A safe pair of hands

| categories: career, work, thoughts

A lot of ink has been spilled about progressing from one "level" of engineering to the next: junior to intermediate; intermediate to senior; and recently we see more about senior to staff.

There's an important common factor in all of these career steps: being seen as a safe pair of hands. This becomes central as you become more senior.

Yonatan Zunger presented a great talk at LeadDev last year that I find myself referencing a lot: Role and Influence: the IC trajectory beyond Staff.

Zunger's framing made sense of my roles over the last decade in a way that staff archetypes didn't. Rather than wondering about what archetype I fit in any particular quarter, it's much easier to think about the mix of technical, people, product, and project disciplines I'm applying.

The hidden fifth discipline is "adult supervision", and I think that's really what I'm talking about here.

A thing I love to see - and experience! - in my colleagues is where they take something on and I know it'll be done right. Not exactly like I would do it; not some kind of ideal that stands independent of our working context; but right.

The problem is solved; the crisis is handled; the relevant people are informed and involved; risks are surfaced early and when shit goes wrong - as it will! - no-one is caught out.

This is level-independent! It's perfectly possible for someone to do this in a level-appropriate way. The problems and relationships you're handling may get a lot hairier as you step up in seniority, but the basic ideas don't change much.

How trustworthy are you with your work? Do you often surprise people? Can I expect you to be accountable1 or do I need to rely on someone else for that?

If you can answer well - no matter where you are in your career - then you're building a solid foundation for your next step. You're a safe pair of hands.

1. I've heard the word "accountable" thrown around a lot in industry, often without definition. Here's mine:

Being accountable for an effort as an engineering leader has two components: ownership, and communication.

  1. Ownership: the effort is "yours", and you act that way. There may be sub-components spread across people and teams, but overall you're the one who's on the hook. Your performance is assessed against the results of the efforts you lead. Judiciously - not every effort will succeed, and that's OK.
  2. Communication: you can tell the detailed story of why we're doing it, how it relates to other efforts, how it is progressing. You actively raise blocking issues or risks and get the necessary people together to address them. Where you can't, you escalate effectively.

Writing your job description

| categories: career, work, thoughts

I joke sometimes that I rewrite my job description every 6 or 8 months. This is approximately true: it's roughly the cadence that my role and focus changes. Writing it down is about setting expectations and aligning on what my manager, peers, and other colleagues need from me.

The format is far from fixed, though. Here are a few examples from my current job in 2022.

Early on, I sketched an "engagement model" with three modes:

  • Consult:
    • Work alongside a team to help understand problems, direct energy, guide solutions.
    • Connect teams and individuals dealing with similar problems: enable a "system of theft" of good practice across teams.
  • Embed:
    • Given a specific problem, dig in with the team to help bootstrap initial work, or redirect/turn around struggling work.
    • Focus on disambiguating problems to the point that they are a 10-20% stretch for folks on the team.
    • Back off on details but continue to offer decision support.
  • Coach:
    • Work with individuals (for example, coming out of consult or embed modes), enabling them to effectively own specific problems and grow via them.
    • Focus mostly on senior engineers and team leads, with the goal of enabling them to do the same for less experienced engineers.

The framing of "engagement model" comes mainly from my work in Site Reliability Engineering, and borrows more recently from Team Topologies. I've found this resonates with other engineers too. A colleague was struggling with the transition to "more conversation and less code" in working more broadly across teams: thinking through their different scopes and priorities in terms of an engagement model proved useful.

A little later, my colleague Drew and I expanded on the above to share a longer "your staff engineers and you" doc explaining how we intended to support our group. An excerpt:

How you can use us

The staff engineer, team lead, and senior engineer roles are all "scaling" or "multiplicative": we help everyone around us to be more effective. Differences are mainly in scope, focus, and expected impact.

The amount and type of support a TL wants from a staff engineer depends on the TL's focus: some are more interested in the management path, others in the technical path. Similarly, senior engineers want different guidance depending on their experience and current projects.

When it comes to technical direction and decisions, each individual's appetite for accountability and responsibility is different. We want you to take on as much as you are able to, and support you in growing that capacity.

Things we can help with:

  • Batting ideas around;
  • Advice and direct support in navigating cross-team or cross-org issues;
  • Partnership and review on technical approaches, RFCs, roadmaps;
  • Advocacy and signal amplification for your ideas;
  • Coaching and mentoring.

Most recently, I proposed embedding with a specific team in my area. I wrote yet another "job description" for this, outlined as:


  • For me
  • For the team


  • Timeline
  • Things I expect to do
  • Things I will not do

Other engagements

Success criteria

What you put into a "job description" like this depends a lot on the audience: the first was mainly for my manager and peers; the second for my whole group; the third for a specific team.

In all cases this is about transparency and alignment. "Very senior" engineering roles are frequently confusing, not just for us but for the people we work with. Articulating what we're trying to achieve and how is both personally and organizationally useful.

Note that Tanya Reilly covers this idea towards the end of chapter 1 of The Staff Engineer's Path, and offers a lot of useful guidance in figuring out what you do here.

Personal retrospectives

| categories: organization, tldr, remote, culture

As an expansion of my snippets habit, for the last 7 years I've written up a "yearly snippets" doc each year - a personal retrospective for the year.

I've used various formats - from "incident review" style through "4Ls" - but always with the intention of sharing more broadly than just to me and my manager. My colleagues have generally appreciated the perspective, and some have taken up the practice.

One of my favourite things about doing this is that it's for me. Yes, it's useful to my manager (and a useful way of "managing up"). I use it as input to the local performance and review system. But I'm the main audience and it's my practice. I hate the kinds of performance mangement systems we see in tech companies. Having something that "works around" them to my benefit is very freeing.

Anyhow, Stig and I wrote up some notes and guidance about the idea at $current:

Oncall compensation structures

| categories: operations, process, work

The subject of compensation for developers oncall comes up from time to time.

It can be difficult to find public examples of compensation structures to use.

These notes are from a quick survey of existing stuff I could find via discussions in opsy chats, the Internet, and direct questions to my network.

Asking questions

First, for those on the job hunt, a list of questions to ask about oncall, gathered from the Irish Tech Community:

  • Do you compensate being oncall (i.e. value the stress) or just when you get called (bullshit) or never (warning sign)?
  • What is the response time? Is it 5 mins (no life), 15-30 mins (some life, depending on if you have kids), or an hour (you can go to the cinema with your laptop)?
  • What percentage of your time is operations, when you’re oncall?
  • How many people are in the rotation? If < 6, is there a realistic plan in place to fix that?
    • You need at least 4 people for a reasonable shift pattern, plus one for maintenance (e.g. holidays) + one for emergency (e.g. attrition).
  • Is there one person oncall in a shift or is it a primary/secondary kind of thing?

Notes from the 'net

Second, some posts that cover oncall compensation in various detail:

Example structures

Finally, a set of example compensation structures from various companies.

A fintech company in south America:

  • If you are oncall but not working, +33% of equivalent hourly rate.
  • Paged and start working, +300% of your hourly for that period.
  • Some more extras for nights or weekends.
  • They just exported data from Pagerduty: time working was acknowledgement → resolution.
  • People would not resolve until they were finished any report or comms work that had to be done out-of-hours.
  • This apparently was just how labour laws in that country apply - works the same way for doctors.

A medium-sized SaaS company operating across US / EU:

  • Time off as standard if you actually get paged out of hours: ½ day per four hours or part thereof in responding.
  • Comp at 25% for oncall time regardless.
  • Comp → 100% for the time you’re responding.
  • Because of how their shift structure works, this all tends to amount to roughly a 10% lift in salary, plus time to recover.

A large multinational:

  • Some teams have business-hours only shifts for internal infra APIs.
  • Other teams have customer-facing services and much stricter on-call.
  • Those latter get paid per shift, get a mifi, and get time off etc.
  • ^ didn’t get exact comp structure here.

Another large multinational:

  • Three tiers of oncall, depending on pager SLA.
  • Tier 1: >= 99.9% availability SLA, 5min pager response SLA.
    • Comp paid at ⅔ for outside hours
    • That is, outside business hours accrue hours at 2h for every 3h oncall.
  • Tier 2: >= 99.9% availability SLA, > 5min but <= 15min pager response SLA.
    • Comp paid at ⅓ for outside hours.
    • That is, outside business hours accrue hours at 1h for every 3h oncall.
  • Tier 3: everything else, not comped.
  • Mon-Fri comp paid outside 9-6 core hours. Sat & Sun all comped.
  • So if you were oncall 6am-6pm Mon-Sun that’d be like
  • 3 x 5h for Mon-Fri
  • 2 x 12h for Sat-Sun
  • So 39h compensatable, converting into pay as 13h at tier 2 or 26h tier 1.
  • You could take this as either time in lieu (at 8h/day) or cash (pro-rated to salary).

A medium-sized SaaS multinational:

  • Shifts are either weekday or weekend.
  • Pay according to 60h week (hourly equiv. from salary) if weekday shift.
  • According to 40h week + 24h if weekend shift.
  • Payout doubles if schedule includes public/bank holidays.
  • Contact there mentioned this was very similar to structure in last job, another similar-sized SaaS.

Intercom's oncall implementation:

  • Former Ruby monolith sharded out over the last few years into services. Heavy on AWS and running less software.
  • An unusual structure, but interesting: specifically because they have modified their approach to avoid having “too many people/teams oncall”.
  • Virtual team, volunteers from any team in the org.
  • 6-month rotations in that virtual team, having taken a handful of shifts.
  • Oncall went from being spread across more than 30 engineers to just 6 or 7.
  • “We put in place a level of compensation that we were happy with for taking a week’s worth of on call shifts.”
    • Not sure of precise structure, presumably a bonus per week oncall.

Criteo, medium-sized Adtech HQ’d in France. This is from a 3y old Reddit thread:

  • SREs are oncall. Pager response time is 30 minutes. (!)
  • They are paid for oncall for nights/weekends etc. Exact comp unspecified.
  • If you are paged, you get comped time as well in exchange (½ day at least).
  • Internet & phone bill reimbursed for oncall engineers.
  • If you work during the night, you have to stay home until you get 11h consecutive rest (French law).

How I think about career development

| categories: career, thoughts

Over the years I’ve come up with a basic approach to my career:

  • Figure out what I want from life, and how work can support that;
  • Use role models and writing to imagine possible futures;
  • From those, map out the skills and capabilities I want to develop;
  • Lean on my current work environment - or change it - to support my development.

From time to time I talk with colleagues and friends about this. These are some notes to make sharing easier.


I’m writing about software engineering, systems engineering, and adjacent careers. Mainly for individual contributors, because that’s what I know best.

We are on the hook for managing our own careers: a common mistake for less experienced engineers is believing that their manager will do this. Sometimes, managers will be a help; often they won’t.

Everything is learnable. We’re not fundamentally limited by our current roles, skills, whatever.

Starting out

I think about what I want my work to enable in my life.

For some people, that’s wanting to travel, or to learn specific things, or to settle down in a beautiful place, or to found a company, or things related to family, or all of the above.

My personal list is rather general at this point, but well tested. I want to:

  • Support my family in a good life;
  • Help other human beings do things that are meaningful to them;
  • Work with teams I trust;
  • Be trusted in turn with a high degree of autonomy;
  • Learn a great deal;
  • Solve interesting problems;
  • Leave things better than I found them.

This is in rough priority order. Had I thought about this more clearly, earlier in my career, I think the order might be different. At times, particularly when changing jobs, I might have had more specific ideas. Many companies and types of work can support everything above. Some simply can't.

I like having this list because it helps orient me around the things that I need or am looking for. If I can check off everything above, or I am making positive progress, then I feel like my career is in a good place. If there are things lacking, maybe I need to take action to fix that.

It also makes the classic “where do you see yourself in five years?” feel somewhat tractable. :o)

Drawing a map

We have a starting point, but assuming that we want to meet some specific need, how do we figure out what moves to make, where to go?

I like to have a map, a way of identifying the gaps between where I am and my possible futures.

I often use role models for this - colleagues current and former, industry people I respect. What do I value about what they do and how they behave? What do I want to be when I grow up? :o)

Another useful resource is published "job ladders". These are a good way to look at the things various organizations value and how they see careers progressing. Examples:

It’s worth having a think about how much you value the skills and capabilities listed, and how different companies’ ladders differ, particularly at senior levels.

Finally, there’s an expanding literature around how senior engineers work:

There’s a lot to like, to learn, and to model in all of these.

Filling in the gaps

I tend to think in terms of skills and capabilities.

Given all of the above, which skills do I have but could develop further? Which do I lack entirely? What capabilities do I think my role models have that I don’t? Which do I value the most? Which would have helped me in my recent work? Which will enable me the most in future?

Now I have a list of specific things I want to be better at: the beginnings of a plan! I look for ways I can manoeuvre myself into work that will stretch me in those skills, build those capabilities.

Where I think it will be useful, I advertise! Let my manager, my mentors, my team know that I am trying to develop these skills. Can they help me find opportunities to improve? If I can find ways to work directly with some of the people I find inspiring, on those specific kinds of work, even better.

Note that this can form a good basis for annual or quarterly goals, so that’s another pain out of the way. ;o)

Considering context

While you work on your plans and your goals, pay attention to what’s going on around you.

Keep notes on what’s working and what’s not: in your own work, your team, your org, your production systems. This can be a useful source of ideas for specific projects or development opportunities.

If you can, find ways to make your goals work with those of the people around you. Developing your career can and should be something where everyone benefits.

Wrapping up

I have a particular perspective, and I’m certain I am missing a lot: I generally think in terms of skill acquisition and deployment, and I’m not sure how well any of this will apply to different kinds of work or different kinds of people. Take all of my advice with a grain of salt. We’re all just working this out.

To recap:

  • Think about what you want out of life, and try to make your career serve that.
  • Imagine possible futures by using role models, formal career “level” guides, and the best writing you can find on being an engineer.
  • Move towards those possibilities by mapping out a path in terms of skills and capabilities.
  • Ask for help getting what you want, and try to make it work well with what everyone around you wants.

With thanks to Tanya Reilly and Niall Richard Murphy.

Next Page »