How do folks reach Staff Engineer?

March 19, 2020. Filed under staff-eng 2

At most technology companies, you'll reach Senior Software Engineer, the so-called 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.

The transition into Staff Engineer, and its further evolutions like Principal Engineer, remains particularly 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? What can companies do to streamline the path to Staff Engineer? Will you enjoy being a Staff Engineer or toil for years for a role that doesn't suit you?

There are important questions, and there are a lot of opinions out there. I’ve got a bunch myself. That said, I wanted to take a nuanced approach to unwrapping the answers. What works for me or for the folks I’ve supported won’t necessarily work for you, so I decided to find folks who’ve reached Staff-plus titles and ask them to share their stories.

To my great excitement, a number of remarkable folks have been willing, and I’m starting to record these projects on staffeng.com. The first will go up next Tuesday on March 24th, and I'll post another each following Tuesday and Thursday until I run out. At minimum there will be several months of stories.

If you want to follow along, you can subscribe to StaffEng email updates or to StaffEng's RSS feed as well. If you’re interested in sharing your Staff engineering story or metadata, that would be wonderful.

On a writing note, I've wanted to experiment with focusing on an intentional writing project for the year, and I'm excited to see the reception for these stories. Once I've collected enough stories, I'm also looking forward to the opportunity to synthesize these stories into a guide to becoming and succeeding as a Staff-plus Engineer. Given the sheer quantity of stories, I won't be cross-posting them all onto Irrational Exuberance, but I will be initially publishing the compiled advice here before collating it into a guide. I'll also provide some meta commentary here on the project overall as it gets going.


Finally, ending with a note on the time we're living in. I have spent a fair amount of time over the past few days considering if now is the right time to launch this project into the world. This project has in some ways served me as a temporary refuge from the difficult moment we're living in, and in the end I think it's a positive, valuable thing to bring into the world right now. I hope folks will take timing in that spirit.