business partners. Right hands are expected to wield influence rather than authority.
Alone, the term “staff engineer” only describes your level, not your role. A staff engineer may align with more than one of these archetypes, or change over time. It is important to recognize that these are modes of operation that describe your work — they are not a career path.
These archetypes emphasize what’s different between roles, but there are some things common across all staff engineers. Rather than being supported by the engineering organization, Carta expects the inverse: You are now supporting the organization. This is the fundamental difference between “senior” and “staff” at Carta. You become an agent of Carta as a whole, and you see the bigger picture in everything you do.
The shape of a staff engineer
Archetypes may provide a shorthand vocabulary to describe how you apply your abilities, but still strike many engineers as too narrow to properly capture the full spectrum of ways they provide value. We’ve been experimenting with how to unpack this further.
Last Fall, LeadDev ran their first StaffPlus Live conference, and one of the speakers was Yonatan Zunger, a Distinguished Engineer at Twitter. His presentation, “Role & Influence: The IC Trajectory Beyond Staff,” outlined how the abilities of most people in the engineering organization, no matter their role, can be summarized along a few simple axes². We’ve adapted this as:
- Technical skill (e.g. implementations, software design, architecture, operations)
- Technical leadership (e.g. anticipating problems, judgment, delegation)
- Project management (e.g. prioritization, sequencing, coordination, accountability)
- Product management (e.g. strategic vision, domain expertise, user empathy)
- People management (e.g. team support, mentorship, managing up)
Using that structure, here is how we might represent the skills of two hypothetical people in Carta’s engineering organization:
In general, the shape of the curve here defines what your role is (SWE, engineering manager, product manager), but the area under the curve defines your level. “Technical skill” can carry you far, but your impact eventually becomes difficult to increase without something else. A more impactful way to leverage your skill is to provide “technical leadership” — predicting challenges and proactively helping others benefit from your wisdom and experience. This might be through pair programming, writing one-pagers, tutoring, or providing feedback on proposals.
Another way to increase the area under that curve is to broaden your skill set. Being able to think like a product manager helps you anticipate what to iterate. Being able to prioritize and timebox helps you (and others) focus on shipping what’s most important. By influencing and guiding other engineers, your impact reaches beyond your individual capabilities. You engender faster understanding, fewer mistakes, and shorter iteration circuits — ultimately driving the company’s bottom line.
The impact of a staff engineer
In 2020, we replaced our old leveling matrix with a new engineering levels guide, which describes a staff engineer like this:
You are expected to solve problems and deliver solutions that impact the engineering organization as a whole. Your manager might occasionally point you in the general direction of a project, but everything after that is you: identifying and formalizing the problem, devising a solution, leading its implementation, and training the rest of the organization to leverage it. At staff, you are expected to have the knowledge, judgment, and understanding to work cross-functionally with your business and product partners to make decisions about your BU’s roadmap. You are capable of mentoring anyone, including your more senior counterparts in your particular areas of expertise. Staff engineers are expected to be a force multiplier for any project upon which they are deployed, and to make the entire engineering organization better.
Impact is the component that feels the most outside of your control. You often don’t get to choose what problems you are solving. If you believe a “staff project” is required to get promoted, you might feel powerless.
But the vast majority of that description is not describing what you worked on, but how you worked. What was your role in that work? What form did your contributions take? Were you supportive of others? Were you exhibiting Carta’s operating principles and identity traits?
Impact does not come from being in the right place at the right time. As a staff engineer, you identify your own opportunities for impact, regardless of whether you are on a platform team or a product team. When the time is right, instead of fighting fires, find a way to prevent them. Instead of improving code, go improve engineers. Instead of assuming it’s somebody else’s problem, make it yours. Be a role model. Maximize your leverage.
The engineering lattice
There are countless paths to becoming a staff engineer. Each path is unique, but invariably your focus will shift toward leveraging your skills to better support the organization and increase your individual impact. The ladder is really a lattice, and the flexibility of this framework is empowering. At Carta, you can align your career growth to your interests. You have creative license in how to best support the organization.
Want to grow your career with Carta? We’re hiring! Check out https://carta.com/careers/
: Will Larson used Carta’s own VP of Infrastructure, Rick Boone, as an example of a Right Hand in his previous role at Uber.
: You can find another interesting attempt at unpacking engineer attributes at www.engineeringladders.com.