What Does a Staff Engineer Do? (With Duties, Skills and Benefits)
Updated July 20, 2023
If you are interested in advancing your engineering career, you might consider applying to be a staff engineer. This position involves leading engineering teams by mentoring others, providing direction and collaborating with company supporters. It's a role that involves greater management responsibilities and potentially higher earning potential.
In this article, we explain what a staff engineer does and discuss the skills and benefits associated with the profession.
What is a staff engineer?
A staff engineer is a senior contributor within an engineering team who usually specializes in civil, industrial, mechanical, software or electrical engineering. They take the lead on high-impact technical projects, including the design, development and implementation of key systems. Having several years of experience in their field, they use their expertise to provide mentorship, establish technical direction and manage multiple projects simultaneously. In most organizations, they supervise senior engineers and report to engineering directors.
What does a staff engineer do?
Depending on the organization's needs, a staff engineer may perform duties such as the following:
Lead engineering teams
Some staff engineers primarily serve as leaders within engineering teams. They manage and provide technical assistance to other engineers and mentor junior engineering staff. For example, a staff engineer who has experience writing translation code might partner with a team developing a piece of translation software to drive their technical vision and development strategy.
Oversee project direction
Staff engineers may oversee the direction of projects by planning sprints, prioritizing tasks, allocating resources at the onset, giving instructions, conducting code reviews and managing implementation. Their advanced technical knowledge and understanding of consumer demand are useful in terms of picking the appropriate tools for a project, complying with client requirements and providing solutions to project challenges, including architectural or performance problems.
Staff engineers often excel at analyzing and providing simple solutions to challenging situations. They may collaborate with company leaders to address engineering problems as they arise or employ root cause analysis to investigate issues and develop holistic solutions.
Staff engineers combine management skills with math and science proficiency to provide informed leadership to engineering teams and ensure they produce and implement high-quality technology solutions. They also solve problems by mitigating team conflicts, overseeing the maintenance of technology infrastructure and adjusting project specifications based on evolving client requirements.
4 types of staff engineers
Based on the industry they work in, staff engineers develop specialized technical knowledge that helps them design, plan and oversee product development. Here are four examples of specialized staff engineers:
Staff civil engineer
These staff engineers typically work for construction companies, architectural firms or government agencies. They may oversee infrastructure development projects that affect natural environments, such as sewer construction and bridge building. Duties include creating budgets, leveraging computer-aided design (CAD) software and determining how weather and wear may affect structures over time.
Staff civil engineers often work in academic institutions or research organizations to develop innovative solutions to common challenges. They might also work for design or engineering companies, where they create engineering blueprints.
Staff industrial engineer
Staff industrial engineers allocate personnel and equipment for particular projects in manufacturing companies and evaluate product designs to ensure quality. They typically provide leadership by helping teams increase productivity and optimize processes. For example, they might be in charge of optimizing health delivery systems for a health care organization, innovation and system improvement in R&D or student mentorship in academia.
Staff electrical engineer
These staff engineers may work in various industries, including electronics, manufacturing, transportation and architecture. They guide teams to create specialized equipment that supplies electricity to products or parts such as lighting, motors, wiring, circuits and computer processors. Staff electrical engineers may also use spectrometers and other specialized tools to evaluate and suggest improvements for electrical products.
Staff mechanical engineer
Staff mechanical engineers typically work for manufacturing companies, engineering consulting firms, equipment and machinery companies or the energy sector. They may provide technical advice and manage teams that develop consumer and commercial machines such as turbines, elevators, automotive engines, microwaves, refrigerators and robots.
Related: What Is Mechanical Engineering?
Skills for staff engineers
Here are some skills that can help staff engineers succeed in their careers:
Structural design knowledge
Analytical and strategic thinking
Benefits of being a staff engineer
Here are some key benefits of being a staff engineer:
Opportunities for career advancement
Many organizations want to develop their engineers, meaning you can pursue professional development opportunities to prepare for a career as a staff engineer. Also, as you progress in your career, you may encounter lateral and vertical growth opportunities. Staff engineers can move up to become engineering managers or directors of engineering, or they can lend their expertise to specialized fields within their industry — R&D, consulting, mentorship, and thought leadership.
Job security and competitive compensation
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the overall employment of all engineers to increase by 4% from 2021 to 2031. The median annual wage for this occupation is $79,840 per year, though staff engineers, as advanced-level employees, may be eligible for higher earning potentials. Your salary can also vary depending on your location, employer and area of expertise.
Balance of technical and management responsibilities
Many staff engineers appreciate that they have a balance of technical and management responsibilities. They can directly contribute to projects by writing code, testing software and collaborating with team members. They influence the broader direction of projects and can use their expertise to lead teams. Such responsibilities can set them up for success in higher-level roles in the future.
How staff engineer roles compare to other engineer positions
Based on its size and standards, an organization may use different titles to signify the level of responsibility a particular engineering role has. For example, a small company may have fewer engineering positions while a mid-range company may add more intermediate leadership roles as it expands. Many organizations follow the progression below for engineering positions:
Senior staff engineer
Senior principal engineer
Staff engineers vs. systems engineers
Systems engineers are multidisciplinary professionals who combine engineering and management skills to oversee projects and systems. Like staff engineers, they work in a range of industries, such as information technology, transportation, manufacturing and product development for retail, health care and business. Some of the differences between staff and systems engineers are:
Systems engineers create, apply and maintain systems to guide products from development to completion. In contrast, staff engineers focus on advancing specific projects by providing technical assistance, overcoming project-specific obstacles and supporting productivity through time management. Staff engineers typically focus on the technical aspects of project development, while systems engineers may be responsible for providing system backups and creating standards for how an organization receives product feedback.
For example, in automotive manufacturing, a mechanical staff engineer might be tasked with the design and optimization of the engine components, whereas a systems engineer would be in charge of the entire vehicle, including the engine, transmission, wheels and electrical systems.
While staff engineers typically concentrate on working with junior engineers and managers, systems engineers may also work with other departments such as marketing and sales. The multidisciplinary approach of the latter allows systems engineers to develop systems related to customer outreach and distribution.
Systems engineers often design security and safety systems and manage their implementation and maintenance. In comparison, staff engineers create plans for project development, mentor junior engineers and support managers by offering leadership in specific technical areas.
Staff engineers vs. software engineers
Staff engineers are leaders of engineer teams while software engineers specialize in the development and maintenance of applications. Staff engineers can specialize in software engineering, though some specialize in civil, electrical or mechanical fields. Software engineers can be entry-level or have more experience and fulfill advanced leadership roles.
Related: What Is Software Engineering?
Staff engineers vs. senior engineers
In most organizations, senior engineers precede staff engineers in a hierarchy. Senior engineers have more responsibilities than junior-level engineers but might report to staff engineers. Staff engineers tend to focus on directing overall projects and contributing to the organization's long-term objectives.
For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, visit indeed.com/salaries.
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