Unlock the potential of your Staff Engineers

Make sure you are setting your people up for success.

Unlock the potential of your Staff Engineers

Up until recent years, the only way a senior software developer could continue to advance in their career was to get promoted into management. It's time to get “off the tools” and start managing people. This means, our highly qualified,  highest performing and most impactful software engineers, were stepping into a role they were not trained or qualified for: and in a lot of cases, didn't really want to do anyway. 

But our industry is evolving …

Industry leaders are starting to shape and define a second pathway, and we are getting a clearer picture of how those who wish to remain technical can continue to grow their career and have a bigger impact. 

This is called the Staff Engineers path. The path is adjacent to the Manager’s path, and even though there are no people management responsibilities, these roles have the same scope of impact.

Showing adjacent career pathways for Managers and Staff Engineers, with increasing levels of influence, from Self to industry, and scope of work from task to whole product.
Adjacent Manager and Staff Engineering pathways. 


In reality, an individual may pendulum between Staff Engineering and People Management, which improves their effectiveness overall, and makes for a more varied career. 

While some companies have recognised the need for the Engineering path, few are getting the full value from their most-expensive tech people. 

One common pitfall is that Staff Engineers or Principal developers are simply individual-contributors working in a single team who are paid more money. This comes about when a company is at a size and stage where the Senior Engineers have hit the top of the salary band, and are being offered more to move elsewhere. This problem is solved simply by creating a new, higher band, with a new title - Principal Developer-  without any additional accountability or expectations. And what happens in another 3 years, when all those Principals want another promotion? We make Senior Principals! You can see how this does not scale.  

As a person's title and compensation goes up, so too must the value of their contributions to the company. Their scope of impact and accountability must span beyond a single team. They are force multipliers, and uplift people, culture, practices and systems.   

Staff Engineers can come in different shapes: they could work across multiple teams and systems to improve system health, bridge communication or design holistic architectures; they may be a deep domain expertise of one core system, with knowledge of all the intricacies and edge cases; or, they could be specialists in a particular tech and build platforms to systematise their expert knowledge in a way that befits the whole organisation.

What they all have in common, is their scope of impact is across the group, or even the whole organisation. They add exponential value. They are strong communicators, lead with influence, coach and mentor and bring people together.  

When do you implement Staff Engineering roles? 

Staff engineers are the connectors that have a holistic view of your systems, keep them healthy and ensure they are fit for purpose to meet strategic objectives. This role becomes important when you grow to having multiple engineering teams, and are beginning to notice communication issues between teams, a slow-down in delivery or building frustrations over technical debt. 

What happens if you don’t implement Staff Engineering roles?

At the time you start seeing the cracks and challenges of scale, your senior engineering will start defining these roles for you - and badly. Feeling the limitations of their existing practices or tooling, they can hastily build and introduce bespoke systems, without considering the consequences of scale or maintainability. The initial boost to productivity may get them noticed, which will encourage others to make technical or strategic decisions primarily to showcase their skills and stand out. Soon you end up with over-complicated solutions, redundant tools, or bespoke projects that serve individual egos more than team or business needs.

This behaviour is referred to as promotion-driven development and leads to individualist cultures that do not focus on what is best for the team or organisation. 

How to avoid Promotion-Driven Development 

Proactively defining a Career Growth Framework will help set up your Staff Engineers for success. They serve as the strategic compass for unlocking their potential. By having clear pathways for advancement, expectations, and competencies, these frameworks empower Staff Engineers to channel their deep expertise in directions that benefit the organisation.

By recognising and nurturing their unique strengths, organisations can foster an environment of collaboration, innovation, and continuous learning.

We know these frameworks take a lot of time and energy to build, but a word of caution using an open-sourced framework from a large tech company: I have found that many are missing competencies that foster inclusion, safety and innovation. They often codify poor behaviours that limit the progression of underrepresented people in tech. Be sure to clearly define and set expectations around behaviours and contributions that lead to psychologically-safe and diverse technical teams. 

Setting Staff Engineers up for success

Establishing Staff Engineering roles for the first time is a pivotal move, marking a commitment to deep technical excellence and mentorship. It will help you engage and retain technical staff, as they can see the possibilities for growth in your organisation. 

Set them up using the "First Team" principle. This will encourage collaboration with peers from other areas to develop a shared technical vision for the organisation. Instead of being deeply siloed in their group or specialisations, they're encouraged to think cross-functionally and will hold each other accountable for high-quality delivery.  

Establish a Community of Practice for Staff Engineers, where they regularly share ideas and knowledge, will help to keep the group aligned and continue to uplift capability. Inviting aspiring Senior Engineers can also serve as a powerful mechanism for mentorship and succession planning, ensuring a steady pipeline of talent ready to transition into Staff Engineer roles while fostering a culture of continuous learning and collaboration throughout the organisation.

Ready to roll out Staff Engineering pathways to your tech teams? Let’s get started!