At most technology companies, you'll reach Senior Software Engineer, the career level, in five to eight years. At that point your path branches, and you have the opportunity to pursue engineering management or continue down the path of technical excellence to become a Staff Engineer.
Over the past few years we've seen a flurry of books unlocking the engineering manager career path, like Camille Fournier's The Manager's Path, Julie Zhuo's The Making of a Manager and my own An Elegant Puzzle. The management career isn't an easy one, but increasingly there is a map available for navigating it.
On the other hand, the transition into Staff Engineer, and its further evolutions like Principal Engineer, remains challenging and undocumented. What are the skills you need to develop to reach Staff Engineer? What skills do you need to succeed after you've reached it? How do most folks reach this role? How can you as a manager help your team develop towards a Staff Engineer role? Will you enjoy being a Staff Engineer or toil for years for a role that doesn't suit you?
While I wanted to provide answers to each of those questions, I wanted to go beyond boldly presenting my beliefs as universal truths. (If you want my unsubstantiated leadership advice, I can recommend reading my first book, An Elegant Puzzle, without reservation.) Rather, I started with interviewing more than a dozen Staff-plus engineers about their experiences and have folded that into something richer in experience, nuance and perspective than I could have ever written on my own.
The topics to be covered are:
- Overview - survey of your career, the Staff Engineer role, and why the title matters
- Before Staff - preparation before becoming a Staff Engineer
- **Getting the title - **steps to the ritual dance of receiving the title
- Keeping the title - strategies to adapt to the new role’s expectations
- Operating at Staff - digging into the work on the other side
- Resources - collection of templates and further readings if you’re looking for more
As a final admission, my career has been centered in companies that follow some version of the Silicon Valley playbook, and I’m certain some facets of this advice won’t resonate as strongly if your company eschews those patterns. Increasingly the patterns set in Silicon Valley echo into the broader ecosystem, but sometimes these notes travel slowly. If some aspects don’t resonate with your circumstances, I’d be the first to suggest they may not apply in your circumstances.