This is my review of Staff Engineer: Leadership Beyond The Management Track. It is a book about being a “staff engineer”. As far as I know, it is the only book about the topic. It is by Will Larson, the author of An Elegant Puzzle, and much like that book, it is a compilation of his writing on his blog, as well as his separate website.

For clarification, “Staff Engineer” is a title in technology companies reserved for the most senior of engineers, carrying out critical organisation-level work. It’s in fact its own career ladder, running in parallel to the management one, with common levels being Staff, Principal, Distinguished, Fellow, Partner, etc. Companies mix and match them, add “Senior” as a prefix, or a roman numeral as a suffix, but the essence is the same.

The book has two parts. The first deals with the role of a Staff engineer in technology organisations. The second is a collection of Q&As with various engineers at different tech companies. They’re both great in their own ways.

For managers, the most valuable bits are the overview section which has a nice section about staff archetypes - right hands, project coordinators, tech leads, or deep divers - as well as the section on operating as a Staff level engineer. The latter is useful for setting expectations with your colleagues, as well as guiding folks to get to that level.

For engineers, whether already there or aspiring to the role, the operating section and the next two ones are very relevant. They cover being promoted inside your current organisation, and being promoted via switching companies. It’s sage advice from somebody on the other side of the table.

The stories in the second part are interesting in themselves, but some parts tend to be so common between folks that it becomes a bit of a drag compared to the first part. But what I found a real gem here was the understanding of how other tech companies scale and operate. This information is surprisingly hard to find in a centralised place. You got to speak to the right people.

Here’s some stuff that stood out for me:

  • Companies as big as 400-500 can live without titles or explicit career tracks.
  • But they can also have committees for promotions and deep career hierarchies.
  • Same small companies can have things like API committees.
  • Or contribute to public internet standards and push the envelope of tech.
  • Many companies have quite a lot of Principals and other high level folks.
  • Enough to put two or three of them on a single team formed of only high-level people.

Anyways, I warmly recommend this book. It should be useful regardless of where you are on the IC or EM spectrum.