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How to Become a Staff-Plus Engineer

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If you are interested in becoming a staff-plus engineer, take time to explore your values and start discussing your career goals and ambitions with your manager. You can engage with engineering communities to develop your skills. Staff-plus engineers are able to lead tech people, where getting things done goes beyond their individual capacity to grow and mentor others.

Blanca Garcia Gil spoke about behaviours to become an effective staff-plus engineer at QCon London 2022 and QCon Plus May 2022.

Gil explained how she has developed her staff-plus engineering skills:

I have been setting shorter and longer term career goals with my manager for the last few years, and after discussing with a few people I would have a discussion with them once I felt I had a picture in my head. This was important because sharing those goals and ambitions gave my manager clarity about what I wanted and why I was motivated, and they could help me find opportunities and connect me to either a mentor or sponsor me!

This is an ideal scenario and I haven’t always felt so supported by my manager, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to develop my skills, but rather that I had to find other ways.

In her earlier career, Gil developed skills attending conferences, participating in meetups, contributing to open source projects and discussing with people in the industry where they were at. At times this felt like more effort, but it is something she found very valuable and it helped her to engage with engineering communities.

A technical leader is not perfect in everything, but builds around them a group of people who have complementary skills and collaborate together very well, Gil mentioned. One of the fundamental things needed for a high performing team is psychological safety (this came out of a study from Google); admitting what you don’t know and a certain degree of vulnerability are important when you are leading people, she said.

Knowing your values will help guide you when making difficult decisions and explaining them to others. Contrary to what many of us believe, it is far easier (and enjoyable) to become great at a skill we are already quite good at than to level up in something we are lacking, Gil concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Blanca Garcia Gil about how to become a staff-plus engineer.

InfoQ: What made you decide to become a principal engineer?

Blanca Garcia Gil: I was a senior software engineer who wanted to improve things. I had experienced the impact of early decisions in our architecture design and I wanted to incorporate that feedback and experience into our decisions. I enjoyed problem-solving and coding, but what I was trying at that time was to find ways to have a bigger impact in my team and in the BBC. I didn’t know this was the role of a principal engineer until I read the job description of an open role, and then decided that I wanted to give it a go.

InfoQ: You mentioned in your talk that staff-plus engineers will be working longer timeframes. What does this look like?

Gil: In my experience as a senior software engineer, I was focusing on delivering user stories, going through the agile process with my team (we used Kanban) and asking what the priorities were. Once I progressed to a staff plus role, I spent my time discussing priorities with stakeholders and product managers, and working with the team to set OKRs (Objective and Key Results). We would work on these priorities for a quarter. I was leading the team which meant most of the time I was not being hands on, or I would review proposals, infrastructure and facilitated discussions. I was spending more time communicating with peer groups too, to share what we were doing and understand the bigger picture in the BBC.

So going back to the longer timeframes, before being a principal engineer I could deliver work fairly quickly as some feature work could take a day, but when leading people I would start seeing results after six months or more, and I was involved in discussions about priorities six months down the line or even longer if it meant there was a big problem which needed some fleshing out before being even considered to be a priority.

InfoQ: What’s your advice to engineers who would like to move into a staff-plus role?

Gil: I would say start with knowing what your personal values are and what you are very good at and what you are not great at. Knowing yourself well is a gateway for understanding where you need to put effort and which areas you might delegate to others or create a team around you.

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