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The Secret Strategy for Landing That Staff Engineer Role

Historically, as engineers/developers became more senior, they hit a decision point — do I become a manager or an architect? Architecture tended to be the standard route for folks that wanted to stay focused on tech.

As engineering culture evolved, the adoption of dev ops and the cloud has led us to autonomous cross-functional teams where architecture is something team members do, rather than a separate role. This has left two problems: firstly, what path is available for engineers who want to remain focussed on the tech, and secondly, who is responsible for the holistic wide-angle view of the technical direction, particularly where that crosses multiple teams. 

In this talk, I will share my expertise from having several different senior IC roles to give insight into the possible routes of staff plus role, including my path and what you need to make yourself a great candidate for getting that staff plus role. I will also explore what a staff engineer role is, and some of the problems in the wider industry. At the end of this talk, you should be able to identify if this path is definitely for you, have some examples of routes to get there, and understand the pitfalls if you follow the individual contributor route. 

Main Takeaways

1 Hear about IC roles, what they are and how to get them while remaining in a technical environment.

2 Learn if an IC role is what you are actually looking for, what they require.

Nicky, can you tell me what the focus of your work is these days?

I have moved away from being a principal engineer into being something called Ventures CTO. I'm working for a venture builder who has over 30 businesses in their portfolio and I provide engineering support across all of those businesses, from CTO level down to engineering, mentorships, a whole slew of stuff with many different businesses at the moment.

And what is the motivation for your talk?

I was a principal engineer. I've had several positions as a principal engineer. I found that when I was moving from my first principal engineer role, it was very difficult for me to understand similar roles elsewhere and get a similar role that used my skills in the right way. And I realized at that point that it's such a misunderstood set of roles. It means different things to different people. So many senior engineers want to become a staff engineer without understanding what the role is or should be. And then there are very different routes to getting there. So I just wanted to get across some of that.

And how would you describe the persona and level of the target of your audience for this talk?

I think there's several personas that could benefit. First and foremost, it's obvious for the senior engineer that's looking to work out whether they want to go into engineering management or stay on the IC path, become a staff+ engineer. I think that's a very direct one. But the other ones are when people have newly become senior in IC. I want to validate what they're doing and understand what it means outside of their company to be a senior IC. And the third persona is probably the least applicable but it's still applicable, is companies that are looking to put this role in place. So, large level startups that are scaling up or traditional companies that are bringing in autonomous teams structures. They might be wanting to understand more about what this role is and why they might need it.

Is there anything specific that you would like this persona to walk away with after watching the presentation?

'd like them to walk away with a better understanding of what this role can be and be able to identify the places they are not really there. There's a lot of places that offer this role, a lot of organizations that offer this role, but there's also quite a lot of organizations that don't provide the structure that there should be. So I'd just like everybody to walk away with more understanding about this very nebulous, misunderstood topic so that they can apply it, whether they're looking for a job or change.  


Nicky Wrightson

Ventures CTO @blenheimchalcot

Nicky has worked as an engineer for over 20 years over many industries. She is currently working as Ventures CTO for Blenheim Chalcot, a venture builder which believes in investing more than just funds but investing knowledge and experience, ideas and infrastructure to build new sustainable...

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Tuesday May 17 / 12:20PM EDT (50 minutes)


Staff-Plus Engineer Path


LeadershipTraining / Certification

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