January 2, 2021.
Have you presented to company executives about a key engineering initiative, walking into the room excited and leaving defeated? Maybe you only made it to your second slide before unrelated questions derailed the discussion. Maybe you worked through your entire presentation only to have folks say, “Great job,” and leave without any useful debate. Afterward, you’re not quite sure what happened, but you know it didn’t go well.
December 5, 2020.
Engineers are often frustrated that their management “treats us like fungible resources when we’re unique humans.” On the other hand, engineers usually view individual ownership as a managerial failure, “critical systems need to be owned by teams not by individuals.” At a certain remove, these seem like contradicting beliefs—they’re not—and thinking about how both can be true brings us to an idea I’ve been reflecting on a lot recently: weak team concepts and strong team concepts.
December 3, 2020.
Anyone who has been cornered by relatives at a party and asked to explain what software engineers _actually do_ knows that explaining the work can be a challenge. Over time you may have created a compelling answer for your relatives, but many folks’ minds go blank when their coworker leans over and asks, “What’s a Staff engineer do?”
November 27, 2020.
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.
November 26, 2020.
Few companies understand their engineering strategy and vision. One consequence of this uncertainty is the industry belief that these documents are difficult to write. In some conversations it can feel like you’re talking about something mystical, but these are just mundane documents. The reality is that good engineering strategy is boring, and that it’s _easier_ to write an effective strategy than a bad one.
November 20, 2020.
When you decide to interview for a Senior engineer role, you roughly know what to expect. You’ll refresh your resume, work through Cracking the Coding Interview, and do some research on the company to prepare questions. When you go into the interview, you know it’s going to be five-ish interviews composed of a few programming exercises, something about technical architecture, and some cultural, behavioral, or career questions.
November 19, 2020.
As I’ve spoken with more folks trying to reach their first Staff-plus role, most folks run into similar challenges. Many have miscalibrated their own impact, and simply haven’t done the work yet to operate at that level: a Staff Engiener isn’t just a faster Senior Engineer. However, there’s a large cohort who have done the work--they’re visible across their organization and have pulled together a strong promotion packet--but are still struggling to have that work recognized.
November 5, 2020.
One of the projects from my time at Stripe that I’m proud of was writing our engineering strategy, which I later sanitized into a public version in Magnitudes of exploration. The strategy was an elegant document that carefully reconciled two worldviews that had initially appeared incompatible within the engineering organization. While it was both a conceptually pure and utterly pragmatic document, in the end, it wasn’t particularly useful. It reflected how we described making tradeoffs as opposed to how we genuinely made tradeoffs.
October 17, 2020.
If there's one thing that engineers, engineering managers, and technology executives are likely to agree on, it's that there's a crisis of technical quality. One diagnosis and cure is easy to identify: our engineers aren't prioritizing quality, and we need to hire better engineers or retrain the ones we have. Of course, you should feel free to replace "engineers" with "Product Managers" or "executives" if that feels more comfortable. It's a compelling narrative with a clear villain, and it conveniently shifts blame away from engineering leadership. Still, like most narratives that move accountability towards the folks with the least power, it's both unhelpful and wrong.
October 8, 2020.
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.