“What do Principal Engineers do?” is a fascinating question. Before the acquisition there was a big effort to align titles between SendGrid and Twilio, and while we did do that, some of the underlying parts still haven’t coalesced entirely, and maybe they’ll never totally align depending on the Business Unit and product. - Silvia Botros
Most career ladders define a single, uniform set of expectations for Staff Engineers. These career ladders attempt to identify the commonalities across many folks performing similar roles in their organization. Still, in the end, these ladders are a tool that applies better against populations than people. In the case of Staff-plus engineers, career ladders paper over several distinct roles clustered under a single moniker.
The more folks I spoke with, the better their experiences clustered into four distinct archetypes, although these archetypes weren’t present across every company. The Tech Lead archetype did occur within every company, but if you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find a company that has forgone even the Tech Lead. Other archetypes showed up sporadically or only after a company had scaled into the many hundreds or thousands of software engineers.
The four common archetypes of Staff-plus roles I encountered are:
- The Tech Lead guides the approach and execution of a particular team. They partner closely with a single manager, but sometimes they partner with two or three managers within a focused area.
- The Architect is responsible for the direction, quality, and approach within a critical area, both today and stretching into the multi-year future horizon. They combine a deep knowledge of technical constraints, user needs, and organization level leadership.
- The Solver digs deep into arbitrarily complex problems and finds an appropriate path forward. Some focus on a given area for long periods. Others bounce from hotspot to hotspot as guided by organizational leadership.
- The Right Hand is an extension of an executive-level manager, borrowing their scope and authority to operate particularly complex organizations. They provide additional leadership bandwidth to leaders of large-scale organizations.
This taxonomy is more focused on being useful than complete, but so far, I’ve been able to fit every Staff-plus engineer I’ve spoken to into one of these categories. Admittedly, some folks fit more easily than others.
Tech Leads are the most common Staff archetype and lead one team or a cluster of teams in their approach and execution. They’re comfortable scoping complex tasks, coordinating their team towards solving them, and unblocking them along the way. Tech Leads often carry the team’s context and maintain many of the essential cross-team and cross-functional relationships necessary for the team’s success.
Earlier in their career, they will have implemented their team’s most complex technical projects, but at this point, they default to delegating such projects across the team. They do this both to grow their teammates and in acknowledgment that their team’s impact grows as their coding blocks shrink.
The Tech Lead role is for many folks their first experience as a Staff Engineer. A few forces conspire towards that result. First, the Tech Lead role tends to develop early on within companies that have a strong concept of team, which is common among companies using agile methodologies, and most companies attempt an agile approach at some point. Another factor is that the day-to-day work of a Tech Lead is most similar to the work you’d already be doing as a Senior Engineer. This makes it an fairly intuitive transition.
To acknowledge a source of potential confusion, some companies use Tech Lead as a title that you get promoted into instead of as a role. In this list of archetypes, the Tech Lead is one approach to operating as a Staff Engineer, but it’s quite common to operate in the Tech Lead role without having the impact expected of a Staff-level engineer. Indeed, you’ll find non-Staff engineers acting with the behaviors of every archetype. Being a Staff-engineer is not just a role. It’s the intersection of the role, your behaviors, your impact, and the organization’s recognition of all those things.
The Architect title has fallen out of style in many companies, but the Architect role remains alive and well for folks operating at Staff-plus levels. Architects are responsible for the success of a specific technical domain within their company, for example, the company’s API design, frontend stack, storage strategy, or cloud infrastructure. For a domain to merit an Architect, it must be both complex and enduringly central to the company’s success.
There is a toxic perception that Architects design systems in isolation, pass their designs to others to implement, and mandate their adoption, but reciting that stereotype would slander the successful architects I spoke with. Instead, they dedicated their energy to maintaining an intimate understanding of the business’ needs, their users’ goals, and the relevant technical constraints. They wielded that insight to identify and advocate for effective approaches within their area of focus, leading constellations of teams despite limited tailwinds from bestowed organizational authority.
The Architect role tends to evolve in relatively large companies or companies that struggle to hire senior talent early on and later attempt to compensate for a less experienced team with one or two senior hires. Some companies push for Architects to remain deep in the codebase, and others set a clear expectation that Architects must not write code: both models work for some companies.
The Solver is a trusted agent of the organization who goes deep into knotty problems, continuing to work on them until they’re resolved. Folks in this role are moved onto problems identified by organizational leadership as critical and either lacking a clear approach or with a high degree of execution risk.
Where most Staff-level roles require a very heavy dose of organizational wrangling, the Solver generally operates on problems that are already identified as organizational priorities and thus are called on to do relatively little org-level chiropractics. On the other hand, they generally stop working on problems once they’re contained, which can create the feeling of transience and requires a soft touch to avoid infuriating the teams left behind to maintain the “solved” problem.
The Solver is most common in companies with a weak concept of team, where team sprints are displaced by a lightly directed anarchy. In such companies, it’s common to see the Solver become prevalent in the place of the Tech Lead. You’re less likely to encounter this role at traditionally managed sprint-centric companies until those companies become relatively large or long-lived enough to acquire their own varietal of technical debt.
The Right Hand is the least common of the archetypes, showing up as an organization reaches one thousand or more engineers, and is akin to operating as a senior organizational leader without direct managerial responsibilities. Rick Boone compared his role to the Hand of the King in Game of Thrones and Leo McGarry from The West Wing, operating with the borrowed authority of a senior leader. However, borrowing authority comes with the obligation of remaining deeply aligned with that leader’s approach, beliefs, and values.
Folks in this role attend their leader’s staff meetings and work to scale that leader’s impact by removing important problems from their plate. Problems addressed at this level are never purely technical and instead involve the intersection of the business, technology, people, culture, and process. Right Hands often dive into a fire, edit the approach, and delegate execution to the most appropriate team, and then pop over to the next fire elsewhere in the organization. The joy of these roles is that you only work on essential problems. The tragedy is that you’re always on to the next issue by the time those problems are solved.
Strong and weak team concepts
In the archetype descriptions, I’ve mentioned the weak and strong team concepts, which are uncommon terms and deserve to be expanded upon a bit. A strong team concept is one where ownership, work, and accountability are generally assigned to teams. Signs of a strong concept are sprints, story points, tracking tickets, SLAs, and goals. A weak team concept is one where most work is assigned to individuals, and work is driven primarily through interpersonal connections rather than process.
Because teams serve as an abstraction for organizational leaders, almost all companies move towards a strong team concept after they reach a couple of dozen engineers, but some companies manage to evade the specter of process for considerably longer.
Which is right for you?
As you think about which of these archetypes would fit you, you have to first consider which roles are available within your company, and second, reflect on the kind of work that energizes you.
All companies develop a need for engineers who can fill the Tech Lead role, which makes it the best entry archetype to Staff engineering. Companies with weak team constructs often develop the Solver early, whereas companies that operate under strict sprints or agile methodologies tend to develop that role late, if ever. In the recent crops of fast-growing technology companies, the Architect and Right Handroles have generally emerged as the organizations reached one hundred and one thousand engineers, respectively, and simply don’t exist beforehand. Companies with other strains of cultural DNA often develop them earlier, or sometimes never.
Success in these roles requires remaining engaged, which makes it important to spend time understanding what kinds of work energize you. The Tech Lead and Architect tend to work with the same people on the same problems for years, developing a tight sense of team and shared purpose. Some months their focus will be a top company priority, and sometimes they’ll be humming along so well that executives forget your team exists.
The Solver and Right Hand bounce from fire to fire, often having more transactional interactions with the folks they’re working with on any given week. They’re tightly aligned with executive priorities and are likely to receive recognition for addressing leadership’s most pressing problems. On the other hand, while they’ll nominally be on a team with other folks, there will generally be little-to-no overlap within their team’s areas of focus, and they’ll often have a limited sense of community.
For each archetype, you’ll find folks who love it and find it deeply rewarding, along with folks who find the work despair-inspiring. While it’s important to aim towards an archetype that fits you well, it’s also worth remembering that over your thirty or forty-year career, you’ll have long enough to spend some time sampling every archetype.