The best advice for newly hired Staff Engineers

Photo credit: Marco Verch

I recently joined Volvo Cars as a Sr Staff Engineer. Prior to that I’ve worked for 20+ years as an employee, consultant and entrepreneur at a wide range of businesses from robotics, online retail, telecom equipment, oncology information system, insurance, online banking, retail, news media, and video streaming. I have worked as a network admin, hardware engineer, UI designer, UXer, Product Manager, frontend, backend, DevOps and SRE. I primarily wrote code, but gradually found myself doing architecture, technical leadership, strategy and mentorship.

So I was coming in heavy. And that was exactly the pitfall this advice protected me from.

Why?

Looking back at the past 2 decades of my career, there is a recurring theme: every time I start a new position with a lot of passion and brought my best ideas about how things should work, I failed. Every time I didn’t care and saw it as a temporary job, it went so well that I stayed way past the expiration date. In fact this theme works so consistently that I intentionally try to force myself not to care too much about the job until it is clear that we match.

That all changed when I got this advice because it put things in context. You see, my main problem wasn’t the quality of my ideas per se but it was skipping a critical step that would make my career much more painless and impactful.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell the story how I got this advice in the first place:

It all started in early 2022. I was happily working at Discovery and enjoying my time. In light of Discovery’s merger with Warner Brothers I wasn’t even looking for a new job.

Then Volvo Cars reached out. As a former Volvo owner, I have a special respect for this brand. Long story short, I had the most inspiring interviews and ended up reading How Autonomous Vehicles will Change the World.

The car has become a COW (computer on wheels)!

Pioneeded by infotainment system and followed by possibilities that the electric drive train unlocked, today software is no more a feature of the car but rather its very defining charactristic.

There is a lot happening in the auto industry that truly positions it as the business sector which shape the innovations of this decade — pretty much like how smartphones shaped the past decade.

When Volvo reached out, I couldn’t resist. I wanted to be a part of this frontier!

But I also had a huge question mark in my head: do they even understand what Staff means? After all, there’s only a handful of tech companies which officially have this job title. That is the league of Google, Spotify, Github, Stripe, etc. all of which rely heavily on software.

So I reluctantly asked what their expectations were in my first 100 days (read why). I didn’t hear back for a few days. Then I got a 7 (!!!) page reply that sealed the deal for me.

Not only Volvo Cars demonstrated they know exactly what they’re talking about but they also gave great insight about how to thrive as a Staff Engineer.

The reply was too good to gather dust in my inbox. It was written by one of the most respected leaders that they recently hired from Spotify. So I asked if I could share it here publicly. Both for my future self and the wider internet audience who may find it useful.

What?

Following is a copy/paste of the advice I got with some minor editing to remove company-specific information:

We strongly believe in starting any new job by applying these 3 L’s:

1. Look — what do you observe? Who does what? In meetings with the teams, when the manager is present, when they are not, etc. Do people look engaged, happy/sad, scared, etc? Who’s the go-to person and most often seen in various meetings? Who’s taking up all the airtime in interactions, who’s silent? Why?

2. Listen — What are people saying in the meetings, on slack, in RFCs, etc? Does what you hear match what you see? Does what’s said match what the team and managers think they do in terms of behaviour and actions? If not, why? How is what’s said by leaders interpreted? And if there are misinterpretations what consequences does it have on the org and product?

3. Learn — Try to avoid the “at my old job we did…” argument. Have an open mindset about learning what the new place is doing and how they do it. Go with the flow, even if you don’t agree with how things are done (within reason) so that you really understand their ways of working (WoW) and methods, before you start judging them. This is a vital part of building rapport and showing that you are willing to be part of the group. However, do not forget what you are observing that needs changing but the key is to understand the cause instead of trying to change the symptom.

It takes time to 3L (look, listen and learn). Every company is different in terms of:

  • People: the culture, org structure and the type of talent making up the company DNA
  • Product: the context of the problem the business set out to solve and its business model and customers
  • Tech: the actual technical solution in place and its maturity in terms of DevOps, security, reliability and architecture

Skipping 3L, there is no guarantee of relevance for any newcomer. That was exactly my problem. The higher my position, the more pressure I felt to contribute as soon as possible. The more I cared about a job, the more frustrated I felt when I was not impactful.

The ability to unlearn the old and relearn is the trickiest skill to master for the more senior professionals.

Coming in with a lot of experience, it is easy to assume a link between the new problems and older solutions. It is easy to overlook a company’s uniqueness and blindly throw the baggage at the new job.

A funny scene from the Monty Python

How?

The advice I received goes on to elaborate action points to make the 3L work:

Communicate: it’s good to communicate that you are in the 3L mode, and you would like to stay there for a while. This helps manage the expectations and reduce pressure on you to deliver from day 1. In my experience this leads to people respecting and trusting you more since you’re not that new leader who wants to change things because “you’ve always done it that way”.

Network: It will be your manager and buddy’s job to make sure you get access to the right forums and discussions on all levels, so you can make the right observations across the organisation. You must also spend a significant time during this phase networking and building relationships with key individuals in the org, individual contributors, managers and stakeholders.

Analyse: form your understanding and communicate it back to make sure you understand. Develop hypotheses about how things could improve without directly mimicking your experience from another job. Do your homework to tailor your experience and ideas to the new environment. Everyone can complain but only those who have a solution deserve to act. Everyone can come up with an idea but only those who can drive action deserve credit.

Then it sets some expectations:

It is only after this phase, that you have the understanding, credibility and influence required to make changes. This is a team effort where the leadership can support you but only if they feel like you know what you’re talking about. You’ll only have a few shots (most probably 1) so make sure to do your homework in advance.

This is also where you need to really show your follow-me leadership by showing how it’s done instead of ordering people or expecting them to read your mind. There are a lot of people with the self-assigned “leader” title who draw pretty diagrams, but only a few can turn those ideas into action and code.

When?

Originally I got this advice for my first 100 days and here is a rough suggested agenda:

1. Spend the first month with the 3L

2. Spend the next month getting feedback and verifying your mental model and planing where you can add value

3. Spend the rest on executing the plan and making an impact

Conclusion

Looking back, my worst onboarding experiences happened when there was a high expectations induced by the manager and/or myself from the get go!

Let’s face it: when someone is new, they don’t have the leverage to challenge those expectations. They want to show their best. They have probably set their own bar even higher!

Cut them some slack to let them look, listen and learn the product, people and tech. Support them through their journey and they will do wonders after a smooth start.

Update: another Staff Engineer friend of mine introduced this book:

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