As a Staff+ engineer, when do you get pulled into a new project?
Non-Staff Engineers are typically pulled into a project once an initiative already has-buy in and needs to be technically detailed for execution. Staff+ engineers are often brought in before that. But to answer the question, we should understand the phases of a new initiative and see how our Staff+ archetypes could influence which phase we’re pulled into.
Note: I’m in a feature-heavy area. If you’re on a platform team, the advice will still apply, but your mileage may vary.
From what I’ve seen, a complex, multi-team initiative roughly goes through a few phases:
- Business opportunity discovery: where there’s a revenue goal established and some market sizing of problems we could solve for our business.
- Product idea generation: Product Managers come up with a set of product offerings/solutions that could potentially satisfy the business problem and revenue goals.
- Gut-check technical feasibility: for each idea (or a ranked subset), someone technical assesses which teams would be involved, which technical capabilities would support this, whether or not the systems powering those capabilities are mature enough to support the ideas, roughly how long the execution will take (measured in quarters of a year or months at this stage), and any other gotchas that might balloon costs for the idea.
- The top idea is chosen: all dimensions considered, product and business decide on the idea worth pursuing further.
- Architectural scoping: create a boxes and arrows diagram of the entire system involved in the solution for the product idea. This requires gathering technical subject matter experts from the numerous teams covering the capabilities needed for the idea. The goal here is to have the problem technically tractable: providing a map of where the holistic architecture could go.
- Per-capability technical scoping: this is where engineering teams/squads come in. At this point, we have a sense of the teams and systems involved and need to know how a particular business capability (e.g., targeting, forecasting, booking, serving, and reporting, in the advertising domain) needs to change. This is where the Senior and mid-level engineers are brought in to write RFCs (i.e., design documents).
- Execution, testing, launch…
From the phases above, when you’re pulled in as a Staff+ engineer depends on a few dimensions: your archetypes and the technical strength of the accountable leadership team.
For example, if you’re primarily the Technologist archetype (focuses more on execution/code for a capability), then you’ll get pulled in during the per-capability technical scoping phase (or during the architectural scoping phase before it if you know about more than a single capability). You typically don’t want to deal with the people, politics, and chaos of the earlier phases and only want to be summoned when technical decisions need to be made. If you’re pulled in earlier, you’ll get frustrated, stop joining meetings, or think poorly of the folks dealing with the more ambiguous phases of the initiative (“they don’t have their shit together”).
If you’re a Strategist or Business Partner, you’ll get pulled in at the early gut-check technical feasibility phase. You’ll be able to handle the ambiguity of the product idea, identify relevant teams and points-of-contact, surface gotchas or tension/conflicts with the current product roadmap or architecture, and help the accountable leadership team make the initiative less ambiguous, progressing downward through the other phases. You’ll partner with Technologists to derisk the effort and eventually navigate teams towards the finish line.
If the accountable leadership team (usually consisting of a product manager, an engineering manager, and a program manager) has a very technical engineering manager (that can reason about the holistic architecture of the business), then you as a Staff+ engineer might not get pulled in to closely collaborate, but you might be consulted.
Reflect on when you usually get pulled in, which phase you enjoy, which phase you want to be pulled into, and which archetypes you’ll want to develop or lean into to provide value at that phase.