With several different available paths to engineers, career progression becomes somewhat of a foggy area. This is especially true because each company tends to have different practices for naming and ranking different engineering positions. There is a huge variety of the same role across organizations, which is what makes it so difficult to identify commonalities in job scope, skills, experience, and responsibilities. Since engineering roles directly impact income, it’s important to cover the specifics of each engineering role.
Many organizations use different levels of engineering because doing so provides them with the structure that is required to get the job done. Since the role of a staff engineer vs. that of a senior engineer is somewhat unclear, this article will outline what a staff engineer does, what a senior engineer does, and what kinds of skills they each tend to have. It will also identify the roles and responsibilities of each position as well as the unique challenges that both engineers face.
- What does a staff engineer do?
- Staff engineer’s skills
- What does a senior engineer do?
- Senior engineer’s skills
- Staff engineer vs. senior engineer
- The challenges that staff engineers face
- The challenges that senior engineers face
What does a staff engineer do?
Staff engineers tend to lead complex and sometimes high-risk projects, while also controlling the communication around them. This position is more of a tech lead role. The staff engineer supports their team and the business by providing context and technical specifications, documenting processes, and giving technical direction. A staff engineer tends to only spend a small portion of their day coding, since they’re largely engaged with their managers to support their priorities and allow them to focus on the highest priority tasks. Staff engineers tend to also take on somewhat of a coaching and mentoring role, as they share best practices with other engineers and help them acquire new skills and competencies. The reporting line for staff engineers varies from one organization to the next, but this role has a certain level of autonomy in that staff engineers control their own day-to-day activities.
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Staff engineer’s skills
Staff engineers should have the ability to:
- Implement complex parts of a system or a product
- Ship high-quality work following best practices, such as adequate testing, successful rollout, and consistent monitoring
- Both access and validate all outputs
- Leverage the work of other relevant colleagues, including developers and project managers
- Lead efforts that set the direction for the rest of the team, such as new season road mapping
- Propose short-term and long-term solutions for pain points in the system or product with clear deliverables and action items
Staff engineers should also be able to:
- Communicate clearly
- Positively influence the engineering culture
- Onboard new team members, whether they are junior or senior members
- Leverage resources without specific instructions
What does a senior engineer do?
Senior engineers tend to be experts and owners of a main feature or system within the organization. The senior engineering role is also an individual contributor role (like the staff engineering position), but their responsibilities are more demanding and include overseeing design plans, liaising with clients to create sufficient work plans, maintaining engineering processes, and managing particular project budgets. Senior engineers also tend to have a significant role in identifying, hiring, and onboarding new employees. Finally, the senior engineer also engages in and plans research and development on more complex projects. Costs and recommendations of new machinery or other components that may be required are also part of the job scope.
Senior engineer’s skills
Senior engineers should be able to:
- Identify existing problems in systems and products without any guidance and offer well-thought-out solutions to these problems
- Lead a project or principal team responsibility, such as hosting weekly meetings and communicating with other partners to inform them about project updates or issues
- Design, breakdown, and successfully complete projects with large scopes with a high level of productivity and efficiency
Senior engineers should have the ability to:
- Make improvements to the engineering team by mentoring or interviewing potential new hires
- Give accurate, actionable, and helpful feedback to other team members
- Build teams and important client relationships that facilitate and support the advancement of ongoing projects
Staff engineer vs. senior engineer
- The roles and responsibilities of a staff engineer
- The roles and responsibilities of a senior engineer
1The roles and responsibilities of a staff engineer
- Contribute towards multiple projects simultaneously
- Code in at least one or more coding languages for 20% to 60% of the working day (depending on the organization)
- Architect software, document processes, and pursue proof of concepts
- Explore new tools and share findings with the rest of the team
- Collaborate with colleagues on relevant tasks and projects to find the best possible solutions to issues that arise
2The roles and responsibilities of a senior engineer
- Plan and direct research and development work on complex projects
- Engage various parties in design and development processes
- Put together costs and recommendations of new machinery or other components
- Generate reports and write project proposals
- Present design and research to customers
- Negotiate projects and product terms with various vendors
- Oversee various projects
The challenges that staff engineers face
A key challenge for staff engineers along with any other individual contributor role is guiding the technical direction of tasks without management authority. For this reason, staff engineers need to gain the trust of their team members so they can enforce how and what should be worked on. Building this trust takes time, experience, and good communication.
Another key challenge for staff engineers is that their technical work is often more ambiguous than in previous positions. They don’t necessarily begin with well-defined problems within a team or project because staff engineers are responsible for identifying problems themselves. Because they also manage their own work, time management and delegating follow-ups can be additional challenges. Lastly, because staff engineers work independently but across teams, maintaining strong working relationships and clear communication can be difficult.
The challenges that senior engineers face
Senior engineers also face some challenges in being successful in their positions. First, proper time management is a critical skill senior engineers need to master, and fast. Senior engineers tend to find time management challenging because they need to juggle so many responsibilities simultaneously, including following up with team members, consulting on technical requirements for a project, designing the modules and components, and making sure everyone is respecting the pre-agreed development standards and guidelines.
Related to time management challenges is the issue of finding balance between technical and management-related responsibilities. Technically, senior engineers need to own the design of larger parts of a system and design frameworks to be used by other developers on the team; doing so requires a good understanding of code, design, and testing. On the product management side of things, the senior engineer also needs to negotiate the scope of the system and estimate the required efforts to implement them; this requires a good understanding of business requirements. Then, from a team leadership perspective, the senior engineer needs to also mentor and lead other developers.
Lastly, because the senior engineer is balancing all these responsibilities, setting boundaries at work can be difficult. It can be challenging to convince management that certain expectations just aren’t feasible.
Understanding what the differences are between a staff engineer vs. senior engineer can be challenging, especially because so many different organizations assign different titles, roles, and responsibilities to each. The little to no alignment in the industry based on individual organizational needs can make it harder to understand which position is better suited for you and your interests. A staff engineer takes on more of a technical lead role, in that they’re involved in day-to-day projects and lead the team through technical requirements and challenges. A senior engineer is an expert of a main system or feature. They oversee oversight design plans, liaise with clients to create sufficient work plans, maintain the engineering processes, and manage project budgets. They also play somewhat of a leadership role as they identify, interview, hire, and onboard new employees to the team. A key difference is that on the technical side, a senior engineer should be able to solve complex issues that few others are able to.
If you’re thinking of your career development and don’t know if you’re better suited for a staff engineer vs. senior engineer position, refer back to this article and identify which skills you align with more closely and which roles and responsibilities on which you feel best equipped to deliver. If you found this article helpful, be sure to pass it along to a friend or a colleague to share the knowledge!