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How can I best invest my personal development time as a Staff Engineer who would like to continue progressing as an IC?

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Staff Engineer at Taro Community8 months ago

I'm a Staff Engineer in the satellite telecommunications industry where I am responsible for the strategic success of the software products in my department. My organizational responsibilities and weekly calendar align almost perfectly with the Right Hand Staff Engineer Archetype. I'm sure that it will come as a surprise to no one that getting to this point in my career was an intense and conscientious journey. I am self-taught, I fell in love with programming as a child, and I have never attended a University. Things are not even close to perfect, but I am happy with my career so far.

My day-to-day work does not involve much programming, but I spend the vast majority of my time communicating with Tech Leads, Scrum Masters, PMs, TPMs, EMs, etc. to coordinate and accomplish different tasks. The rest of my time is split between communicating and aligning with high-level product stakeholders, such as my boss, and mentoring engineers. When I do code, it is because there is some experiment I want to run, i.e., I might create a prototype of a new product or feature that could massively impact a departmental OKR.

Outside of my day-to-day work, I dedicate as much time as I can to learning and practicing new technical (programming, cloud), professional (LinkedIn Learning), and domain-specific (satellites, AI) skills. I also consume a lot of content here on Taro and I often participate in company and community programs that I believe in (change maker programs, diversity and inclusion programs, etc. as a participant or as a coach).

I would love to have input on this aspect of my career as a Staff Engineer who would like to be a Fellow one day. As I make progress in my career, I find that (obviously) the expectations others have of me, in regard to being at the forefront of technology and really knowing what I am talking about in domain-specific (science-heavy, business-heavy) topics, have grown exponentially. I've already adapted my approach to developing domain-specific skills, for instance, instead of relying solely on MOOCs, I also now have regular sessions with domain experts (business folks with advanced industry-relevant university degrees), something my boss encourages and expects me to continue to do. I have now also considered the prospect of going to university myself, something my employer would sponsor.

So the question is, how can I best invest my personal development time so that as I progress in my career I can continue to meet, or even surpass, exponentially growing expectations?

I'm sure someone will have a great idea of how to approach this challenge. Also, there is a quote I appreciate from Alex Chiou that gives me hope that I can do it.

It wasn't due to natural talent or anything - I'm honestly not that smart.

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Discussion

(4 comments)
  • 3
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    Former Head of Engineering
    8 months ago

    It's quite timely since I just put my 2 cents on this in a repost on LinkedIn today regarding continued progression as an IC without getting into management.

    Here's the crux of it.

    +----+

    There are many options available to you that can bring you greater earning potential, personal growth and better alignment between what you are good at vs. paid to do.

    Here are couple examples I've seen:
    • Moving into independent consulting / subcontracting / side gigs
    • Moving into a different job family such as architecture or platform
    • Staying at senior engineer and continuing to crush it

    Taking on interesting new projects and expanding the breadth of your skills. Not all growth is tied to a company ladder.

    +----+

    Personally, I enjoyed the "Right Hand" archetype quite a bit and it's one of the most underrated ways to accelerate your career growth if you have the right executive sponsor.

    I think it's the perfect time to diversify into non-tech skills, especially as a "Right Hand" type of role. Like you mentioned a lot of time is spent playing on the intersections between various functions. Some common intersections I've had past success playing the "go between" are Product x Engineering, Architecture / platform x Engineering, and overall Business x Tech. This puts a high ROI on your skills outside of engineering.

    One extremely undervalued skill I've noticed over the past 3 months is "sales copywriting for engineers". If you learn to master sales copywriting, you'll find most written forms of communication a cakewalk and thereby gaining more visibility in the workplace and scaling your input.

    DM me if you'd like to explore any of these paths further. Happy to pass my learnings along.

    P.S. I would focus less on the medium the education is delivered through whether it's university, MOOCs, bootcamps or books, but rather the content you prefer and need.

  • 1
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    Startup Engineer
    8 months ago

    So the question is, how can I best invest my personal development time so that as I progress in my career I can continue to meet, or even surpass, exponentially growing expectations?

    I don't know if my answer will help in terms of progressing your career... But something I notice when listening to engineering leaders is that the "quality" of their thoughts is always extremely high. I don't get the impression that they go around collecting knowledge or reading books just to say they have done it—rather, that's how they cultivate the quality of their thoughts and how they sharpen their minds. It's not what they know, but the quality of their thoughts.

    One thing that should be a question for everyone is: if you had to start over at the bottom in a completely different field, would you be able to do it? This harkens back to the beginner's mindset and the winner's mindset. To be the best, you must constantly destroy the things you are really good at but aren't optimal for you in a future environment. I constantly think about whether titles will be the same, with AI doing most of the heavy lifting in the future.

  • 3
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    Coding Challenge Writer @ CodingChallenges.fyi
    8 months ago

    I think the other answers may have glossed over this part: "a Staff Engineer who would like to be a Fellow one day"

    My approach would be to look at the existing fellows and see what they are doing. I expect that they're not just talking to the domain experts, but are positioned as one.

    If that is so, then I would work to position yourself as one too. To do so, start demonstrating thought leadership by writing about the domain and ideally presenting at conferences.

  • 3
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    Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
    8 months ago

    I'm glad you resonated with the quote 😁. I was never the most naturally intelligent person in whatever group I've been in (literally stretching all the way back to elementary school), but I found success in my career primarily across these 2 vectors:

    • Caring more than everyone else
    • Constantly striving to add value to everyone else while expecting nothing in return

    I think expanding on these makes sense given the Right Hand archetype.

    So Staff -> Fellow is a long, long road:

    • At a high-level, Engineering Fellows need to have an extraordinary grasp of the space their company is in.
    • So let's say you want to stay in satellite telecommunications. In order to be a fellow, you should literally be one of the 100 most knowledgable engineers in the entire world about satellite telecommunications.
    • You need to have an extremely deep product sense and intuition about the space that lets you come up with and deliver projects of company-level impact that nobody else in the company can see.

    There is no playbook on how to do this (if there were, there would be far more L10 engineers). My advice here is to:

    • Meet industry leaders and download as much of their brain as possible. You can do this through LinkedIn, conferences (in-person of course), and just going through your network (ask people you know to introduce you to more people)
    • Talk to senior PM and UXR leads in your company and understand how they perceive the space. What are your company's competitors doing that you can learn from?
    • Continue building relationships with all of these folks so you can extract higher-quality wisdom and advice from them

    Suggesting resources for this is tricky, but here's some I think could help: