Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Seniority and self-management: you don’t have to do this alone

At a certain level of seniority – typically around the Staff level for ICs, and at the Director level for managers – you start seeing sentences like these in the job description:

You will own the security of our AI feature set…

Leads, coordinates, and is accountable for the overall success of the design function at {COMPANY} …

You create the vision, strategy, and lead the implementation of {COMPANY}’s cloud-based services and frameworks …

Lead or contribute to multiple simultaneous engineering initiatives, balancing multiple activities with a keen eye for prioritizing for the biggest impact.

In these roles (and above), you’ll be expected to fully own huge areas of responsibility without detailed guidance, to manage your own work and schedule, to be comfortable tackling problems requiring a broad range of skills – some of which you might not have! – and do this all with little support from your manager. You can expect to be given direction about broad outcomes or goals, but usually no more support than that. You’re the expert in this area now: the company is looking to you to lead, and trusting you to have a vision, choose a strategy, and lead execution.

The mistake that many people make when they’re new to this level of autonomy is believing they have to do it all themselves. For example, I know many engineers who reach the Staff Engineer level without great task management skills; they’ve previously had someone else responsible for breaking down tasks and prioritization. Suddenly, they’re expected to manage their own workload, and they find they don’t have the skills or practice. This mistake they make is trying to just “power through”, thinking that because it’s part of their job now they have to somehow figure it out.

It is absolutely true that, once you reach this level of seniority, you are responsible for a very broad scope of responsibilities, skills, and tasks, but you don’t have to do this alone. The way I think about this is:

You are responsible for positive outcomes in the entire scope of your domain. “I’m bad at X” isn’t an excuse if “X” is something required to achieve the outcomes required for your position. But you are not expected to be great – or even competent – at every X within your domain. You are expected to know what support you need to accomplish your goals. And, you are expected to take responsibility for getting yourself the support you need – even if that means getting help outside of work (with caveats, see below).

What does this look like in practice? Well, let’s follow the example of the Staff Engineer who struggles with task management. First, this is something they need to figure out: at the Staff+ level, engineers generally are expected to manage their own work and priorities. But not alone: someone in this position who recognizes that they’re struggling here has many options:

  • Self-improvement: they could take a class, read some books, listen to podcasts – however they learn best – and then practice to build this “muscle”.
  • Coaching: they could find a colleague who’s good here and wants to coach them, or hire an external coach.
  • Bring in experts from elsewhere in the org: if the company has some sort of Project Management function, they may be able to get a PM to come assist.

Some other options that probably aren’t available to our Staff Engineer, but might be available to people in other roles, include:

  • Delegate: managers who have weaknesses can delegate those responsibilities to their staff. Be careful here: delegating work just because you don’t want to do it can be a mistake. But if someone on your team wants to do the thing, it can be an opportunity for them to practice some leadership skills while simultaneously helping close a gap in your own skillset. Win-win.
  • Hire: if the gap is big enough, especially if it’s more of a bandwidth gap than a specific skill, hiring may be a good fit.
  • Bring on consultants or contractors: for certain types of short-term gaps, consultants or contractors can be a good solution.

Note that many of these things cost money – directly, as for coaching or classes, or indirectly, via time from other teams/people. Folks that are new to these kinds of senior positions often don’t realize that it’s totally normal to have your company spend money on supporting you in ways like this! You may or may not have an explicit budget you can draw against, but there’s always at least an implicit budget, and I think you’d be surprised how readily a company will spend money on patching up gaps in a senior person’s skillset. If the cost of class, or a few months of coaching, or some hours borrowed from another team, if that’s all that stands between success and failure, it’s an easy case to make.

But I also think it’s reasonable for people at this level to expect to occasionally spend their own money or time outside work getting help. At this career level you’re being paid enough that having to spend a bit of that salary making sure you’re good at the job you were hired to do isn’t unreasonable. To be clear: your company should pay, but if they’re being weird about letting you expense coaching, you might want to consider doing it anyway in the interest of staying in good standing at your job.

The most important takeaway is that, at this point in your career, you can’t expect anyone to do this for you. At this level of seniority, you have to recognize your weaknesses, figure out what kind of support you need, and take steps to get yourself that support.