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Engineering
September 21, 2022

Learning from your mistakes as a new Staff Engineer

by 
Walker Palecek

LeadDev recently hosted a webinar titled "Common mistakes new Staff Engineers make… and how to avoid them.” Expertly hosted by Blanca Garcia Gil, the panel included Staff+ Engineers Krys Flores, Mike San Roman, Sabrina Leandro, and Shweta Bhandare.

Though not on the path to Staff myself, I found the topic intriguing and was thrilled to support Lob Staff Engineer Krys Flores. What made this panel extra special was the differences between the panelists and their career journeys, allowing each to provide a unique perspective on their unique stumbles. I’ve captured my favorite takeaways from each participant below and you can access the full video recording of the webinar here.

Krys Flores considers herself a “baby” Staff engineer having recently been promoted to Staff at Lob. She had a non-traditional journey into tech and wanted to speak on the panel to be an inspiration for others. She opened with, “I'm here to say, maybe you're like me, maybe you don't have a CS degree. But…you can get here.”

Krys shared an important lesson from her first big project as Staff: Though delivery was successful, “I was stressed and I showed it” she admitted. “If you're on a plane and the pilot is stressed out, as a passenger, are you going to be stressed out?”

”As staff leaders within the company, we need to be graceful and poised even under stress because we have other people joining us in the journey.”  In other words, “managing my own stress as a staff engineer is so important for me in supporting others.”

When reflecting on something she could have done differently she noted that taking time away from her desk (doing something enjoyable like walking her dogs) or mediating could have allowed her to project calm and positivity. She also noted that it’s essential to have a confidant to communicate with and receive support from; for Krys, a co-worker and her “grand boss” provided that safe space.

Mike San Roman has been at Buffer for 8 years, working as Staff Product Engineer for the last two. Mike recalled that when he was promoted, his first big, high-risk project got off to a rough start. Given his reporting structure, he had limited high-level visibility which had negative consequences. He soon realized that to effectively lead, he needed to work directly with the CTO for a more holistic view. 

Mike said the book Staff Engineer: Leadership beyond the management track by Will Larson was particularly helpful when he was starting as a Staff Engineer. It helped him understand “how senior IC roles are sometimes very abstract and they mean very different things from organization to organization.” Mike explained that the book outlines common Staff Archetypes and said, “it's very helpful to have common names for these different figures or versions of the role in order to navigate and set expectations.”

Adapted from Staff Engineer Archetypes, by Will Larson

In his role, in his organization, in addition to being a Tech Lead (commonly one’s first experience as a Staff Engineer), he also needed to step into Right Hand, a less common archetype.

Mike was always actively encouraging collaboration between groups and teams, but he realized what people also needed from him as a leader is to drive decisions. Not doing so can create bottlenecks, so he had to fight against his own Imposter Syndrome to step up.

Sabrina Leandro joined Intercom as Principal Engineer with the express purpose of moving away from a management track, because, “I wanted to go back to coding and get my hands dirty and get it back to shipping and building products.” But given her experience (and strengths), she found herself defaulting to a management role in projects; this consumed her and left no time to code. 

Sabrina noted, “I believe we should be still shipping production code, delivering customer value. It might not be something we do all the time or every day, but it needs to happen enough that we understand the shape of the code base and the problems that engineers have and the problems that our customers have as well.”

Her advice was to create the space to do the work that you want to do. She came up with a plan with her manager on how she was going to spend her time, and this specifically included coding.

Sabrina also recommended joining the on-call team as one of the fastest, most effective ways to learn the code base. 

Shweta Bhandare is a Principal Engineer at Recursion, a biotech company that sits at the intersection of science and technology. In addition to being the only Principal engineer at the time, there was an enormous amount of scientific knowledge Shweta needed to absorb about the business. “Somehow I found myself in a room with smart people [biologists, data scientists, etc.] looking at me to solve problems. This was very overwhelming for me.”

Shweta emphasized the need to really understand before trying to solve problems or influence. 

She said, “What really helped me was having a growth mindset. At Recursion, we have five values and one of the values is ‘we learn.’ I use that value to learn about who my teammates are, and who my collaborators are.” 

To piece together the puzzle she started by asking questions like, "On your team, what is going well for you guys? What is not? If you had to fix it, what would you fix it? How would you fix it?" 

The answers lead to a better understanding of the problem along with understanding it from each person’s perspective. 

When Sabrina talked about diving into code, Shweta said to find balance with her other responsibilities, she has a conservative goal of one PR a month. She focuses her efforts on looking ahead to scope, prepare for, and/or identify blockers for future work. This satisfies her desire to get into the code and enables more effective execution by those who will be doing the work.

As an active yogi and hiker, Shweta also echoed Krys’ recommendation for self-care. 

Host (and former Principal Engineer) Blanca reminded participants that just because the panelists were discussing how to avoid mistakes, it doesn’t mean they won’t happen. Mistakes are inevitable, but they are an opportunity to learn. In a Staff+ role, people will look up to you to model behaviors; to that end, she questioned the group as to how you can course correct.

Mike shared that “the best way to mitigate the impact [of a mistake] is to share early,” avoid “big reveals,” and that there’s no such thing as too much communication.  

When it comes to recovering from a mistake and moving forward, Krys agreed that communication is key and echoed the importance of a growth mindset to mitigate the effects of Imposter Syndrome. Recognizing that emotional intelligence is just as important as technical ability in a Staff+ role, she opened herself up to (and encourages) outside coaching. 

Krys said, "As a leader, you have to ensure that you're curating the experience for everyone. That's one of Lob's values, and I truly believe in that.”

I am grateful to have spent my lunch hour with this assembly of successful individuals willing to put themselves out there to share lessons learned. I’ve only touched on some of the insights this group provided, and I can't possibly capture their energy here. if you want to laugh and learn along with the panelists in all their glory, you can access the full video recording of the webinar here. (And check out the Staff+ section of LeadDev for more education and inspiration!)

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