staff engineer archetypes
It’s nearly that time of year again when we do our reflections. So here I am renewing the expectations of my role as a
staff engineer. I am writing this largely for myself to think through my understanding. Because if I cannot explain it,
I don’t understand it.
Being a Staff-engineer is not just a role. It’s the
intersection of the role, your behavior, your impact, and the organization’s recognition of all those
Once you reach that 10+ year experience mark, progression can stay technical and thus staff engineer—as opposed to a
manager. At this point, most engineers traveled their journey, have their mode of impact, and have their way of working.
We are all different people, who bring our impact to the table, so rather than one set of expectations for the role,
Staff Engineer Archetypes describes four archetypes—or personas—that
break the role down into smaller groups that provide a framework for how to think about the role. They are the Tech
Lead, the Architect, the Solver, and the Right Hand.
… worth noting here, it is most definitely okay to stay a senior engineer and not progress.
Quite importantly, a staff engineer is there to help further the business objectives, in whatever form that takes. It
doesn’t mean you call the shots now. It means you should be even more aligned with business objectives and not
necessarily your own.
The staffeng.com article describes these four archetypes in detail, but
here is my understanding:
The tech lead leads one or more teams in their approach and execution through day-to-day leadership. They are quite
comfortable scoping work, building consensus, and picking up all the things that drop through the cracks. They share a
clear technical vision, and step in and out of the implementation to realign the team in complex situations.
The Tech Lead is commonly used as a title, and others use it as a role. It is entirely possible to be a Tech Lead
without operating as a staff engineer.
The architect has an intimate understanding of a specific technical domain. The API design, tech stack, etc. The
specific domain must be crucial to the company’s prerogative—as in its what the company money. The architect is also
held accountable for this vision or understanding.
The solver can go deep to solve a problem no one else can. The company or leadership will steer them into these
problems when there is not a clear approach or there is a high degree of risk. They’ll tend to move on to the next
thing once the problem is solved.
The right hand is like an extension of a leader. They help widen the bandwidth by removing important problems from
their plate. The problems here tend to not be technical, but rather organizational or people-related. They are also
the ones who can step in and out of the leadership role when needed.
What I love here is that they form a pretty nice Venn diagram of core competencies, because of this you may find you
resonate with a particular archetype, with more than one, or even jump between them from one season to another.
Staff engineers should all have these underlying qualities though:
Utilize individual discretion in selecting methods, techniques and evaluation criteria for obtaining results.
Quickly identify flaws during initial iterations and integrate the lessons learned for future iterations.
Provides substantial leadership to help others learn and grow.
Seek opportunities to establish and enhance cross-team collaboration to broaden perspective.
Resolves the most challenging problems by addressing technical issues that impact company-wide goals.