This rewarding position will lead to you cultivating different types of relationships and projects.
Staff engineering managers work across different teams within a company – including design, product, research, support, and other business roles – with a remit to identify and solve problems. They are experts at detecting friction, be it in the software (which prevents the programmer from easily and quickly building their code), engineering team, team processes, company policies, or anywhere else.
They also look to develop effective working relationships with various partners and stakeholders, while also providing mentorship to direct reports through effective 1:1s and career guidance, in what is a varied and rewarding role.
What are the different engineering management levels
Before we talk about the staff engineering manager, we need to take a step back and understand how people move up the management ladder.
Titles vary across the industry, but most companies have entry-level positions for individual contributors (ICs) – engineers with minimal experience. After years of gaining expertise, and possibly other titles, engineers are promoted to the rank of senior engineer.
The senior engineer title reflects mastery of several skills. This includes the ability to take on complex coding tasks that require data analysis, and care in selecting technical solutions to remedy difficult customer problems.
Instead of just adhering to engineering standards and team processes, senior engineers are responsible for improving them. Senior engineers lead discussions, often having to find consensus and integrate other people’s input. The senior engineer position usually includes the responsibility of mentoring less experienced engineers.
Staff engineer, principal engineer, and distinguished engineer.
After a few years of operating in the senior engineer IC role, engineers can decide if they want to continue on the IC path and move up to staff engineer, principal engineer, and/or distinguished engineer.
These roles require a demonstration of deeper and more expansive technical impact, influence, and responsibility for the business. At this stage, some senior engineers choose to stop being ICs and become engineering managers, which is a role with a more pronounced people management focus.
Engineering managers are directly responsible for supervising and guiding engineers. They are responsible for the delivery output of the engineers they manage, but they are also tasked with creating spaces where everyone can safely make contributions.
Engineering managers often own team functions, like kicking off new projects, removing impediments to the progress of the team, and regularly providing career guidance for the engineers they manage.
After a time, engineering managers can move up to the position of senior engineering manager and/or staff engineering managers. The core elements of engineering management are the same, but with increased levels of responsibility including security, availability, and compliance of systems and services.
These roles are a bit of a juggling act as they require greater attention to the leaders that sit above the engineering manager, alongside a firm understanding of the team they manage.
Staff engineering manager job description
Staff engineering managers have years of experience managing multiple teams and product areas, and a proven record of being able to solve deeply technical problems. Other key responsibilities include:
Staff engineering managers are responsible for the well-being of their direct reports (if they have any), and creating an environment where they feel empowered to do their best work. This includes software engineers at both the junior and senior levels. Managers seek opportunities for their teams and connect their reports, helping them to reach their career goals.
It will be important to show a track record of mentoring and sponsoring individuals to help them achieve their career goals. You’ll need strong written and verbal communication skills and the ability to plan and execute complex work. It will be important to demonstrate experience communicating with product managers and executive leaders.
You will find yourself having to join existing teams, so the ability to take existing practices and improve them is paramount.
Technical and non-technical knowledge
When you reach this leadership position, you’ll have to focus on technical excellence and embody the behavior, mindset, and culture that is expected of all engineers.
You won’t code on a daily basis, but you’ll need to have a strong understanding of the technical underpinnings of engineering teams and exhibit familiarity with current practices.
This is essential for getting engineers to trust in you and your skill set.
Staff engineering managers also work with counterparts in product and design to manage against the roadmap and make sure that all parties are aligned. They proactively address non-engineering aspects of the team’s work including security reviews, or, if applicable, legal and privacy reviews. Planning, estimating, and monitoring the progress of the team is essential to successful project delivery.
You’ll be directly responsible for the people who report to you, but you’ll have to also give your full attention to the leadership structure above you.
Staff engineering managers are often assigned to successfully deliver in product areas that have high strategic importance to the organization. Failure to meet expectations will be noticed, and your work is often a dependency for other company goals. You’ll have to be comfortable regularly communicating with directors, VPs, members of the executive leadership team, and customers.
How do you become a staff engineering manager?
Once you have reached a senior engineering manager position, you must establish a strong track record of project delivery success. You’ll need to show how you’ve effectively managed the careers of your direct reports, including high performers as well as people who aren’t meeting the expectations of their role.
Importantly, you should be able to demonstrate how you can take initiative. Showcase ways in which you’ve gone beyond solving problems handed to you, and make it known that you have identified areas for improvement in the company without being directed to do so. Taking on this sort of responsibility highlights your leadership attributes.
You’ll also need to talk through how you’ve managed communication both within your team and with external stakeholders. This includes conveying expectations, using a mix of verbal and written communication, and explaining complicated concepts in a way that easy to understand and take action on.
It’s also possible to show leadership capability outside of software engineering. Some of the best engineering leaders I’ve met worked in retail, speech therapy, publishing, or other industries.
While it will be important to show that you understand the lives of engineers and what it takes to build software, gaining leadership expertise outside of software development can provide valuable insights. I’ve seen candidates from non-traditional backgrounds outside of the software industry demonstrate strong interpersonal and product leadership skills.
Cultivating transferable leadership abilities such as performance management, conflict resolution, aligning products with business goals, proactively making improvements in team practices and processes, and managing the work of others is incredibly valuable.
It will inform your leadership style once you become a staff engineering manager, helping you capably and compassionately lead multiple teams of software engineers.
Staff engineering manager vs. director of engineering: What's the difference?
At some organizations, the staff engineering manager and director of engineering role are at the same level. This means that there is no “promotion” from staff engineering manager to director of engineering.
Both of these roles are responsible for managing complex problem spaces where the answers are far from obvious. They often handle the highest priorities of the organization where failure can result in significant loss to the goals of the business. Both roles often lead through influence rather than solid lines on an organizational chart, acting as representatives of their domains inside and outside the company.
However, the one common distinction between the two is that staff engineering managers are responsible for ICs, and directors of engineering oversee managers. It is not uncommon for several staff engineering managers to report to a director of engineering.
A director of engineering will often coach staff engineering managers on how to handle conflicts between their direct reports, navigate organizational complexity, and rigorously pursue improvements to engineering practices. Staff engineering managers can have aspects of these responsibilities, too, but their fundamental focus is on their team and domain.
Staff engineering manager interview questions
Walking into an interview, you should have a rough idea of what to expect. Whether you’ve done extensive research into the prospective position, or you just have a loose understanding. Here are some potential questions you might be asked.
- How do you guide the careers of your direct reports?
- What’s your approach to working with representatives from design and product?
- How does work get from idea to implementation?
- How do you manage underperformers?
- Have you managed a failing project and turned it around? How did you do it?
- What’s a problem you’ve solved that few people (if anyone) knew existed?