What is a Staff Engineer?
Diving into the Staff Engineer Role, with Raviraj from Meta
While today I believe there is decent knowledge about the Engineering Manager role (hopefully, in part, thanks to this newsletter! 🙂), it doesn’t seem to be the case for the Staff Engineer role.
Questions that I frequently get are:
What is a Staff Engineer?
What do they do?
While I understand the nature of this role, I must admit that I have never had direct experience with it. This is because we don’t have such a role in my department at Namecheap. That’s why I decided to invite my friend, Raviraj from Meta (the company behind Facebook and Instagram), to co-author this article.
So before everything, I'll let him introduce himself.
Hey! I am Raviraj, a Staff Engineer at Meta, and I work in Meta's internal cloud. I worked at Microsoft for 4 years before switching to Meta in 2016. I grew to become a tech lead and was eventually promoted to Staff Engineer 3 years ago.
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Raviraj also writes a great newsletter, Techlead Mentor, where he shares stories, tips and advice about Tech Leadership. You can subscribe to it directly from here 👇
Today, together with Raviraj, we are going to demystify the Staff Engineer role and understand what's behind a $600-800K yearly salary!
In particular we will cover:
❓What is a Staff Engineer
👷 What a Staff Engineer does (I got Raviraj's calendar! 😈)
🗺️ The Staff Engineer Career Path
So let’s begin!
❓What is a Staff Engineer?
If you follow me and this newsletter, you know that I'm not a big fan of labels, especially when they are used randomly just to create hype in job profiles. Hiring is a serious thing that goes behind number of years of experience or your age.
That being said, especially in big-techs, due to their size and number of projects they deal with, a precise definition of roles and how to grow to these roles, is needed.
How Roles Work in FAANG
In FAANG and similar big tech firms, the career progression for technical roles typically follows a structured hierarchy, which helps maintain consistency in job expectations and career development across these large organizations.
Here's a simplified overview:
🎓 Junior Level: this is often the entry point for new graduates or those transitioning from different fields. Titles may include 'Junior Engineer' or 'Associate Engineer'. Interns also fall into this category, especially for those still in the process of completing their education.
💻 Mid-Level: after gaining some experience, individuals progress to mid-level roles. These positions often require more technical expertise and the ability to work more independently. Titles might be 'Software Engineer' or 'Systems Analyst'.
🌟 Senior Level: with significant experience and expertise, professionals advance to senior roles. These positions often involve complex problem-solving, leadership in projects, and mentoring junior team members. Titles here might include 'Senior Engineer' or 'Senior Developer'.
🛠️ Staff Level or Engineering Manager: this is a pivotal point in the career path. Professionals can choose to continue on a technical track, becoming a 'Staff Engineer' or 'Principal Engineer', focusing on deep technical expertise. Alternatively, they can shift to a management track, becoming an 'Engineering Manager', where they oversee teams and projects.
🚀 Advanced Roles: for those who continue to grow and excel, there are even higher roles like 'Principal', 'Director', or 'VP of Engineering'. These positions involve strategic decision-making, leading multiple teams or departments, and significantly influencing the company's technical direction.
Each step signifies a rise in responsibilities, complexity, and leadership roles, with a clear structure aiding in career planning and progression within these organizations.
The Staff Engineer Role ()
A Staff Engineer is a seasoned engineer with immense expertise. It is hard to say what all Staff Engineers do as there are a few archetypes:
Tech Lead: they have deep technical expertise in their domain and team. Additionally, they also lead other engineers and set roadmaps. They have a strong influence even outside the team.
Coding Machine: they write a ton of high quality code and do it much faster than others. They also pick problems that others cannot but may not lead other engineers or set roadmaps.
Fixer: these engineers have deep expertise with a technology and a broad understanding of various systems. They may not write a lot of code but know how to deliver a major impact across teams. These engineers don't always work with just a single team.
I am the “Tech lead” archetype so what I’ll tell you today will focus mainly on that archetype.
Difference between a Senior Engineer and a Staff Engineer
There is a fundamental shift in expectations as engineers reach the Staff level. You transition from thinking about what you can do to figuring out how the team can deliver impact. The key to scaling yourself for a larger impact is by leveraging the team.
A common misconception among seniors aspiring to be Staff is that they need to find more time, become faster, find more impactful problems for themselves, and be a better mentor.
To summarize the major differences between a Senior and a Staff Engineer:
💥 Source of Impact:
Senior: Mostly you
Staff: Mostly the team
🌐 Sphere of Influence:
Senior: Execution heavy
Staff: Leadership heavy
🔥 Primary focus:
👷 What a Staff Engineer Does?
Let’s now look at what a Staff Engineer does practically speaking, what are their duties and challenges they can face.
Staff Engineer Duties ()
Staff Engineers are accountable for the success of their domain and the team.
Their core responsibilities include:
🏗️ Building a domain strategy for the success of the org and company. They use their broader influence to accomplish it.
🔍 Disambiguating problems and execution plans so that the team members remain unblocked.
🛡️ De-risking project plans and even establishing project management norms if the team doesn't have a TPM.
❤️ Ensuring team health - establishing the right processes, growing other leaders, hiring, disaster readiness, etc.
🤝 Partnering with the manager on team growth, hiring, strategy, etc.
The team can be in different stages of their product cycle, so the responsibilities will change accordingly.
Vision building - Staff Engineers are working on the ‘problem definition’ and building consensus.
Execution - They help the team build solutions, balance new projects against reliability of the existing system, de-risk projects, etc.
Keeping the lights on / Stabilization - Staff engineers help the team identify reliability gaps and why teams’ operations & reliability are bad.
What makes Staff Engineers special to tackle these?
They have built deep domain expertise or have the right behaviors to build one if they join a new team.
They also have strong people skills to resolve disagreements and unblock the team.
They have credibility with key engineers from other orgs to build alignment.
Typical Day of a Staff Engineer ()
My day varies depending on the stage the team is in.
At a high level, I like to split my days into meeting days and deep focus days. I schedule all 1:1s, collaborations, and meetings on my meeting days. I try to use my deep focus days for coding, writing design documents, or simply for quiet thinking.
I prioritize my time for the team. So if something urgent comes my way, I am flexible and adjust my weekly goals accordingly.
All of this goes out the window when there are fires and I need to help 🙂
This is how a my calendar looks like.
Staff Engineers face a lot of unique challenges and are expected to find ways to solve them. Some of the common ones that come up are:
Hiring for ambiguous projects: with ambiguous projects the scope becomes clearer as more decisions are made. To make more decisions, you need prototyping and engineering which needs more developers. So, you need to anticipate a complex decision tree and plan your hiring needs months in advance.
Convincing stakeholders about big bets: building alignment for a strategy that affects multiple teams require effective storytelling, along with the use of data and prototypes. You also need to leverage your senior leadership and other staff engineers to build consensus.
Adapting to market conditions like 2022: you need to ensure that your team feels supported and confident about their projects. You should share the best information you have and eliminate any rumors. If projects need to be cut or people need to be reshuffled, then you need to message correctly.
🗺️ Staff Engineer Career Path
The Staff Engineer role is typically a high-level leadership position in the engineering hierarchy. It's a step above senior engineer roles and often requires substantial experience, technical skills, leadership mindset and organizational impact.
Differences between EM and Staff Engineer
While EM and Staff Engineer are somehow at the same level in terms of hierarchy, they focus on completely different areas of leadership and have different responsibilities.
🔥 Role Focus
EM: focuses on people management, team building, and process management. They are responsible for their team's overall performance and development.
Staff Engineer: focuses on technical leadership and problem-solving without direct people management responsibilities.
EM: makes decisions related to team structure, hiring, and people development.
Staff Engineer: makes decisions primarily in the technical domain, influencing the direction of projects and technology.
EM: their impact is often measured by the success and growth of their team members and the team's overall output.
Staff Engineer: their impact is measured by the technical contributions, project outcomes, and the influence they have on technological decisions.
Raviraj’s Experience ()
My career at FAANG so far, can be summarized in these six steps:
Worked at Microsoft for 4 years (junior → mid-level). Learned to be a great developer.
Switched to Meta. Built up credibility and got more opportunities to work on impactful projects.
In a year, I became the go-to person for multiple core features in the team. I became good at driving project roadmaps and finding impactful problems. That got me to the senior level.
When my tech lead left, I found my way into leadership. I struggled with the added responsibility. To be honest, I overworked instead of seeking help.
Grew to be a leader and was exceeding expectations at the senior level. Though I still lacked a few behaviors to get to Staff.
Sought feedback and proved I could build team vision and build consensus around it. Continued to shepherd team-wide projects and handled cross-functional relations exceptionally well. That got me to Staff.
These are some of the pivotal experiences that shaped my journey.
Feedback to Listen: early on in my career, I received harsh feedback that taught me the importance of listening. This was the best feedback and pivotal in building up my people skills.
Not having a Manager: I had three manager changes in less than two years. While it was frustrating, I got the opportunity to support my team through the changes. This pushed the boundaries of my leadership skills.
Demystifying Feedback: I dismissed vague feedback on my leadership to take it from 80 → 100. However, once I got a strong mentor, I witnessed firsthand how they built alignment and empathized with difficult customers. This experience showed me what I didn't know and taught me to always be in a learning mindset.
While the Staff Engineer role is not something you will find in every company, but only in bit-techs and structured ones, if you want to embark on this journey, it’s important to recognize the distinct nature of this role.
These are the main takeaways to keep in consideration if you want to follow this path:
➡️ Career Progression: starts from Junior Level, progresses through Mid-Level and Senior Level, to Staff Engineer or Engineering Manager, and can advance to Principal, Director, or VP roles.
🏗️ Staff Engineer Duties: building domain strategy, clarifying problems and execution plans, de-risking projects, ensuring team health, and partnering with managers on team strategy.
🔍 Roles and Responsibilities: staff Engineers are key in vision building, execution, and maintaining operational stability.
🤝 Distinct Skills: deep domain expertise, strong people skills for resolving disagreements, and credibility for alignment.
🔥 Staff vs. EM: Staff Engineers focus on technical leadership; Engineering Managers focus on people and team management.
Last Tips ()
From my experience, I feel that some engineers hinder their growth to the Staff Engineer level due to self doubt. They assume that Staff Engineers are born with the skills and don't push their boundaries. I didn't have all the skills either, but I picked them up over time.
My three tips to aspiring Staff Engineers based on my journey
Dive into vague feedback: you may get a lot of these. Don’t ignore them as they could show the way to get to Staff. Work with your manager to get tactical next steps.
Be brave: Fear of failure held me back. Embrace your fears and seek help to take calculated risks.
Seek help: I was terrible at identifying where I needed help. Asking for help is more than just asking pointed questions. Introspect on where you struggle. Maybe it is disambiguating projects, making hard decisions, or driving alignment.
✌️ That’s all folks
That's all for today! As always, I would love to hear from my readers (and if you've made it this far, you're definitely one of the bravest). Please don't hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn and send a message. I always respond to everyone!