Books for software engineers and managers

Staff Engineer

Staff Engineer

Leadership Beyond the Management  Track

by Will Larson, CTO of Calm

Engineering Manager,
Tech Lead,
Star Engineer

How strongly do I recommend Staff Engineer?
7 / 10

What I like about this book – the lessons and ideas presented are applicable not just to staff engineers, but also to engineering managers and many senior engineers.

I also like that Larson interviews staff engineers from a diverse mix of races and genders, without pigeonholing them into conversations about diversity and inclusion.

What I don’t like – like Elegant Puzzle (Larson’s book on engineering management), Staff Engineer is very Silicon Valley centric. The interviews and lessons all come from high growth tech companies like Uber, Dropbox, Stripe, Slack, and Auth0. Teams with hundreds or thousands of engineers and job titles like Tech Advisor to the Head of Infrastructure.

For the other 90% of software engineers out there, it may be difficult to see the applications of Staff Engineer to your own work and careers.

Staff engineers feel less control over what they work  on

Autonomy. Many engineers assume that once they’ve achieved a staff title, they’ll get more control over their work.

But as staff engineer, your responsibilities to the business greatly increase. While you may have more autonomy, your decision framework is now driven by business value.

Avoid snacking

This was a small tip from one staff engineer that I really enjoyed and want to avoid. Snacking is taking on low cost but also low value work. For instance, an easy bug ticket that doesn’t really improve things.

Snacking is tempting because you get the instant reward – you shipped a fix!

But in a matrix of with axes for value and cost, you’re probably avoiding the high value, high cost work – which is largely the point of being a staff engineer.

Write an engineering  strategy

Engineering leaders at smaller to midsize companies often have a vision, but don’t document how that vision manifests itself as a technical strategy. Larson provides the framework for authoring this engineering strategy.

Many staff engineers previously managed  people

Half of the Staff Engineer book consists of interviews with staff engineers and about half of those people previously managed people. The other half would never consider it.

It’s a good sign that people feel comfortable stepping away from people management if they don’t enjoy it (or aren’t very good at it), often to take an individual contributor role.

However, many staff engineers also said that their role does consist of pseudo-management responsibilities. You’re frequently doing 1:1s, you spend less time coding, and you’re working on strategy. But you’re not responsible for things like performance reviews and evaluations.

Staff engineers get access to the  room

Many senior engineers complain about not being in the room when technical decisions are made. As a staff engineer, they’re finally invited into the room.

Once you’re in the room, Larson provides solid recommendations about how to stay in the room. For instance, a lot of engineers will initially misunderstand the purpose of the room – they view it as the place where decisions happen, whereas the room members might view it as the place where tough topics are raised.

Along a similar line, getting the title of Staff Engineer helps people bypass credential questioning and critiques – effectively others see their title and assume a high level of competence. This effect is particularly true for minority engineers.

Staff Engineer