“The Many Facets of the Staff Engineer”: Stacey Shkuratoff, Staff Engineer at Guild (Video + Transcript)

September 21, 2023

Stacey Shkuratoff (Staff Engineer at Guild) talks about what the staff engineer role can look like in industry, how to set yourself up for success in the role, and discuss strategies for making change by building consensus and trust across teams. This talk is for mid / senior engineers looking to continue as an individual contributor. Staff engineering is a newer concept.


Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Stacey Shkuratoff IG quote Elevate Girl Geek X

Stacey Shkuratoff: Hello, everyone. It is my pleasure to be with you here today to talk about staff engineering. A little about me. Since we’re talking about careers, I thought I’d include a little history as to how I got here. This is my grade 12 school picture and proof that I’ve been very colorful since I was young. I was born in Port Alberni, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island in Canada.

Stacey Shkuratoff: I’m the perfect example of pivoting, or as I call it, failing upward. In high school, I did okay in classes but did really well on my provisional exams. Those are like SATs per class, for you non-Canadian folks. I got a 94% on the physics exam, but got a 68 in the class. I was allowed to enter my university of choice because of a new program they called, Broader Based Admissions, that looked at your volunteer participation and extracurricular activities as well. I had to take the English exam three times before I passed enough to fully attend.

Stacey Shkuratoff: What I didn’t know is that I had combination ADHD, both hyperactive and inattentive. While I didn’t thrive in the classroom, I can absolutely excel at anything I get excited about. I went to university to take physics, failed physics second semester. My second year, I took a variety of humanities, such as Canadian political science and anthropology, but since I can’t write linearly, it wasn’t for me.

Stacey Shkuratoff: After failing physics and being unable to do anything very well in humanities, I wanted to do something more technical and applied to be an engineer. Transferring into engineering at UBC, you rank your choices. My first choice rank was mechanical engineering. Clearly, I didn’t get into that field, but I did get my second ranked choice, which was computer engineering. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Applied Science in computer engineering with good grades. By the end. I’m a proud engineer and an Iron Ring wearer.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Computer engineering is not the same as computer science, though. My degree focused on microcontrollers and hardware. I had taken a few Java courses but nothing to do with web development.

Stacey Shkuratoff: So, how I became a staff engineer for web applications? This is a photo from an internship where I was working with mobile phones before the time of the iPhone. I am yelling into an old Motorola. I can’t recall exactly, but I was one of maybe two female engineers at the company, and they needed some promo shots for the website. Lo and behold, here’s my face.

Stacey Shkuratoff: During my internships, I did some embedded programming for cell phones using Java 2 Micro Edition and I worked in console games, in particular the PlayStation 3, using action script to build choose your weapon type screens. To my surprise, when I got out of school, I actually got a hardware job.

Stacey Shkuratoff: I showed up on my first day. They told me the hardware team wasn’t ready for me, but since I had some Java and some action script, I could just join the web team. I had very little experience with web programming and found it difficult at first. As it turns out, I really liked it and when the hardware team was ready, I declined.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Most of my technical knowledge was learned on the job or self-taught. My career has taken me from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco, California, to Sydney, Australia, to Portland, Oregon, and now I am located in Denver, Colorado.

Stacey Shkuratoff: When I was in Portland, I was promoted to be a principal engineer of an old, large, male-dominated multinational corporation working with teams from all over the world. I was young, female, and there were few other women that were principal engineers. It was okay at first, but when it came time for me to be the decision maker, people didn’t even want to hear me out.

Stacey Shkuratoff: It’s really hard to get your point across when you haven’t had to build consensus between international teams before, and you don’t have the patriarchy to back you up. I suffered from teammates that wouldn’t answer me over Slack or give me the information I needed to do my job because I should just know, even though what I needed was proprietary to that team.

Stacey Shkuratoff: When I brought up these issues to my manager, they blamed me instead of giving me help. I was really hurt by their reaction and after that experience, I was pretty sure I wanted to leave development behind. So, I started taking software architecture specialty online from the University of Alberta.

Stacey Shkuratoff: A friend of mine recommended that I apply at Guild. Guild helps employers provide tuition-free education, skilling, and career mobility to their workforce. I had been teaching the previous year in public high school in Portland through the TEALS program, and could empathize with the struggles of those students.

Stacey Shkuratoff: A short plug for this program, TEAL stands for Technology Education and Learning Support. It’s a program that partners industry professionals with public school teachers to provide computer science classes. They’re focused on serving students excluded from learning computer science because of race, gender, or geography. You can hereby their mission that it aligns quite nicely with guild.

Stacey Shkuratoff: There were no principle or architect jobs open, so I thought I’d try out this new staff role. I started reading and researching what my responsibilities would be. Without this job, I would’ve likely pivoted again, but instead, I’ve been deep diving into all things staff and tech related.

Stacey Shkuratoff: So, what is a staff engineer then? Most people know what a senior does and what a principal does, but not about this newer staff engineer role. I did some Googling into where the staff title came from. I heard two different reasons, one in the military and one about civil engineering surveyors.

Stacey Shkuratoff: After some more digging and reading an article of someone much nerdier than I, the origin of the staff engineer can be dated back to use by the British Navy in 1885. There are discussions about the first use of the term staff in the military back to 1795 with the French Army. Clearly, this title is not new to military fields or other engineering disciplines, but new to us software folks.

Stacey Shkuratoff: It’s the level in between senior and principal. You’re still an individual contributor, but now with organization-wide initiatives as well. You meet with other staff engineers regularly to see where things like duplication are occurring, or if a team has already solved your particular problem. Perhaps you learn something cool and you think the organization should take it on. That would be the forum to get some feedback on your ideas.

Stacey Shkuratoff: You as the staff engineer, are close to the code and generally know about the many projects going on in your department. Sometimes when there are open roles, you’ll be the one to fill in. This is an opportunity to teach those around you until that role can be filled. As someone who is less beholden to the roadmap, you research view concepts and create example code. This code is often passed off to a teammate to finish the implementation specifically for their need.

Stacey Shkuratoff: There are four archetypes of the staff engineer. I would recommend reading staffeng.com on this. They have example schedules and other cool info about these roles.

Stacey Shkuratoff: First off, we have the tech lead. We all know what this entails for the most part, but also include those extra meetings in engineering organization-wide initiatives, while you’re still leading your local squad.

Stacey Shkuratoff: The architect, looking into direction, quality, and approach at the organization level as well as the department level and beyond.

Stacey Shkuratoff: The solver, getting into those challenging issues that absolutely have to be fixed. These are usually found in the voids between teams and have high impact.

Stacey Shkuratoff: The right-hand, extends the managerial leadership without having the actual title. Looking at the organization as a whole and freeing up some bandwidth for technical leadership above.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Most staffers will traverse between the archetypes. As their careers progress, they lean into the architect and right-hand roles more frequently. They might be embedded on a team at the beginning and progress to a floating role with many teams.

Stacey Shkuratoff: You spend a lot of time getting to know other staff engineers and teams. If you’re trying to standardize something, you’ll need to find a happy medium between everyone’s preferred styles. In general, staffs find what they need to be working on and bring that to their managers instead of being dedicated to a roadmap.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Projects are larger and more complicated when you involve more people in teams, so tackling those often takes longer than a quarter. You find work in those voids between teams as I mentioned before, and solve those things in those hard to change places. As a technical liaison, teaching and mentorship are key stones to your progress and the progression of your teammates, so answering those pairing for us is very important.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Okay, so what do I do now? Shout out to Peter. He is like one of the best characters. And it’s amazing how that Office Space movie is still so relevant.

Screenshot at .. PM

Stacey Shkuratoff: I spent the first few months just talking to teams and learning about processes in the engineering organization. I was given a very challenging first task, which was, find out why we have four copies of the same thing across all departments for our microphone ends. I’m actually still working through the solution right now, almost a year later.

Stacey Shkuratoff: We decided on making all these patterns compatible instead of rewriting them. I would consider this the architect part of my job. In order to make these patterns compatible, I needed to rewrite the routing for a particular host. From micro front ends, usually some type of host app calls an externally located component to display. The host can control the routing for the remote, so making sure they work together, and in our case, are compatible together with other styles of remotes, was no easy feat. The upgrade took five months to complete and that would fall in those solver duties.

Stacey Shkuratoff: As the project has progressed, much of my remaining work will end maintenance would pass off to two squads where I will be the advisor for both. That’s definitely under the tech lead archetype.

Stacey Shkuratoff: I’m also facilitating a working group on how to use intersourcing to unblock teams between [inaudible]. It is related to my current project as well. This is our priority for leadership and where that final right-hand role comes into play. You can see how I drift between the archetypes regularly with these examples.

Stacey Shkuratoff: There are a few other things to note. I’m an active participant in the staff+ meetings. Staff+ stands for all technical roles, staff level and above, such as architects and principals, where I have the opportunity to broadcast my own architectural design ideas, receive feedback, and hear from others.

Stacey Shkuratoff: I get information from the leadership above that I don’t interact with on a regular basis. I find these meetings very valuable and keep my attendance high. For my engineering department, there are two staff engineers for five teams and we float wherever is needed. Since we’re not on any particular team, we report to the director of engineering and not a squad level engineering manager.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Well, here are my best tips on becoming a staff engineer. You have to be excited about what you do. If you don’t love it, how will you be able to get people behind those high impact projects? You want to be the go-to person for technical questions and new ideas. You need to be ahead of the curve with what’s happening in your chosen technology. When you educate those around you, all of a sudden, those new concepts become your ideas.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Staff engineers need to know what other squads are doing. Reach out to other teams, host open discussions in Slack, create working groups and committees to standardize, and remove friction in development.

Stacey Shkuratoff: If you’re looking to be promoted in this role, visibility and influence is going to get you there. Teach teammates everything you know. The way you elevate yourself is by shared success. When a manager asks where an employee learns something and they say your name, that puts you in a technical leadership position. You also free up your own time when other people can step into your role and that will allow you to explore that new technology you are so excited about.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Building trust through vulnerability is probably one of the most important and favorite parts of my job. I would recommend reading Kim Scott’s Radical Candor book if you haven’t yet. As a peer leader, you’ll need to get your teammates to trust you, since you don’t have the authority over them, but you have a responsibility to see that things get done. Do so with care and kindness. Listen to frustrations with an empathetic ear. When your colleague has said what they need to get off their chest, you can bring in your own examples of similar situations and what you learned from them.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Learn to get buy-in by building consensus. This goes hand in hand with trust. People want to be heard, even if their idea isn’t chosen for implementation. Don’t forget to include those key people with opinions in the process of coming to a conclusion. I can tell you from experience that it’s really hard to get people to agree with you, if they don’t understand your idea and it isn’t what they would’ve done. It’s doesn’t mean that they’re trying to sabotage you, it’s just that we’re all humans and we’re wired to like things in a certain way.

Stacey Shkuratoff: I cannot recommend this enough – take classes on communication and negotiation. I’ve taken a few of these myself. One example learning from a negotiation class I took was in American Science Society, we have this take on negotiation where people tend to make the first offer heavily weighted in their favor. It has been statistically proven that you are less likely to make a deal with this approach. If you offer something towards the middle, you are more likely to come to an agreement easily that both parties are happy to move forward with. These types of learnings will serve you well in your role moving forward and in life in general.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Check out these specific staff engineer books for more information. Will Larson is also responsible for the staffeng.com website. Thank you so much for listening and I wish you the best in your career advancement.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you so much. This was absolutely wonderful. I see a lot of great comments from people. There’s one question that stands out to me that maybe we could answer. So Stacey, I’m going to read it out real quick. Would you say is the difference between a staff engineer versus a lead engineer? Is it because it’s more generalist and floating?

Stacey Shkuratoff: It depends. So from my understanding, there’s sort of like a spectrum. Even at Guild, we do have staff engineers that are embedded on teams, and we have ones like myself that float around. But those staff engineers, even if they are embedded on teams and still slightly focused on the roadmap, also attend our staff+ meetings. It really depends on the needs of the company.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: That’s it. Thank you so much for your time. This was absolutely wonderful, Stacey.

Stacey Shkuratoff: Yes, thanks everybody.

Sukrutha Bhadouria: Thank you. Bye.

Like what you see here? Our mission-aligned Girl Geek X partners are hiring!

Share this