Matthew Hawthorne discusses how his talk at LeadDev West Coast in October will help Staff+ engineers use their unique standing more effectively.
Staff+ engineers take up a unique place in engineering organizations, but they also have a unique power to impact both business priorities and team culture. In a world where engineers are being asked to do more with less, staff engineers can be extremely valuable in their power to effectively evaluate how you and your team spend their time.
Ahead of his talk at LeadDev West Coast later this year, Scott Carey (SC), checked in with Matthew Hawthorne (MH), an independent software engineer who has previously worked at Twitter, Netflix, and Comcast, to hear more about using your power as a staff engineer.
The below conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. Matthew’s full talk will be delivered at LeadDev West Coast on October 18 in Oakland, California.
SC: Can you give us insight into what you're going to be talking about at LeadDev West Coast?
MH: My talk is about putting power into practice as a staff engineer. It’s a bunch of techniques to allow you to use your power to have a positive impact on the people around you and the culture that you're working in. This will include examples, guidelines, and techniques to allow you to use your power for good in your work environment, whatever your definition of good is.
SC: How do you define the difference between power and influence in a Staff+ role?
MH: As a staff engineer, what you work on can vary quite a bit. You could work on something super glamorous, like a technical strategy across your whole org, or something a little less glamorous, for instance, a failover strategy. Alternatively, it could be completely unglamorous, like having to be parachuted into a team performing poorly to get it back on track.
Ultimately, what you work on can vary, but there are areas where you can have more consistent influence, like mentoring which is really important. Here, you’re helping the people around you get better, while, ideally, also learning from them as well.
Putting power into practice means evaluating how you and your team spend your time, and whether everyone could be spending it more efficiently. Are you sitting in meetings all day? Or are you spending more focused time on impactful work?
Another thing to keep into consideration is the number of projects you’re working on at once. Are you scrambling around working on like 10 different projects? Are you able to focus on one or two projects at a time?
One last important fact is what I sometimes call information trafficking. Loosely put, it means knowing who has specific pieces of information within an organization and knowing how to connect people who may be able to answer each other's questions. Knowing how to get to the source of information in a streamlined fashion is an extremely powerful asset.
SC: What is your advice for someone who’s been parachuted into a bad situation and feels powerless?
MH: In this instance, you may be powerless over what you’re working on, but I think it's important to look at the positives. You are the one who was asked to fix it, which is a great reflection on you, and it could also be a great opportunity to steer a project back on track. Having these abilities are rare, and should be celebrated. Regard it as a growth experience. And, once it's over, you can point back to that scenario as something you were successful in.
SC: What is the one thing you hope the audience takes away from your talk?
MH: There are four main concepts I'm going to talk about and they’re all intertwined. These include: tricky situations, powerful behaviors, powerful phrases, and mentoring.
I would like someone to walk away able to identify these sorts of situations at work and then apply the behaviors, techniques, or phrases I share in my talk to get a better outcome.
SC: What was it about LeadDev specifically that made you want to share this story with our audience?
MH: Regardless of your job title, whether you're a manager or an engineer, I think we all want to feel happy and fulfilled at work. We all want to feel like we have some degree of power in control of our environment or culture. And I think we want to help the people around us to feel those same things.
I’ve been collecting these techniques and skills over the course of my career, and I feel like LeadDev was a good place for me to share them, so hopefully some other people can benefit from them also.