Being a Staff+ engineer can leave you feeling overwhelmed with duties that may sometimes fall completely outside of your perceived remit. What practices can mitigate these instances?
Imagine you’ve been in your new Staff+ role for six months. You feel you’ve gained your peers’ trust and you’re now capable of handling the demands of your role. However, despite your best efforts to focus on the “right” things, your calendar is just a solid block of meetings you’ve been asked to join. Slowly, it becomes apparent that others’ expectations of you are not in line with how you saw the role back when you started. You feel like you’ve lost ownership of your time, focus, and attention.
But shouldn’t a Staff+ role inherently be autonomous? And if so, why doesn’t it feel like it?
Business as usual
It’s easy to be led. When we first start out as developers we have little to no autonomy over our day-to-day: our manager hands us tasks, provides us with context, and adds us to meetings. We’re in the warm embrace of certainty. Once you become a high-level individual contributor (IC), being directed quickly nets you a calendar stuffed with recurring meetings, “just a quick question”, one-on-ones, and more, leaving little breathing room or time for proactivity.
Breaking the cycle
How do you break that cycle? Being aware of it is a great first step. It’s important that you take your time before starting this journey. You need to understand the current state of your job, projects, peers, and stakeholders, alongside building mutual trust and vulnerability with those in your team or area of impact.
Once you’ve decided you want to be more self-directing in your role, the first step’s the easiest: talk to your manager and share your concern. Let them know you intend to put what your responsibilities should entail in writing so that you, and everyone around you, is aligned. Remember, your manager cares about your time and focus so make sure to explicitly timebox this exercise. Know that if they’re not on board, you’re not going to be set up to succeed.
A continuous effort
This process is iterative. Your role and its responsibilities will change over time. There is no finished product, only its current iteration. Once you feel like you, and those around you, are at least 80% aligned on your current area of responsibility then you’re on the right track.
Create a new “roles and responsibilities” doc and start by listing out your circles of influence. These might include a big project, your own team, a wider cohort you’re a part of, or perhaps even the entire engineering organization. When adding the items you’ll be focusing on, add them to one of these circles.
Additionally, create an “out of scope” list, into which all of the items you decide to remove should be soft-deleted.
A useful model to employ when listing out items is the RACI Model, where each item on the list is something you’re responsible or accountable for, consulted about, or informed of.
Now, let’s start filling out the document:
- Others’ expectations of you: list out everything you’re already involved in – your business-as-usual. Add more things you believe are currently expected of you in your role. Open your company’s career ladder, if it exists, and include responsibilities from there. Think about your manager, your peers, and your stakeholders – what pain points do they have that they are expecting you to solve?
- Your expectations of yourself: take a moment to think about the things you’d like to initiate – an infrastructure project? A change in culture? Is it time to dive into a new technology or methodology that might prove useful? Add those ideas, even if you don’t believe you’d have the time or focus to work on them.
- Making it yours: what do you enjoy? What do you do best? What would help you grow? All of these questions are difficult to answer but are required so that your role isn’t simply a slog through expectations, but rather both enjoyable and a chance to grow. Consider the Staff+ archetypes and your own abilities and wishes. At this point, you should also expect to use these guiding questions to discern which items need removing.
- Drop the details: part of your role as a Staff+ engineer is the ability to create good abstractions and articulate tight narratives. Use this skill to find items on your list that should be merged and consider whether the merged item still tells the right story. “Promoting good testing culture” and “reducing bug count” are examples of items probably best merged, while “advising the team on product X” and “coding product Y” probably can’t be merged to “working on products” because this generalization might be too broad and include products outside your remit.
However, try keeping track of how involved you should be in each item (hands-on, design only, mentoring someone else, etc.)
- Scale back responsibility: you have so many things on your list it’s impossible to accomplish them all yourself. What are your lower-impact items? What are the things that will make you miserable? Which of them do not bring you joy? What will be too much of a context switch from the other items on the list? Put these in your “out of scope” list.
- Add weights: take the big items and add what percentage of your time you should be spending on each – per quarter. No need to do it for items that are too small. For instance, if you are expected to interview four times a week and each interview takes an hour, with half an hour dedicated to preparing and writing a summary, that would total 15% of your 40-hour week; interviews, therefore, become big items that need to be explicitly written out as such.
Add overall percentages for each circle of influence and decide whether that’s the right balance for your role, remembering that the total should be, at most, 100%.
Don't forget, these are not commitments or estimates, but weights that will help you communicate how much of your time should be spent on one area vs. another.
Take a while to go over these steps again and again. Your goal is to minimize the number of items between which you will be splitting your attention while maximizing your overall impact and how fulfilling the role will be for you. Keep at it until you feel like what you have in your hand is a good enough description of what you think your role should entail for at least the coming year.
Thoroughly understanding your own perception of the role is great, but how does this inform and affect those around you? Foundationally, your role is a collaborative one, so your subjective view of your position may not fall in line with others’ perceptions of it. This requires you to work with those around you, so that you may all be aligned on your scope.
Now is your chance to put your document to the test. You’ll be discussing it with your manager, your peers, and your stakeholders. But first, let’s talk about some preconditions.
Your goal is not to tick the “I talked to them” box, but to get good, honest, and actionable feedback. To do that, you should be at a point where you’ve built relationships in which you can be open and vulnerable. You should have already proved to those in your circles of influence that you proactively seek their feedback, take it well, and act on it.
Now it’s time to start your meetings with this list of people. Be frugal with the number of people you’re meeting, so the process doesn’t drag out too long. Not everyone’s voices can be heard and some people’s point of view has far more weight than others.
When reaching out to set your 1:1s with each of them, share why you’ve decided to do this and what you’d like to get from them. Set expectations about wanting to set expectations.
In each meeting go over the document together and discuss it, mostly uncovering false positives (“I don’t think you should be responsible for X”) and false negatives (“Wait, I thought you were responsible for Y”). Expect to get some different perspectives from each:
- Your manager will help you understand what you should and shouldn’t be focusing on from the organization’s perspective. This is a great opportunity for them to think about what work they should delegate to you and consider what your career trajectory at the company should look like. This is a collaborative process. Challenge your manager if you feel you disagree on some points – it may take a few back and forths.
- Your peers will help you understand where they see your role end and theirs begin. Should this line move? Should they collaborate with you on any of your projects or responsibilities? Do they think any of the things you listed are counterproductive?
- Your stakeholders will help you understand how you’re perceived outside your immediate organization and will highlight what they need from a good partner. The discussion will give them a glimpse of your overall responsibilities, which could create wonderful conversations.
- Others you work closely with, for instance, senior engineers and engineering managers from other cohorts might be another source of outside perspective. Sharing your list with them might alert them to projects and priorities they hadn’t considered – perhaps ones they will want to take ownership of. They may also be interested in your help as a consultant or mentor.
Be ready to accept additions to your list that you either already removed or did not expect altogether. That said, you should also be comfortable adding items directly to your “out of scope” list. It’s imperative, however, that everyone you talk to genuinely feels heard and involved.
Some of these conversations will need to happen more than once as your document matures.
This process concerns peoples’ opinions, making consensus impossible. As mentioned before, if you’ve gotten to a point where every person is around 80% in agreeance with your list – that’s good enough.
You now have your own and other’s expectations of you in writing. Now’s the time to share this document with colleagues and stakeholders, focusing on those who weren’t involved in the discussion stage; explain why it exists and share a little bit about the journey taken to make it. Stress that this is an iterative process and that the document you’re sharing with them is the first version of a document that will change as your role and circumstances evolve. Solicit their feedback.
Now take a little time to refocus your inbox and calendar to match your newfound responsibilities – withdraw from recurring meetings where you’ve decided to delegate and shift your 1:1 cadence toward those in more focused areas. You might want to also plan checkpoints every 2–4 weeks to avoid falling into the trap of complacency.
A nice side-effect of this process is that your “out of scope” list is effectively a list of gaps in ownership and is an invaluable tool for your manager. Discuss it with them – maybe the responsibility should fall to one of your peers, a new hire, or be shelved as a task for your future self.
The effort continues
It’s been another 6–12 months. Taking a look at your document, you find that things have changed quite dramatically:
- Your work has changed: some of your initiatives matured, others have been dropped, perhaps your involvement in certain efforts has increased or decreased. Some projects are stealing the limelight, while others are put on the back burner.
- The organization has changed: people get promoted, leave, are hired, and let go. There may have been a reorganization and you might even have a new manager.
- You’ve changed: your interests and abilities may have shifted and you’ve gained more understanding of the organization and company. Your personal life may have dictated a change in priorities.
You’re at a point where you and the world around you have outgrown your previous perception of your role. It’s time for you to take the next step in your journey. You can now take the document you built previously and start the process of building its next version!