careers diversity inclusion leadership management mozilla opensource

AMA: I’m a (senior) staff engineer panel

Last week, my colleague Chenxia Liu and I arranged a panel at our Berlin all-hands meeting called AMA: I’m a (senior) staff engineer. Our goal for this panel was to provide a Q&A session where staff and senior staff engineers could share their stories what that a typical day in that role looks like, how their career progressed to that level and their advice for others interested in the role.

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Tiergarten in Berlin at dusk.  Or the next bend in the road of your career.

Everyone company’s career ladder for individual contributors is different.  At Mozilla, the change for senior engineer to staff engineer is the progression where the role changes to be substantially more self-directed. You aren’t just landing code to address issues identified by your manager or peers.  Your role is to determine what problems the team should focus on.  What value will solving these problems bring to the business?  How can you elevate the work of your team from a technical perspective? How can you level the skills of early career engineers on your team? As a result, the promotion to staff engineer requires promotion paperwork to be approved by higher level of management than the individual’s direct manager.

Ahead of the panel, we reached out to five staff or senior staff engineers and asked them to participate.  We reached out to people from several geographies and domains of expertise within the company and also different demographics.  The day before panel, Chenxia arranged a lunch with the panellists so we could share the logistics of the panel, proposed initial questions and allow the panellists to get to know each other a bit before the session.  We also shared a doc in a company wide channel where attendees could add questions before the session.

The day of the session, we didn’t know what to expect.  How many people would show up?  Was this a topic people were interested in? Our modestly sized room quickly filled up to to state where people were sitting on the floor and there wasn’t enough room for all the people to enter the room.

During the panel, we started out with some proposed questions and then moved on to audience questions.

  1.  Panellist introductions
    1. Briefly describe your role, where you work (org), where you live, what a typical day looks like
  2. How is your job fundamentally different from being a senior software engineer?
    1. Some examples of the class of problems
    2. How to deal with challenges
  3. What’s the role of mentorship, both mentoring and being mentored?
  4. Can you describe the difference between mentorship and sponsorship and how that contributed to your success?
  5. What was the most important skill that you developed in your previous role that you use in your current role?
  6. What is the process of promotion from your perspective?
  7. What is the actual process for promotion from a manager’s perspective?
  8. What advice would you give around leading a team? How does this change based on the seniority of the team?

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I think this was a really successful panel and thought I’d share this approach to others in case it could be useful at your organization.  As engineering managers, there is a power differential when we talk to the people on our teams about their career progression.  It is the role of the manager to coach their reports to grow their career but that is often limited to their own previous experience.  Learning from the experiences of other staff and senior staff engineers is really valuable, as their are many paths to grow your career.  In fact, you don’t even need a panel. One thing I suggest for people who want to move into a new role is not to just talk to your manager, but talk to a peer on your team or another team who is in that role to learn more about their experience.

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We received really positive feedback on the panel and hope to do it again.  From Emily Toop, an engineering manager at Mozilla.

I’d like to call out Chenxia and Kim for doing an amazing job organizing the “I’m a (senior) staff engineer, AMA” event yesterday. It was excellent from multiple angles, but from a diversity perspective it was especially fantastic. Along with giving insightful and intelligent answers, I felt that backgrounds and demographics of the five panellists helped to make almost everyone in that room feel as if they were represented in some way, and that there was a path to success for someone who looked like them. Well done.

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