Will Larson on the path of the senior engineer

Lead Time Chats: Season 1, Episode 1 Takeaways

June 15, 2021

In Episode 1 of Lead Time Chats, Jean Hsu, VP of Engineering at Range, talks to Will Larson, CTO at Calm, about getting into management early in his career and how it impacted his professional evolution and his books An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management and Staff Engineer: Leadership Beyond the Management Track.

Jean and Will discuss:

  • Negotiating their first tech jobs (or not negotiating their first tech jobs)
  • The false expectation that the staff engineering route will be more predictable than the management route
  • How getting external support is key
  • Increasing difficulty of switching between the paths as you become more senior
  • How to approach non-work work (books, talks, blog posts, etc).

Takeaways from Will

The opportunity cost of switching paths increases the deeper you get

“Don't leave the technical role path until you're done doing what you want to do. Charity Majors has her great piece on the manager engineer pendulum, but I think something that piece kind of doesn't address is that as you get deeper onto one of those two, I think the switching costs do go up and the economic rewards of getting deeper on them is extremely high.

And so I think the opportunity cost of switching is actually a lot higher as you get further in your career than than it might appear early on.”

The staff engineering path is often less supported and more ambiguous than management

“Staff engineers actually often end up in the spot where like, oh, my manager will be able to kind of help me as a staff engineer and they will, to some extent, but most managers have never been a staff engineer. And most directors have never been a staff engineer and most VPs of engineering have never been a staff engineer. And there are often far more directors of engineering or the company ratio wise than there are staff engineers. So your peer groups are really small. So people are like, oh, I don't like ambiguity. I like having clarity in my work, somebody on this staff path get blindsided at just like how little structure and support there is when in the actual role itself.”

Let go of the pressure to have side hustles and produce content as an engineering leader

“In the Bay Area or in technology in general, there is such a strong online presence of folks who are doing these side hustles, or whatever you want to call them where they're like turning out content, they're writing a lot, they're doing a YouTube channel. They're on Clubhouse, talking about their deep Clubhouse thoughts...tiktok, whatever. And I think that creates this competitive pressure to be there. I just think it's so important to ground this on...the most successful people you know don't do any of this, and you don't need to do any of this. Like if you don't want to do it, just please don't.”

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About Lead Time Chats

Listen in on unscripted conversations between Jean Hsu, VP of Engineering at Range and engineering leadership coach, and engineering leaders and other influential folks in tech.

Lead Time Chats is brought to you by Range. Range helps hybrid teams check-in asynchronously about what matters most. Know what's happening through status updates that pull from tools like Github and JIRA without scheduling yet another meeting.

Checking-in with Range creates more focus time for heads-down work, all while feeling a deeper sense of connection and belonging with your team. To learn more about Range, you can check it out here.

S1 E1: Will Larson on the path of the senior engineer
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