Notes from Staff Engineer - Will Larson

10 February 2023


These are my notes from reading Staff Engineer - Leadership Beyond the Management Track by Will Larson. Overall I found the book really interesting and insightful. Definitely a recommended read for anyone pursuing a Staff-plus role.


  • Introduces the collective term Staff-plus engineer.
  • Four staff engineer archetypes: Tech Lead, Solver, Architect and Right Hand.
  • All share a foundation of setting and editing technical direction, providing sponsorship and mentorship, injecting engineering context into organisational decisions, exploration and “being glue”.
  • The canonical piece on sponsorship:
  • Being glue:
  • Big areas of impact: Work on what matters, write an engineering strategy, curate technical quality, stay aligned with authority, to lead you have to follow, learn to never be wrong, curate space for others and build a network for peers.


  • Avoid snacking: Avoid easy and low-impact work.
  • Stop preening: A subset of snacking that is work that is low-impact and high-visibility.
  • Stop chasing ghosts: Low-impact, high-effort work.
  • Focus on existential issues first. Nothing else will matter if it doesn’t get addressed.
  • Work where there’s room and attention.
  • To write an engineering strategy, write five design documents, and pull the similarities out. That’s your engineering strategy. To write an engineering vision, write five engineering strategies, and forecast their implications two years into the future. That’s your engineering vision.
  • Effective organisations marshal the majority of their efforts towards a shared vision. If you plot every technical decision as a vector on a grid, the more those vectors point in the same direction, the more you’ll accomplish over time.
  • Conway’s Law: Argues that organisations build software that reflects their structure.
  • One of the best measures of your long-term success as a Staff-plus engineer is that the organisation around you increasingly benefits from, but does not rely upon, your contributions.
  • SCQA format: Situation, Complication, Question, Answer.
  • To get into the “room”, you have to work both the numerator and the denominator: keep developing a unique and useful perspective while also becoming more effective at delivering that perspective within the constraint’s of a meeting.
  • Company values: one that’s particularly important is understanding if the company’s leadership fundamentally subscribes to an exception-heavy “meritocratic” view of the world or a consistency-heavy “proceduralist” view.
  • Big focus on visibility both internally and externally.
  • Internally - Slack channels, documentation, brown bag sessions etc.
  • Externally - Public speaking, company engineering blog, interviewing etc.
  • The scalability of writing things down and sharing them.
  • Mentorship - Is about helping people grow and deliver impact.
  • Sponsorship - Is about helping a person get in a position where they could demonstrate their ability to deliver greater impact.

Cool Ideas

  • “As a result [of rapid engineering growth] I created a slack room - connect-engineering - that uses a bot to randomly pair two people in engineering for coffee every two weeks. That room has been pairing people for coffee for over two years now.”
  • From an infrastructure perspective, I’d ask three questions: 1) What are you working on? 2) What makes it hard? 3) How can infrastructure teams help?

New Terms