Staff engineers are the bridge between the engineering team and management
Founders looking to expand their team often hire less-experienced team members. And this leads to misery.
Even though mediors and juniors will finish features with some guidance from more senior profiles, there is a lasting negative impact. We've seen this time and time again.
Table of Contents
- Understanding Staff Engineers
- Traits and skills of staff engineers in SaaS teams
- Types of staff engineers
- The Impact of Staff Engineers
- The key impact of staff engineers
- Types of Projects for Staff Engineers
Some senior team members feel they must clean up other people's work. Instead of explaining things, sometimes they'll even write pseudo code in tickets to steer the solution. This is just one symptom of the problem.
You must have the right people on your team, but how can you recognize a sound and reliable engineer when you see one? It's a good idea to seek advice on how to compose a well-balanced team, especially one that includes staff engineers.
In software development, where lines of code, algorithms, and infrastructure choices dictate the course, there is a need for someone to emerge as a guide and guardian of productivity, quality, and execution. Enter Staff Engineer.
Understanding Staff Engineers
Traits and skills of staff engineers in SaaS teams
A staff engineer is a senior-level technical role (and not a managerial role!) that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of individual contribution.
A staff engineer is a leader who is characterized by:
- a deep mastery of technical skills
- easy navigation the organizational landscape
- constant alignment of technical solutions with business objectives
- pragmatic balance and trade-offs of technical considerations with broader organizational priorities
- team-wide influence and constant refinement of decision-making processes
- close collaboration with cross-functional teams, product managers, and stakeholders
- a drive to impact at both the individual and organizational levels
- technology recommendations aligned with strategic goals instead of the new fad
Types of staff engineers
According to Will Larson, author of Staff Engineer: Leadership beyond the management track, there are four archetypes of staff engineers. Remember, it’s not a must to fit into one of the archetypes, since staff engineers fluidly shift based on what the organization needs at that point in time.
A. Technical leadership: mentors & coaches
Tech Leads are staff engineers who excel at providing technical guidance and leadership within their teams. They possess deep technical expertise and are skilled at architecting solutions, guiding code reviews, and mentoring other engineers. Tech Leads are instrumental in driving technical excellence, fostering collaboration, and ensuring the successful delivery of projects.
B. Architects: designing quality
Architects are staff engineers who focus on designing and implementing scalable and robust systems. They have a holistic view of the software architecture and are responsible for making strategic decisions related to the system's structure, components, and integration points. Architects work closely with other teams and stakeholders to align technical solutions with business goals and long-term scalability.
C. Solvers: extensive researchers
Solvers are staff engineers who specialize in solving complex technical challenges. They are often sought after to tackle critical and high-impact problems that require advanced problem-solving skills and deep technical expertise. Solvers thrive in ambiguous situations and are adept at conducting extensive research, prototyping innovative solutions, and driving technological advancements within their domains.
D. Right Hand: cross-functional collaboration
Right Hands are staff engineers who provide invaluable support to technical leaders, such as CTOs or VPs of Engineering. They act as trusted advisors, assisting in strategic decision-making, shaping technical roadmaps, and driving organizational initiatives. Right Hands possess a combination of technical expertise, leadership skills, and a strong understanding of the broader business context.
The Impact of Staff Engineers
Staff software engineers play a key role in improving your organization. They do this by advocating for the engineering team within the broader organization. They can explain the value of the team’s work, negotiate resources for the team, and help set realistic expectations about what the team can achieve.
Staff engineers also provide crucial feedback on product design feasibility and simplicity while highlighting specific problems such as technical debt, lack of collaboration, or needed process improvements.
Your engineers need guidance and mentorship, something a staff engineer is perfect to lead on. They will take on responsibilities beyond those of senior developers, such as leading projects, overseeing quality assurance, and engaging in extensive research when complexity demands it.
It’s difficult to build a good team. Staff engineers can help you vet and hire the best candidates. They will make sure the new team members hit the ground running and that the team is using the right tooling for the job.
A staff engineer doesn’t go straight to the solution space but will instead help you focus on the specific needs of your customers
The key impact of staff engineers
- Staff engineers understand the domain, needs, and aspirations of the business
When building software, it’s essential to talk with different stakeholders and understand their point of view. You must start by understanding the problems your customers face and how your product can solve them.
A staff engineer doesn’t go straight to the solution space but will instead help you focus on the specific needs of your customers. They can also provide you with feedback on ideas and help you make difficult decisions. Staff engineers balance the business aspirations with technical implementation and they act as the bridge between your sales team and your engineering team.
- Staff engineers are great communicators
It can be difficult to create consensus within a product team. Translating technical topics for non-technical workers is a challenge within any organization. If psychological safety is missing, team members will be reluctant to share their ideas and help others.
Staff engineers apply the “strong ideas, weakly held” paradigm. This allows them to remain open to the input of others. They are good at documenting and maintaining a historical overview that allows the team to look back and understand what has happened and why.
They are good storytellers and help teammates comprehend and relate to the vision that you’ve set forth for the business. This motivates the team and provides you with more time to focus on your priorities.
By building trust through an atmosphere of psychological safety, team members will come to staff engineers with problems they have. Once quickly solved, the team can focus on what truly matters — delivering excellent software for the customer.
- Staff engineers will structure secondary processes such as mentorship
Guiding technical teams is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for non-technical leaders. It can be difficult to know how to provide feedback to engineers. Helping individuals structure their learning goals is important to keeping an engineering team engaged.
Staff engineers have the expertise to help you lead other developers. They can structure the right processes so that other team members continue to grow. The team will see the staff engineer as a resource to learn from and not someone who criticizes their every move.
Types of Projects for Staff Engineers
We’ve worked as staff engineers at several companies. Here are some of the projects that we’ve completed to help our customers.
Vaigo - NS Go
At Vaigo, the team needed a Technical leader and a Right hand. Since the company was purchased by NS, the national rail service of the Netherlands, the quality bar was set very high. Our staff engineers helped improve their React product by introducing and training the team on tools such as React Query, Context, and Component-based design.
We also introduced improved product management processes to ensure the right things were getting built. Using feature passports, we mapped out key milestones and aligned everyone around a clear roadmap. We also emphasized testing and structured thinking, organizing the team's work around domains and bounded contexts.
Citizenlab digitizes governance. We helped them via Architects and Solvers. The major challenge was converting the solution to an open-source platform. Over a period of six months, madewithlove guided the team through a complex restructuring that led to an easy-to-implement modular system.
It started with researching the technical challenges set forth, developing prototypes, and documenting a solution. Once a path forward was clear, teaching became the modus operandi. The existing team was trained, and the most difficult modules were built together. The introduced techniques are the core of the new system — and it's been open-sourced. With our help, the team met their deadline and shipped a solution that will live on for years to come.
What are you waiting for?
No matter the type of project you are working on, supplementing your team with a staff engineer is bound to pay dividends. For startups, the best of the best know how to ship code quickly so that you can find that market validation. Accelerating companies will benefit from the ability to structure the growing team. And scale-ups will see the stability and quality-first mindset needed to keep your customers for years and years.
If you have trouble finding staff engineers, don't hesitate to reach out. We are happy to lend you some of our own staff engineers.