Book Review: Staff Engineer by Will Larson
Staff Engineer: Leadership beyond the management track by Will Larson is a needed deep dive into the world of software engineering leadership outside choosing the management career path. As I read this book, I am beginning my journey into Staff-level engineering, so it is particularly timely for me. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to software engineers looking to grow beyond the Senior Engineer level and into the world of leadership without authority. It would also be an insightful read for any software engineer or manager interested in learning more about this career path.
What is Staff Engineering?
In the book, Will describes the Staff Engineer role as an answer to the question:
What if you want to advance your career without becoming an engineering manager?
A Staff Engineer is a software engineer that is operating at a scale beyond that of a Senior Software Engineer. It is common for there to be many levels of Staff engineers depending on the size of the company. They are named different things depending on the level and where you are: "Tech Lead", "Staff Engineer", "Principal Engineer" and "Distinguished Engineer" to name a few.
At most companies, "Senior Software Engineer" would be considered a "career" level, intended to be the level that most engineers stay at. Moving from Senior to Staff is not expected, and is analogous to moving from Senior into management. A Staff Engineer is not a "Senior Senior Software Engineer", but instead shifts their role to one of leadership, facilitation, sponsorship, exploration, glue work, and reach. As for coding, well...:
Most write some [code], some write none, but none write as much as they used to earlier in their career. [...] Even if you're not writing much, you'll be reading a ton of your coworkers' code and doing a fair number of code reviews.
Will interviewed many Staff+ engineers for the book and four common archetypes stood out: Tech Lead, Architect, Solver, and Right-Hand. He writes in depth about these, and highlights that this taxonomy is neither exclusive nor comprehensive. From reading through the interviews in the book, it was clear to me that each Staff Engineer had their own take on how best to play their role. The autonomy and self-direction that is common throughout the interviews resulted in Staff Engineers frequently customizing their role to play to their strengths while delivering value to their organization.
Becoming a Staff Engineer does not necessarily mean that engineering management is out of the question. Many of the Staff+ engineers interviewed had either been managers in the past, or occasionally revisit the decision. In her article The Engineer/Manager Pendulum, Charity Majors writes about the benefits of moving between the roles, making the case that this makes you better at both. On top of that, Staff Engineering requires many of the same skills that management requires, so choosing this path over management is not the obvious choice that it may initially seem.
About the Book
Staff Engineer is both a physical book and a freely available website.
The website, staffeng.com, was built as Will was building content for the book and remains freely available. It contains most of the content in the book, minus the introduction and conclusion. The site has some content that didn't make it into the book too, such as a handful of the interviews. It is a valuable resource for those that do not purchase the book, and a handy reference to the content for those that do purchase it.
The physical book is broken into 3 main sections: How to operate as a Staff Engineer, how to become a Staff Engineer, and interviews of Staff Engineers from the industry. In the "Operating as Staff" section, Will provides a wealth of advice on being effective and scaling yourself, as well as highlights many pitfalls to avoid. In the sections "Getting the title where you are" and "Deciding to switch companies", he outlines different strategies for obtaining a Staff role depending on your circumstances. Lastly, in the "Stories" section, Will provides 14 interviews of Staff Engineers working at companies like Stripe, Slack, and Auth0.
How this Book has Helped Me
This book has been a guiding light as I chart my own path as a Staff Engineer at my organization. I have few peers to look to for guidance in this role, so having available the collected experiences of Will and the many Staff Engineers he interviewed has been a lifeline to me. While it would be easy to coast along, jumping at the "next most important" task, I am instead crafting a well-rounded framework of priorities within which to work. I want to bring my best to my Principal Engineering role, and with this book's help, I feel more confident than ever that I can chart my own path.
Another benefit of reading this book has been the normalization of many changes I am going through. From coding less, to writing more, to feeling like I'm not contributing like I used to, reading the stories of the many Staff Engineers in this book helped me to realize that this is a natural transition I am going through and nothing to get discouraged about. This emotional support cannot be understated.
Finally, beyond the content in the book itself, Will and his interviewees provide a wealth of resources to dig deeper into. From book recommendations, to key blog posts, this curated list of resources will be a fountain of learning that stretches long past my finishing this book.
My recommendation: Read this book! 👍
This book is fantastic, and I recommend it. There's value here for software engineers of any level, and managers too. Will's thoughtful, researched approach to sharing guidance for this role is a massive step forward for the industry. My hope is that, with a resource such as this available, we will see an increase in opportunities available for these roles within the industry.
P.S: I also recommend the StaffEng podcast. While not hosted by Will directly, the hosts regularly interview Staff Engineers from across the industry in a similar format to the interviews from the book.