The Staff Engineer’s Path by Tanya Reilly

The book sits next to a crocheted fish Image by Sepideh Miller

After being promoted to senior engineer at my last job, I started wondering what higher levels of engineering would look like.

In this book, Tanya Reilly, the author of the Being Glue article, that was being passed around by every woman in software engineering that I know last year, starts out by explaining some high level organizational concepts and slowly gets down to explaining what makes good staff engineers.

At the beginning of the book, she explains the career ladder and why it exists and how staff engineers can work at different levels in different organizational structures and what work at those different levels can entail. She explains that staff engineers should be selective about the work that they take on and the work that they delegate to others and really think about how much time and energy a task will require and whether it is aligned with career goals.

She explained the responsibility decision matrix (RACI) around the time when it came up in a discussion with my new manager. Sometimes, large projects get stuck, and it helps to clarify who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed.

In the later chapters, she explains how you should find people to discuss your concerns without letting your worries fall on more junior engineers. She also returned to her essay on glue work and explained that the “problem is, when junior people do too much administrative or leadership work and not enough technical work, they’re spending their prime technical learning years in a way that doesn’t teach them technical skills. That can stunt their careers in the long run. But often, leaders don’t step in: the glue work is needed for the project to succeed, and they’re just glad it’s getting done.” That section gave me a lot to reflect on.

In the end, she discusses the many paths that you may consider in your engineering career.

I really enjoyed this book. The illustrations were clear. The writing was really thoughtful and engaging.