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How to Become a Staff Engineer

The secret behind how to become a staff engineer is to maintain a track record of excellence as you climb the engineering career ladder. Similar to the role of any leader, a staff engineer is in charge of leading engineering teams and overseeing projects, from planning to execution. This article will provide you with all the information you need for this journey.

What Is a Staff Engineer?

A staff engineer is an engineer who holds a senior engineering position at a software company or on a software development team. The staff engineer reports directly to the principal engineer. In general, a staff engineer can either develop their own project to meet an organizational goal or take the lead on executing another engineering leader’s vision for a project. 

Staff Engineer Job Description 

Staff engineers’ duties vary from organization to organization, but there are four basic categories into which a staff engineer’s duties can fall. Will Larson, the Chief Technology Officer at the software company, Calm, has named these roles the Tech Lead, the Architect, the Solver, and the Right Hand. Below is a brief rundown of these roles, which often overlap.  

  • Tech Lead. A Tech Lead guides their team of engineers through the planning and execution of a project, which is usually centered around a specific niche.
  • Architect. An Architect has a detailed understanding of technical constraints and users’ needs, usually within a narrowly defined area of expertise. They use their specialized knowledge to provide direction and support to the rest of the team. 
  • Solver. A Solver is someone who takes the lead on tackling complex problems that arise unexpectedly, with the aim to find a path forward. 
  • Right Hand. The Right Hand acts as an extension of the organization’s leadership team, operating within the scope of its executive procedures.

Staff Engineer Salary and Job Outlook

According to PayScale, the average staff engineer earns about $103,443 per year, with the vast majority of staff engineers earning between $56,000 and $159,000 per year. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of software-related jobs will increase by 22 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than average. 

Top Reasons to Become a Staff Engineer in 2021

Software development is a growing field, and the need for experienced software engineers in senior roles to guide the expanding ranks of junior engineers is also expected to increase. Below are some reasons to become a staff software engineer in 2021.

  • You’ll earn higher pay. As a staff software engineer, you will earn a higher salary than senior engineers because the position is near the top of the engineering ladder. 
  • You’ll gain prestige. Your contributions will be highly recognized and valued because you occupy an important leadership position.
  • You’ll get leadership opportunities. As a staff engineer, you will be in charge of a team of engineers. If you enjoy giving directives and guidance, this is the career path for you.
  • You’ll grow professionally. You will be overseeing projects from start to finish. This is where your creative and critical thinking skills will come into play.

Staff Engineer Job Requirements

To become a staff engineer, you will need to meet a few basic requirements. The following four things apply to most senior engineering positions.

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree. Most staff engineers have at least a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree in a field related to business could help you pursue an engineering management career path, but it is not required. 
  • Gain significant experience. You not only need a wealth of experience in software development but also a track record of excellence in previous engineering roles. 
  • Have ample knowledge. Staff-level engineers also need to be well-grounded in both the theoretical and practical knowledge of software engineering practices and processes.
  • Develop soft skills. You need interpersonal and management skills to lead your team through the most challenging aspects of product development. 

Staff Engineer Career Path

Starting as an intern or as a junior software engineer, you can climb the career ladder towards becoming a staff engineer. You will first be promoted to engineer II, then to senior software engineer, and finally to staff engineer. It can take years to gain the skills and experience required to become a staff engineer. See more details below. 

Software Engineer

A software engineer helps to develop the software functions that were created by the design team. The software engineer often contributes to both the design and development stages of each project. Tech companies prefer candidates who have both coding and programming experience. A background in computer science or a related field is required.

Software Engineer II

Like software engineers, the second engineer writes, debugs, maintains, and tests software programs to determine their performance. They write software instructions in a programming language like Python, Java, or C++. A background in computer science or a related field is required.

Senior Software Engineer

A senior software engineer, besides writing and debugging software programs, can be assigned to lead a team of junior engineers on various projects, but they often work alone. A background in computer science, web development, or software engineering is required. At least a bachelor's degree in any of those would be considered a plus.

Staff Engineer Meaning: What Does a Staff Engineer Do?

A staff engineer’s role varies depending on the team's needs. In general, staff engineers play key leadership roles in team management, project planning, and execution. Staff engineers set the technical direction of a company's projects. 

Manages a Team of Engineers

The staff engineer occupies a key leadership position in the organization. Team guidance and project direction are two of a staff engineer’s main responsibilities.

Plans Projects

The staff engineer oversees the planning of projects and their execution. They also make critical decisions when the project faces a setback. 

Advises Team Members on Technical Matters

The staff engineer provides technical advice on matters related to the completion of a project. Sometimes, projects have to be adjusted or redone from scratch. When this happens, the staff engineer uses his or her experience and knowledge to provide guidance on how to proceed. 

Essential Staff Engineer Skills 

To attain the position of a staff engineer, you will need to meet certain skill requirements. In addition to soft skills like leadership skills, communication skills, and interpersonal skills, your skillset should encompass various pieces of technical knowledge. Below is a detailed explanation of each of these technical skills.

Python and Java Programming Skills

All developers should know how to code, and Python and Java are probably the two most valuable programming languages for a staff engineer to be proficient in. Both of these languages have object oriented properties that make them easy to learn and use, and both are popular among software developers for their flexibility and reusability. 

Knowledge of APIs

An application programming interface (API) is a software intermediary that allows two applications to communicate with each other. An API can be thought of as a messenger that delivers your query and retrieves information. 

Data Analysis

As a staff engineer, you will use data analysis tools to perform fault detection and compose reports on the health of the development team’s systems and processes. You should especially be able to recognize patterns and create macros to expedite data analysis.

Project Management

Project management has a broad impact on a project's success. Staff engineers must be able to plan, design, develop, and execute projects within a specified time frame without compromising on quality. They need to make critical decisions under the pressure of time constraints.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Staff Engineer?

Starting from the position of a junior engineer, it can take between five and seven years to attain the position of a staff engineer. This is about how long it takes to meet all the requirements. It depends on the organization or company, but most staff engineers only reached their current position as a result of being promoted several times.

Can a Coding Bootcamp Help Me Become a Staff Engineer?

Yes, a coding bootcamp can get you the programming skills you need to excel as a staff engineer. Their programs are designed to teach students how to code in a short period of time, often through hands-on, real-world projects.  

Various coding bootcamps offer short courses on different areas of software development and machine learning. Some of them even offer part-time courses that give you the flexibility to fit your studies around your work schedule. These bootcamps also partner with tech companies that provide employment opportunities for bootcamp graduates.

Can I Become a Staff Engineer from Home?

You can become a staff engineer from home by enrolling in an online bootcamp. Online bootcamps are a convenient way to improve your coding and technical skills, which are essential for a career as a staff engineer.

How to Become a Staff Engineer: A Step-by-Step Guide

Almost every technology company has at least one person who has climbed the engineering career ladder to become a staff engineer. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to rise to that position. 

Step 1: Enroll in a Tech Program

You can enroll in either a coding bootcamp or in a college degree program. While a college education is preferred for theoretical knowledge, coding bootcamps will teach you the practical skills you need to excel as a software engineer.

Step 2: Apply for a Software Engineering Position

Your journey towards becoming a staff engineer starts with being a software engineer. This is where you put your coding skills into practice and build on the practical experience you have gained during your time as a student. You can also ease into the field by applying for software engineering apprenticeships or internships first. 

Step 3: Get Promoted to Software Engineer II

Getting promoted to the position of Engineer II will depend on many factors, but the most important are your coding skills, problem-solving skills, and your ability to be creative.

Step 4: Get Promoted to the Position of Senior Engineer

This is the final stage before getting promoted to the position of staff engineer. At this stage, you should have all the skills and practical experience of a software engineer, plus management and interpersonal skills. You will be leading a small team of engineers.

Best Schools and Education for a Staff Engineer Career

While getting a degree might not be required for your first job in software engineering, most tech companies require staff engineers to possess at least a bachelor's degree. Below are some of the best schools and bootcamp providers for aspiring staff engineers.

Staff Engineer Bootcamps

Software engineering is the most common type of coding bootcamp program. You need to already be in the field to be promoted to the position of staff engineer, and these programs can help you break into the industry. Below are a few of the best bootcamp options.

  • Flatiron SchoolThis coding bootcamp offers online, full-time, and self-paced software engineering programs with flexible financing options. It also offers courses in product design, data science, and cyber security. 
  • ThinkfulThe software engineering program at Thinkful is online, available in a part-time or full-time format, and has flexible financing options. Other Thinkful courses include UX/UI Design, Data Science, Data Analytics, Digital Marketing, and Technical Project Management. 
  • NucampYou can complete your software engineering training at Nucamp in just 11 months by taking part-time courses in front end, backend, and full stack development. The whole package costs $4,208. 
  • General AssemblyThis bootcamp offers online, part-time, full-time, and self-paced programs with flexible financing options. In addition to its immersive software engineering program, General Assembly offers immersive courses in digital marketing, data science, and UX design.
  • BrainStationThe Web Development Bootcamp at BrainStation is your gateway into software engineering. You can take it on a full-time or part-time basis and apply for flexible financing. Other bootcamp programs at BrainStation include UX Design Bootcamp, Data Science Bootcamp, and Digital Marketing Bootcamp. 

Vocational School

A vocational school can either be a secondary or a postsecondary institution and is sometimes referred to as a technical school. Just as the name suggests, it provides training for a particular vocation, with the aim of preparing you for a job. A vocational school program can last between four months and two years. 

Vocational schools are different from coding bootcamps in important ways. Whereas the latter are shorter and geared towards tech industry jobs, the former offer a wide range of courses in different disciplines. Compared to both vocational schools and colleges, bootcamps are the least expensive and most flexible option.  

Community College

A community college is a type of postsecondary institution whose programs usually take about two years to complete. Community colleges, just like normal colleges, offer programs in computer science and information technology. However, unlike coding bootcamps, the courses tend to prioritize theoretical knowledge over practical hands-on experience. 

Community colleges are classified as public two-year institutions by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). According to NCES data on the cost of attending college, these schools cost much less than other forms of undergraduate education. The average annual cost ranges from $9,600 to $18,900, compared to $14,900 to $25,600 for public four-year schools.

Staff Engineer Degrees

Based on findings from Indeed, 49 percent of staff engineers hold a bachelor’s degree, 32 percent hold a master’s, 18 percent hold a PhD, and one percent hold an associate degree. This means that to attain a staff engineering position, you’re best off getting a bachelor's degree in a relevant field. See below for some of the best places to get your bachelor’s.

The Most Important Staff Engineer Certifications

Getting certified as a staff software engineer will increase your overall value while giving you a competitive advantage. It also shows that you possess the practical experience required by your profession. Most senior engineers have two or more certifications. Below are three of the most common ones, followed by a table showing additional options. 

Oracle Certifications (OCA, OCP)

As an Oracle Certified Associate (OCA), you will be able to show your expertise in cloud computing. OCA certification is the first step towards becoming an Oracle Certified Professional (OCP). As an OCP, you will be able to prove that you have advanced skills in cloud computing as well as fluency in Java. 

Certified Software Manager (CSM)

Developed by the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), this certification shows that you have a grounded understanding of software asset management (SAM). A software manager is a person who manages the entire infrastructure and all the processes required for the effective control, management, and protection of software assets. 

Certified Planning Engineer (CPE)

This certification from the American Academy of Project Management shows that you have the required knowledge and skills to plan projects effectively. The CPE certification also shows that you can handle complex projects beyond the planning stage, from design to implementation.

How to Prepare for Your Staff Engineer Job Interview

Preparing yourself to interview for a senior software engineering role can be challenging if you don’t know what to expect. Since a staff engineer is a leadership role, the interview is most likely going to assess both your practical skills and your leadership abilities. Below are some of the most common interview questions.

Staff Engineer Job Interview Practice Questions

  • What programming languages are you familiar with?
  • How would you explain technical challenges to stakeholders who lack technical expertise?
  • What area of our company, product, or team interests you most?
  • What design patterns do you mostly use, and when do you use them?
  • What is Agile development, and what are your thoughts about it?

Should I Become a Staff Engineer in 2021?

You should consider becoming a staff engineer if you wish to step up your career as a software engineer. Besides, there are many benefits that come with being a staff engineer in a tech company. One such benefit is the ability to play a key leadership role in deciding a project’s direction on behalf of an organization.


Can You Become a Staff Engineer Without a Degree?
As is the case for most engineering management positions, you will need at least a bachelor's degree to climb the career ladder and become a staff engineer.
Is It Hard to Become a Staff Engineer?
Becoming a staff engineer requires building a track record of excellence, most of which is done early in your career. Once you acquaint yourself with the required software development skills, the journey to becoming a staff engineer becomes a lot smoother.
Can I Learn the Skills I Need in a Bootcamp?
Coding bootcamps are the best way to acquire coding and software development skills. They provide immersive courses with real-world projects, and they get you prepared in a short time.
How Much Does a Staff Engineer Earn?
According to PayScale, most staff engineers earn between $56,000 and $159,000 per year. The median staff engineer makes about $103,443. Salaries vary based on location and organization.
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