A Readme for Staff Engineers

Benjamin Baumann
Criteo R&D Blog
Published in
5 min readNov 23, 2021

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Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

During my career, I’ve switched several times between individual contributor (IC) and management roles. I enjoy both. With years passing by, I realize that even though roles are different, past the “staff” level there is a common ground of mindset and soft skills that enables you to make progress on both tracks : communication, positivity, teamplay, openness, influence and impact. To develop these skills, you need to take a step back and question yourself. This. Is. Hard. Having examples, resources and even mentors is a huge help to guide you in this journey.

www.get-digital.dk

If you are on the engineering management track, you have plenty of good resources available to guide you in your path. The two that immediately come to my mind are Managing Humans (Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager) by Michael Lopp and The Manager’s path by Camille Fournier. Both books are full of advice and lessons learned by their author during ther IT manager career (from team lead to CTO/VP of engineering). Whether it is about 1:1, managing different kind of personalities, communication, managing teams, managing yourself or even managing managers, you can learn a lot from them!

If you are on the IC track, resources are scarce. I often fall back on management resources, reading and interpreting them from an IC point of view, asking myself “how could I use these methods in an IC situation?”, “does this apply to a non-managerial relationship?”. This worked but one thing was always missing : Specific tools & topics for staff+ IC. You are expected to have an impact on a group (staff engineer), a department (senior staff), sometimes on the whole company (principal engineer) but how you can/must do it is up to you. Moreover, the more you progress on your career, the harder it is to find role models and mentors.

The best resource? Feedback!

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
— Ken Blanchard

Regular feedback from your manager is a must have. But this is not all of it, exchanging knowledge & practices with your peers is not to be overlooked. This applies to feedback you receive but also to feedback others publicly share. Open your mind!

By listening to your experienced peers telling the stories of what they tried, what they failed at, what they learned, what they succeeded in, you get the chance to understand their journey, to learn from them. You are better prepared to handle similar situations. And ultimately it gives you an idea of a path to success.

It’s important to learn from your mistakes, but it is BETTER to learn from other people’s mistakes, and it is BEST to learn from other people’s successes. It accelerates your own success.

— Jim Rohn

Let’s share two gems of staff engineer knowledge source.

https://staffeng.com/

The StaffEng project aims to collect the stories of folks who are operating in Staff, Principal or Distinguished Engineer roles. How did you get there? What were your lucky breaks? How did you learn to be effective? As more of these stories are collected, I hope to build a dataset that helps folks draw their own map to Staff Engineer.

Staffeng is all about feedback. You have free access to interviews of staff+ engineers from tech companies (Slack, Dropbox, IBM, Stripe…) who are telling their engineer life stories. Will Larson also consolidated these stories in useful guides (what do staff engineers actually do?, work on what matters, create space for others…).
Nearly everything is available on the website, you can buy the ebook. Profits are donated to non-profit organizations that work to increase access for underrepresented communities in technology.

If you wonder about a staff eng career or already operate at staff level, you should definitely take a look at staffeng.com

LeadDev’s Staffplus

LeadDev is a human-centered technical community. In their own words

“LeadDev is a space where we can come together to learn from our mistakes and experiences as a collective. Through sharing the knowledge we’ve gained as technical leaders, we can both grow our own careers, develop others, and propel the tech industry forward.”

In practice, once you created your free account, you gain access to tons of interesting articles, replays of conferences/talks.

The last conference I attended was Staffplus, focused on the staff+ track.
I especially liked @saleandro (Principal Engineer at Intercom) presentation. She gave insights on how she operates with her goals :

  • 📝 Create a “high impact work” backlog grouping topics from business strategy, team needs, org needs and personal growth
  • 🔝 Prioritize and trim it (delegation!)
  • 👥 Get feedback on it
  • 💥 Publish it!
  • ⚒️ Break it down
  • 📈 Track progress
  • 🔁 Repeat

The Publish it! part was an eye-opening trigger. It’s good to have goals, it’s best to let others know. It boosts your accountability and gives visibility to what you plan to do. With this visibility, you are able to justify your focus and decline non-urgent tasks.
As a bonus such public goals are useful to explain your role to new starters and can be leveraged for self assessment.
If you’re interested in this topic, watch the replay or read her post

Other insightful sessions included a panel discussing how to setup a cross-team project for success, a presentation on options to deal with legacy projects : “kill it with fire or not kill it with fire?” and many more. Check the replays !

One last point about leaddev’s community, they have an active slack space to openly discuss topics!

Now’s your turn! Read blogs & books, watch conferences, spread the word and share your feedback!

Interested in what you are reading? Follow us on Medium or apply today!

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Benjamin Baumann
Criteo R&D Blog

Manager at Criteo. I love building things. I love even more helping others and sharing 😊