When folks, particularly women and non-binary people, come to me for advice, I think they expect me to talk about how to grow as a technical leader, and are surprised when I say "You've probably already got the technical chops, what you need to do is work on your reputation at the company." For better or for worse, you can't get to Staff without a good reputation. - Katie Sylor-Miller
Bert Fan's best advice for those trying to reach a Staff-plus role was, "Often reaching Staff is a combination of luck, timing, and work." Timing is a particular sort of luck, so you can simplify this even further down to just luck and work.
If you're fortunate, then you won't have to pursue a deliberate path to a Staff-plus role. You're already working on your company's top priorities, have a well-positioned manager who cares about supporting your career and are working from your company's headquarters office. If you're starting with none of those things, getting promoted will be quite a challenge, but don't count yourself out: it's easy to underestimate your own role in getting lucky.
One of the most effective ways to get luckier is to be more visible within your organization. There are, of course, very quick, very negative ways to increase your visibility, so I'll refine the statement a bit. Your goal is to be known for good things while minimizing the organizational bandwidth you consume to do so.
Why visibility matters
Katie Sylor-Miller describes visibility as a critical piece of getting promoted to Staff,
Something I haven't talked about enough is communication and transparency. A big part of being promoted to Staff is making sure that your work is visible, that people know your name and you have a good reputation.
Staff-plus roles are leadership roles, and by recognizing you with such a position, the company is bringing you into its leadership team. The existing members of that team want to be comfortable that they're expanding their ranks with folks they believe in, and they can't believe in you if they don't know you.
If you're operating without much visibility within your company, this may likely come across as cliquey or gatekeeping behavior. Conversely, if you are well-known internally, this may feel like the necessary cost for maintaining a consistent set of expectations and criteria for folks taking on leadership roles -- how could you maintain consistency if you are unfamiliar with their work?
It's interesting to briefly reflect on how inclusive organizations mitigate the negative gatekeeping aspects of validating folks as appropriate additions to their leadership team. The answer is that they design mechanisms to ensure the full swath of potential leaders get exposure to the folks who will evaluate them for leadership roles. Conversely, less inclusive organizations inadvertently center access on folks who most aggressively self-advertise.
The single best way to create internal visibility is to work on the things that matter to your company and company leadership. This path is also the most aligned with how a well-managed company will evaluate your contribution.
Sometimes that isn't enough, though, and some other strategies are:
- Write and distribute more long-lived documents, like architecture docs or technical specification
- Lead (and, to a lesser extent, participate in) company forums like architecture reviews, company all hands, and learning circles
- Be a cheerleader for your team's and peers' work on Slack
- You can also cheerlead via email instead of Slack
- Share weekly notes of your work to your team and stakeholders in a way that other folks can get access to your notes if they're interested
- Contribute to your company's blog
- Attend, or potentially even host, office hours for your team or org
Find the right mix of activities that leverage your strengths, aren't already overburdened with volume, and feel authentic to you. If you've never communicated about your work, it may feel awkward to self-promote. You never want to wholly lose that sense of awkwardness--restraint helps--but you will have to get comfortable with some of it.
To be promoted to a leadership role, the most important kind of internal visibility is executive visibility. Using the promotion packet, you will create visibility with your manager, but it's helpful to go further. It's particularly valuable to find opportunities to build a relationship with your manager's manager, but all positive, visibility at that layer will be helpful to you.
These are the folks who tend to be in the room that approves promotions into Staff-plus roles, and they rarely support folks whose work they don't know.
It's helpful to complement your internal visibility work with external visibility work. There are many successful Staff-plus engineers with no external presence, but many find external visibility contributes to their career.
Compared to an exclusively internal focus, one advantage of building an external presence is that there's a lot more room to create a niche and name for yourself. Internal efforts often end up competing for attention with your peers in a way that external efforts simply don't.
In terms of how to create this sort of visibility for yourself and your work, it could be giving a conference talk like Keavy McMinn or Dan Na, going on a podcast like Michelle Bu, turning a problem into a website and book like Katie Sylor-Miller's ohshitgit, or creating a mailing list like Stephen Whitworth's High Growth Engineering.
Should you focus on visibility?
You can always have more visibility within your organization, but at some point, increasing your visibility is likely reducing the opportunities for others to create visibility for themselves. Internal visibility is not strictly zero-sum, but it's constrained by the attention of the folks you want to see your work.
My advice would be to use the promotion packet exercise to identify if the lack of visibility is likely to hold you back in the promotion process. If so, work to clear that threshold, but not much further. Visibility is a transient currency. Learning and developing yourself is a permanent one; focus on the latter once you've done the minimum to clear the former's cliff.