If you're safely nestled within the comfortable clutches of the Senior engineer career level, you might wonder if you ought to pursue the Staff title. It's a considerable investment of time and energy, along with requiring a good amount of luck. Is that investment worth your time?
The answer is, of course, that it might be! The three consistent advantages that generally come with a Staff-plus title are:
- allowing you to bypass informal gauges of seniority,
- facilitating access to "the room,"
- increase in current and career compensation.
A potential fourth advantage is that some folks find that the title grants more agency to select the projects you work on, but others find that increase in agency is swallowed by a commensurate increase in accountability to the business.
Informal gauges of seniority
When I spoke with Nelson Elhage about whether reaching the Staff level allowed him to take on new work, he answered:
The question of "allowed" is interesting and might not be quite the right question because there were very few official policies on who got what kind of role. Most things relied on more informal gauges of seniority.
Many technology companies describe themselves as pursuing meritocracy, defined as creating the conditions for talented employees to rise to the top naturally. Given there isn't any widely accepted measure of individual merit, such companies come to rely on what Nelson aptly termed "informal gauges of seniority." While these gauges are believed to evaluate ideas objectively, their sheer informality becomes a broad vector of bias and often conflate confidence with competence.
Freedom from the cycle of re-establishing one's competence came up frequently as a key advantage of the Staff title. These informal gauges weren't mentioned by every Staff-plus engineer I spoke with, but they were routinely mentioned by individuals who didn't conform to their company's stereotype of an experienced technologist.
Keavy McMinn shared,
When you have a title, you don't have to spend so much energy putting your credentials on the table. It helps set the context for others. You're more respected from the outset, and that's been really noticeable.
A Staff-plus title allows you to reinvest the energy you've previously spent on proving yourself into the core work you're evaluated on. If you find that you're not investing much energy into proving yourself, that's great! Perhaps you've been at your current company long enough and proven yourself enough times that it's no longer an issue. If you do find your time diverted towards proving and reproving yourself, the title will return a considerable measure of time to you for reinvestment.
Being in the room
Another frequent advantage of a Staff-plus title is "being in the room." Dan Na described this as,
I have a seat at the table in higher-level engineering discussions that occur at a level above individual projects and teams. We have recurring staff engineering meetings where we discuss problems that span teams which are both technical and non-technical in nature. As a hypothetical example, I'd feel comfortable surfacing what I perceive as shortcomings in the engineering onboarding process in this type of meeting.
For any important decision, there's the time leading up to the core decision being made, and then there's everything afterward. In more senior roles, you're often in the right place to provide input when it's relatively cheap to incorporate, where otherwise your feedback might not be incorporated--despite being very valuable--because the related roll out or implementation has advanced too far.
Small companies tend to have fairly ad-hoc compensation, and increases come from direct negotiation with your manager. A promotion to a Staff-plus role in such a company might not even come with a corresponding increase in your compensation. However, most companies introduce compensation bands for each role by the time they reach one to two hundred folks. Those compensation bands will generally ensure your compensation increases along with the role.
The highest-paid roles at any company tend to be the executive and senior management roles. As companies grow, they typically create a compensation mapping between management and engineering roles, such that reaching Staff-plus roles (and sometimes this is Sr Staff or Distinguished roles rather than the initial Staff role) will significantly bump your compensation.
Even if your current company doesn't compensate for Staff-plus engineer roles much differently than for Senior engineer roles, some companies do. Throughout your career, you can choose to steer towards such companies, and doing so with a Staff-plus title will meaningfully increase your lifetime earnings.
Access to interesting work
Many folks take on Staff-plus roles believing it will give them access to the most visible or exciting work. That's true to some extent, but it depends on the Staff archetypes which are most prevalent at your company. For example, Solvers often do get access to the most interesting work. Conversely, a Tech Lead would probably be undermining their team if they operated that way.
Among the folks I've spoken with, the most consistently effective way to get access to interesting work is being hired to do it, such as Ritu Vincent who was hired to launch Dropbox's product incubator and Keavy McMinn who was hired to design Fastly's API strategy.
This doesn't always work out. Sometimes the interesting work will be plainly visible but still inaccessible. You'll be too obligated to the business' needs to pursue a project out of personal interest. In earlier roles, you might be able to sneak that sort of project into your backlog, but now you'll have a responsibility to model good behavior. Even in cases where the project is the best thing for the company, you'll often decide to pass the opportunity on to another engineer who would benefit from it more than you would.
Different rather than better
Even though the title does matter, it's not necessarily the case that you ought to pursue the role. Even if you love the privileges and perks of a Staff-plus title, it's important to recognize that they come on the back of a very different job. Michelle Bu captured this in her advice for folks pursuing the Staff title,
If you're more focused on hitting Staff than on setting yourself up to do work that energizes you, it's easy to end up stuck in a role you don't want. Being a Staff-plus engineer, especially a broad-scoped Staff-plus engineer, is a very different job than being a Senior engineer. It's important to take a step back and think about whether it's a job you really want.
The advantages of senior titles are real, and for some folks, those advantages shift their career from one characterized by survival to one with the necessary prerequisites for their success. However, many folks find that their Staff role's heightened expectations eliminate the work that used to excite them. In your career, there are few choices without consequences, and this isn't one of them.
Material but not magic
You'll occasionally meet an engineer who believes that attaining a certain title is the only thing standing between them and an important accomplishment or opportunity. Such folks might express frustrations, such as, "If I just had the Staff title, I could decide the technology stack for our team."
Increased organizational authority does provide new tools for solving problems, but successfully retaining organizational authority in a well-managed organization requires a great deal of nuance and restraint. If you have a problem and believe that your title is the only thing holding you back, I want to reassure you that focusing on developing your approach and skills will be far more impactful than the title. The title will get you over the ledge once you're close, but it'll never do as much work as you'd expect.
The one consistent exception to this rule is that women and minorities often do find they spend significantly less time and energy, proving themselves once they attain a Staff-plus title. The title doesn't unlock new abilities for them, but it does remove some of the weight they'd been carrying with them throughout their career.