October 8, 2020.
Note: this is an article for staffeng.com, written for an audience of folks on cusp of reaching a Staff Engineer role.
There are only a few magic spells to attain a Staff-plus role: negotiate for the title while switching roles or find a supportive environment to “bake in place” while building your internal credibility with an empowered sponsor who’ll advocate for you. The most important reagent in both spells is picking the right company to perform them at.
The good news if you’re applying to a new company is that while you might invest weeks of energy into determining if you can get a Staff role there, you won’t need to invest years. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a company to join and grow within, you’re embarking on a years-long journey into an unknown organization. This is a daunting decision to make, and picking the right company for you will have a considerable impact on whether you attain a Staff-plus role.
If career velocity is your aim, then join a company that, for whatever reason, disproportionately values what you’re good at. For example, Fastly valued Keavy’s API design experience, and Stripe valued Dmitry’s work on compilers. If there’s a gap matching your particular shape that’s limiting their success, your impact on the company will be uniquely high.
Well run organizations value you for what you’re good at. Less well run companies value you for your identity, for example a culture that views aggression as leadership would indeed promote and center the most aggressive folks, but to their culture’s and team’s detriment. Sometimes you’ll find a company that nets you values you appropriately because it values your incidentals without valuing your contributions that you consider to be valuable; that seems like it’ll work out, but generally speaking it’s a recipe for frustration.
When you’re trying to identify your company to make the Staff transition, there are a number of company values to consider in your decision. One that’s particularly important is understanding if the company’s leadership fundamentally subscribes to an exception-heavy “meritocratic” view of the world or a consistency-heavy “proceduralist” view. Few companies exist exclusively at one end of this continuum, but most slant heavily in one direction.
Of course, folks won’t describe themselves in these terms. The first style would have called themselves a meritocracy a few years ago. Now that the term has fallen out of favor they’d avoid it, but their core beliefs remain intact. This style is particularly common in Silicon Valley, is heavily exception driven, and consolidates its efforts feting a small cadre of treasured individuals. Generally, in these companies, you’re going to be very successful if you pattern match with whatever they believe high potential looks like. You’re like in for a rough ride if you don’t.
Another style of company you’ll find out there, believes that consistency drives fairness. They’re the sort that work the policy rather than the exceptions: they design the clock, set it in motion, watch it tick, and make occasional repairs. These companies tend to be more structure-driven and less intuition-driven, which can create wider access to opportunity for more folks, but they can also be rigid bureaucracy whose look on smugly while their machinery grinds an individual down.
Inevitably, both meritocrats and proceduralists view their world-view as a moral position, and depending on who you are and who the company’s leadership is, you’ll have a radically different experience.
Some ways to explore during your interview process to help distinguish these mindsets:
Neither meritocratic nor proceduralistic companies have inherently better odds of propelling you into a Staff-plus role, rather it’ll depend on your identity, and the identities of folks in a company’s leadership roles. Depending on how those pieces align, you can estimate the level of support and friction you’ll encounter pursuing a Staff-plus rol.
Most companies only hire one or two of the Staff archetypes, even though they all use the same titles to describe the role they’re hiring for. If you’re trying to figure out a given company’s preferences, it’s most effective to reach out to some of their existing Staff-plus engineers and get a sense of the work they do. Most companies don’t deliberately think about the sort of Staff engineers they support, so asking directly rarely works as well as it should.
Sufficiently large companies end up with at least some folks operating in each of the archetypes, but it takes a long time until that’s the case, usually after their engineering organization has scaled to thousands of engineers.
If you’ve exclusively worked at fast growing, successful startups then it might not cross your mind that there can be a lack of room for additional folks operating in Staff-plus engineering roles, but it’s surprisingly common for slower growing companies to simply not have the work or the budget for more folks in leadership roles. This is also a common constraint for companies that haven’t reached product-market fit–there’s limited leadership slots when a company needs to remain highly aligned while changing frequently–with potential exceptions for those that happen to be selling a developer-centric or technical infrastructure product of some sort.
If you join a fast-growing company, new Staff opportunities will organically open up. In slower growing companies, you may need to wait for someone to vacate their current role before another becomes available. That’s not to say that you should necessarily join a fast-growing company if you don’t want to–they’re often stressful and run on perpetually out-of-date processes–just another factor to consider.
Getting a Staff-plus offer at a new company requires someone inside that company who believes in you and is willing to push through a fair amount of organizational friction to get you the title. Getting promoted to Staff-plus requires a manager and management chain who believe in you, and their willingness to push through even more friction to get you the title. Without an empowered leader within a company who’s willing to invest their organizational capital on you, you can’t get a leadership role.
When looking for a company to pursue a Staff-plus role at, a big part of the equation is identifying a company where you’ll have an effective sponsor. Interviewing outside of your current company is often effective at finding you a sponsor: your would-be hiring manager tends to have well-aligned incentives to extend you a Staff offer. Equally important, your time investment is high but still relatively low compared to working at a company for two years to realize you’re never going to reach your goal.
The easiest sponsors to find are folks who you’ve worked with before. The flying wedge pattern of one senior leader joining a company and then bringing on their previous coworkers is a well-known and justifiably-despised pattern that relies on this built-in referrer-as-sponsor, but it doesn’t have to be toxic if done sparingly.
This is also where having an external presence and network can greatly aid your search. Folks who’ve seen your presentations, read your blog posts, or nodded in agreement at your tweets are more likely to become your proactive sponsor in the interview process and later during promotion discussions.
Particularly if you’re earlier in your career and pursuing a promotion into a Staff role, it’s important to consider the company’s durability: will the company even exist five years from now when you’re hoping your work will culminate in a Staff-plus promotion?
Somewhat more subtly, you also have to consider the longevity of your would-be Staff sponsor. There are some wonderful engineering leaders creating pockets of equitable access to Staff-plus roles, but all too often these turn into a Values Oasis that can’t sustain itself once the sponsoring leader departs the company or changes roles.
Derisk durability by ensuring you join companies with business models that actually work, and work for leaders who are values-aligned with their organization’s senior-most leadership (that way, even if they leave, you’re still aligned with potential sponsors).
Throughout a forty year career, there are times when you’re rested and looking for a challenging, enveloping role. There are going to be other times when you’re drained and worn out. You will harm yourself by accepting a role that demands more pace from you than you’re able to presently sustain. When taking on a technical leadership role it’s particularly important to make sure that the company’s pace expectations align with what you’re able to provide, because you’ll be evaluated in part on being a role model for the company’s pace.
Job searches for leadership roles are much slower than the typical software search, taking months rather than weeks, and it’s trying to rush it rarely works out. As you evaluate a company about where it’s an effective place to reach a Staff-plus role, you also have to evaluate it for everything else that you’d evaluate in a typical process.
Dig into your whisper network for toxic issues and individuals. Make sure the mission is something you can stay supportive of and engaged with for years. Search for the folks you’ll be able to learn from during your work. If you find that these Staff criteria are pulling you towards a company that you otherwise have concerns about, the good money is that you’ll regret that decision.