Peter Lyons

Staff Engineer Solver Archetype

March 23, 2021

So since I became a Staff Engineer last year, I've been studying up on the role. Mostly I've been devouring Will Larson's writing in article/blog form, and now all that material has been published in his book Staff Engineer. The writing is lucid and insightful and very narrowly on-topic so I've been reading it very closely. I just set up a book club at work to go through it as well.

So early on one of the things Will does is break the role down into 4 archetypes (direct quote below)

For me at this job, it's pretty clear that The Solver is best suited to me. But first let me quickly discuss why the others are not as good of a fit for me at my current job.

I think so far my role has been The Tech Lead archetype. It's been OK but I'm finding it increasingly difficult and frustrating. Communication is difficult and I often find myself attempting to provide "guidance" which is both too late in the project lifecycle and too drastic of a departure from the current course, and that's not particularly effective. I feel like I can and have led efforts fairly well from the start, but providing "guidance" to an ongoing effort that I don't ultimately hold primary engineering responsibility for is not a position I enjoy. I have thought to myself that there's an "invisible hand" at work and it's incredibly difficult to write or say anything that will alter the course of the hand in any nontrivial way.

The Architect is an easy no for me. I've never liked this kind of work and always felt ill-equiped to do it and grateful when anyone else has the confidence to make these kind of 3-year bets. My approaches would be so far out of current industry trends and norms that no one would listen to me anyway.

The Right Hand presupposes top-down leadership which my department does not have nor want at the moment. Adjusting to our bottom-up approach to work has been a struggle for me for sure. I've actually thought about proposing to management splitting off a self-selected subteam of people who prefer to work in a top-down fashion and I think there's enough of us for it to be viable. We'll see if I end up trying to wrangle those folks together or not.

OK so that leaves just The Solver. I generally like this kind of work and can do it effectively. It's not always been my best way to contribute so at times when I have been more Tech Lead I would leave solver type work to others, but at the moment I think this would alleviate a lot of my communication struggles and also allow me to deliver more value by being able to work more independently and therefore much more quickly. I've already written a document of roughly 8 problems of this type and delivered solutions to 2 so far. So this would mostly just be an acknowledgement of my existing role. I hope formalizing this would allow me to disengage from our main scrum team processes and just focus on this work.