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There’s no speedy way to gain your staff engineers’ trust.

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Staff engineers have been around the block. They’ve ‘seen’ things. They’ve ‘lived’ through things. They’ve observed successful changes within an engineering organization and, of course, they’ve observed unsuccessful changes.

They’ve solved, and are continuing to solve, the hard problems. Sometimes hard problems are in the form of strategic investments based on business needs. Other times it’s identifying gaps in the technology that enables people to do things to make the product work.

As an engineering manager, you’re unlikely to be successful in your role without the support of your staff or most senior engineers. Although there’s no speedy way to gain their trust, there are a few tactics to get you started, whether you’re new to a team or you’ve realized you’re not making as much of an impact as you should. Maybe, just maybe, these tactics can accelerate the process.

  1. The first task at hand is realizing you need to be in sync. You are nothing without your staff or most senior engineers. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. This relationship is so important. You need to be able to work closely; be candid, be open, be bold together.
  2. Ask (good) questions. This takes time and energy (this is obvious but often overlooked). Once you have your list of questions, schedule time with your staff engineers. Don't just schedule regular 1:1s and not come prepared; make the best use of their time. They will appreciate the effort. If you’re new to a company or team, it may be difficult to curate thoughtful, context-aware questions. Here are examples that you could ask your staff engineers in your first few weeks to flag possible areas where you could provide support:
    • How do you spend your time? And given how you spend your time, what gives you energy vs what drains your energy?
    • How do you scale your impact? What strategies are you working on to scale your impact as a very senior engineer within the org? Are there engineers that you’d like to grow to be the next in line, etc?
    • Are there any technical decisions that came back to haunt us?
    • Is there misalignment anywhere? 
    • We’re always trying to do the best thing when we innovate and evolve our platform; is there a role or position that you would like us to hire to help you ‘be the best’?
    • Are there any interesting documents that outline recent retrospectives or incident post-mortems that I should read up on?
    • What can we do now that would make our lives better in six months?
  3. Ask them how you can help. What can you do to make their work experience better? Be accessible and available to them; try not to be one of those managers that spend their time on extra credit work. Take care of your team first. In some organizations, managers are in a better position to influence change with regards to team structures or inefficiencies that require a new team to spin up. Ask your staff engineer what changes they would make to ensure the team is set up for success.
  4. Bring them valuable information. How do you add value to their working lives? What is their incentive for working with you? What do you bring to the table as an engineering manager? The answer to this is often information. Information is power. Alternatively, invite them to the meetings that would provide them with the additional information you’d otherwise share in a 1:1. Maybe expose them to the business or product side. When you open doors for individuals to be in the room, there’s a ripple effect; they have the information directly from the source, and they recognize that you value their presence in meetings and trust them to be there.
  5. Give them space. Being a good engineering manager means being good at letting go. Truthfully, a lot of managers aren’t the best at this; they overstep in areas where a staff engineer should ideally be leading. If this resonates all too well with you, you have to let go (repeat this to yourself as you look in the mirror). Give your staff engineers the space to own technical strategies and let them be in the room to present those strategies. You should still be involved as a sounding board; give them your opinion while also giving them space to advocate for the work they care about.
  6. Last, but not least, be positive. Bring good vibes. With staff-level projects, it takes a while to see the home runs or the big wins given the larger scope. It’s so easy to get frustrated when work takes months or years to go from an idea to implementation to adoption. Celebrate small milestones together.

Whether you’re starting a new job, switching teams, or looking to increase your current impact as an engineering manager, really getting a sense of what your wonderful team needs from you requires trust. Take the time to build it, however slowly. It’s time well spent.