Managing Staff-plus engineers.

November 27, 2020. Filed under management 130 staff-plus 26

While getting feedback on StaffEng, one request was for more content on managing Staff-plus engineers. It doesn’t quite fit the theme–that effort is focused on the Staff Engineer themselves rather the company or the manager–but it’s an interesting topic and a worthy appendix.

Of course, not all aspects of managing Staff-plus folks are unique to the level: there are fundamentals that apply to managing anyone in any role, like doing effective 1 on 1s or giving feedback. For that sort of thing, read Lara Hogan’s Resilient Management or Camille Fournier’s The Manager’s Path, what I wanted to get into here is how managing something at the Staff-plus level differs from managing, say, a Senior engineer.

These roles vary enough across companies that some aspects of managing your Staff-plus engineers will depend on the Staff archetypes your company emphasizes and where your Staff-plus engineers should fit into the engineering organization, but there are some approaches that will be helpful for you across most configurations.

  • Sponsor and support more than you direct. If you’re giving daily direction to your Staff engineers, you’re utilizing them in the wrong roles. If you aren’t giving them weekly feedback, you’re delaying their growth. If you aren’t lending your sponsorship to their initiatives, then you’ll train the initiative out of them.
  • Help them rewire their definition of success. Working in a high-performing product engineering team is a flywheel of positive feedback. Your product manager appreciate your work. Your engineering manager is engaging the team. Your peers enjoy working together. Your users love your product. Your business loves the adoption. Conversely the Staff engineer’s flywheel of feedback is a lot less immediate. You spend more time working through conflict, you work on longer time horizons, you’re representing important priorities that require deprioritizing some business or product goals. Many folks don’t address this shift and wake up a year later hating their new role, and as their manager you can help them recognize this shift and find compensating strategies to remain energized.
  • Give feedback. One particularly important strategy for rewriting their definition of success—and to keep them growing—is to give frequent feedback. If they’ve picked the wrong battle, tell them, and tell them why. If they’re prioritizing work you wouldn’t, tell them, and tell them why. Nothing is more stressful for a high performer than not knowing how they’re doing! If you don’t give feedback, especially about their best work, they’ll keep changing their approach until you do give feedback (often to your regret).
  • Keep them informed. As a manager, it can be easy to forget how much more access to information you have than engineers. The reality is that most organizations build their information flows around managers communicating key information to other managers. Your Staff-plus engineers will be hamstrung if you don’t find a deliberate, reproducible process for sharing your context witih them. Some folks do this in the beginning of their 1:1s, which works OK, but I’ve come to prefer dropping them into the team’s chat channel as they happen and aggregating them into my weekly email update.
  • Involve them in planning and prioritization. Many engineers get frustrated that “the right work never gets prioritized”, and one of the best solutions to this is to proactively involve more engineers in the planning process. This works on two fronts. First, they understand more of the competing work and why that work is important, and second they’ll be present to advocate more effectively for the sorts of technical work they see missing.
  • Agree on how to stay aligned while acting independently. As you push Staff-plus engineers you support towards leadership, they’re going to start leading more, which will sometimes include surprising you. If leaders you work with never surprise you, then you’re not delegating enough, but if they frequently surprising you, it may be helpful to explicitly establish your controls.
  • Create space for them to think without detaching them from the day-to-day realities of the organization. Many folks in these roles are so motivated by impact and “doing the right thing for the business” that they’ll grind themselves down without external intervention. If you’re their manager, then “external intervention” means you. If you see them spending too much time firefighting and helping unblock urgent work, work with them to protect more time for deep thinking work as well. Conversely, if you see them only doing deep thinking work, they’re likely to lose context, and potentially the respect of their peers and the business, if they don’t adjust that mix.
  • Remind them they’re a role model. Much like they do for managers, engineers in an organization watch Staf-plus engineers to learn which behavior and actions are rewarded (and tolerated). This is a great responsibility, but also a huge opportunity for impact: by living positive values, they have the opportunity to create a positive organization around them.
  • Minimize manager overflow. In the quest for efficiency over effectiveness, many companies trap their managers in a staggering amount of coordination and bureaucracy. When you’re drowning, you’re going to look for help wherever you can, and in many cases that causes managers to offload management work to their Staff engineers. This is absolutely going to happen sometimes–your relationship with Staff-plus engineers you manage is a partnership–but try very hard to minimize the amount and ensure it’s a temporary overflow rather than a permanent one.
  • Give them unrefined problems. This is a senior role where you ought to give them a problem space that they narrow into a more specific problem and solution. They have better technical context than you do, and if you point them too precisely at what you think is the problem, you won’t benefit from their judgment. Picking precisely the right problem creates at least as much impact as finding precisely the right solution, and is only possible when you create space.
  • Cede space to their leadership. When you’re managing a Staff-plus engineer, find ways to move pieces of your ownership explicitly into their realm of responsibility. For example, how can you enable them to hold their team responsible for technical quality, rather than you doing it? This creates leverage for both of you, and a sense of ownership for the Staff-plus engineer.
  • Appreciate them. Great Staff-plus engineers operate fairly independently, so it can be easy to deprioritize them when the organization is on fire. Ignoring your most important people is the manager version of “snacking”–something that feels important but usually isn’t the right priority. So keep your 1:1s, and generally remember to show up for them especially if they aren’t the sort of person to demand it.
  • Build, and insist upon, alignment with the business. Some engineers succeed despite harboring a mentality that technical work is more important than the business requiring that work. This mentality is generally toxic, but it exceptionally toxic when held by a Staff-plus engineer. This is someone who is a role model for the wider organization, and stretching them beyond that perspective is essential for them to remain in a leadership role. Companies undermine and eventually eject leaders who are misaligned with the business.
  • Hold them responsible to the full role. While few folks reach Staff-plus roles with major technical weaknesses, it’s my lived experience is that many folks reach these roles hampered by significant leadership or behaviorial challenges. These folks get the title, but tend to linger in Staff purgatory where they’re expected to lead, but are kept away from most leadership opportunities. They’re viewed as too unreliable or “expensive to involve.” You’ve gotta give these folks feedback on their gaps and hold them accountable to the full role expectations. Don’t let them linger as quasi-leaders indefinitely. Maybe they initially got the role via title inflation so you decide to just cover for their gaps instead of fixing it–don’t do that, instead figure out a plan to support them while shifting that responsibility to them.
  • Give them access to the room, but don’t treat it as a status symbol. Folks often get fixated on status symbols and one that’s particularly common for engineers to focus on is “being in the room.” Sometimes meetings are where the work happens, but most routine reporting meetings have too many people in them, and you can create a great deal of time and space for both you and the Staff-plus engineer you’re supporting by sharding attendance across various meetings rather than doubling up for all of them.

The transition from Senior to Staff-plus engineer is a major one that changes the sort of work being done whereas previous transitions often only change the work’s extent. Many folks struggle with that transition, and many managers aren’t sure how to help support the Staff-plus engineers they work with. Certainly this is an incomplete list of helpful things you can do to support them, but hopefully it’s a useful starting point.