What Is a Staff Engineer?

What's next for someone who has been at the Senior Engineer level for several years or more? It used to be that you had to go into people management to level up. But nowadays, more and more companies are offering a level above Senior called Staff, that is not inherently a people management role. So what is Staff? 

There's an interesting post over on the GitLab blog where the author talked to several Staff Engineers in the company and identified the common threads in their roles:

  • Proactive problem identification
  • Cultural stewardship
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Technical empowerment
  • Broader impact beyond the team

I would summarize this list as doing technical work that crosses multiple team boundaries. A Staff Engineer would be doing whatever it takes to make cross-team initiatives that need an expert software engineer successful.

It's hard not to come across Will Larson's work when searching for definitions of Staff Engineer. He literally wrote a book called Staff Engineer that is all about this very topic. Here is Will's answer to the question, "What do Staff Engineers actually do?"…

The most straightforward answer is that Staff engineers keep doing much of what made them successful as Senior engineers: building relationships, writing software, coordinating projects. However, that's a misleading answer. Staff engineers do those same tasks, but whereas previously they were the core of their work, now they're auxiliary tasks. Their daily schedule varies a bit by archetype, but there's a shared foundation across all archetypes: setting and editing technical direction, providing sponsorship and mentorship, injecting engineering context into organizational decisions, exploration, and what Tanya Reilly calls being glue.

Will talks more about archetypes of the Staff Engineer in another article which is what introduced me to his work (Hacker News discussion here). He's identified four different kinds of Staff Engineers that are commonly found in the wild:

  • The Tech Lead guides the approach and execution of a particular team. They partner closely with a single manager, but sometimes they partner with two or three managers within a focused area. Some companies also have a Tech Lead Manager role, which is similar to the Tech Lead archetype but exists on the engineering manager ladder and includes people management responsibilities.
  • The Architect is responsible for the direction, quality, and approach within a critical area. They combine in-depth knowledge of technical constraints, user needs, and organization level leadership.
  • The Solver digs deep into arbitrarily complex problems and finds an appropriate path forward. Some focus on a given area for long periods. Others bounce from hotspot to hotspot as guided by organizational leadership.
  • The Right Hand extends an executive's attention, borrowing their scope and authority to operate particularly complex organizations. They provide additional leadership bandwidth to leaders of large-scale organizations.

Read Will's article for deep dives into all the archetypes, complete with examples of what their schedules are like and interviews with actual Staff Engineers who he sees as fitting these different archetypes. It's very enlightening, and I can't really imagine a better way of getting insight into the real-world nuts and bolts of that title.

My takeaway is that a Senior Engineer sort of maxes out as an expert software engineer. The Staff Engineer is about taking engineering expertise and expanding the scope of one's influence, which could mean overseeing a group of people, facilitating communication between groups of people, or solving problems involving multiple codebases. And maybe this goes without saying, but you're not likely to see the Staff Engineer title existing outside of large technical organizations, where the scope of engineering activity requires this sort of role.