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I'm an experienced developer with almost 20 years of experience. I have a history of being too weak in negotiations and getting too low compensation/position and then overperforming.

Two months ago I decided to switch companies and this time I decided to negotiate harder. I was aiming for Staff developer position (level 4 out of 5 possible). During the hiring process they mentioned that this is pretty high level position, but I discarded it as a negotiation tactic and argued that I already had this level at a different company (which is true). Eventually I got hired and received a significantly higher offer than I expected.

Now I recently started, got assigned to a team. It turns out the team is very good technically, probably better than any team I've been part of in the past. Most of the team are Senior developers/level 3, some junior/mid people, but nobody at my level (Staff, level 4).

So it turns out that the hiring people were not actually bullshitting with Staff being very high level position. The senior developers in my team seem to be at higher technical level than I am. Part of that is their familiarity with the technology used in the company but I can also recognize that they are truly very strong. I'm convinced I can catch up with them and reach their skill level relatively quickly but I don't see myself being clearly better than them and thus "justifying" my higher level.

Now I'm not sure how to behave in this situation. The developer levels are not really visible within the company, I inferred their levels mostly from spying on their LinkedIn profiles so I don't think they know my level yet, but sooner or later it will probably come into the conversation.

I wonder how should I behave in such a situation? When I'm confronted about this ("so what level are you actually?"), should I:

  • acknowledge myself being "overhire" when talking to a colleague who does know my true technical level
  • act like it doesn't matter
  • I'm just good at negotiation
  • just don't comment on it
  • stand my ground and sort of silently pretend I am actually stronger then them (okay, this sounds really bad)

So far the people in the team are friendly and everything goes fine, but one must wonder if for some, this discrepancy will not become a problem. The situation might be somewhat worse given the fact I'm a woman and the team members are all men.

(I'm less concerned about management side of things)

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – DarkCygnus
    Feb 20 at 21:00

11 Answers 11

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I was in this exact situation several years ago - I took it as a challenge. It made me work harder and I learnt so much from the process, and from the people who were supposedly junior to me.

Being a staff/principal engineer isn't about knowing more than everyone else about a specific thing, it's about having experience, and the ability to translate the lessons you've learnt from that experience into improvements and goals for your current team.

In terms of what do you say, simonc's comment covers it completely - "I'm a staff engineer. So, back to the problem, how about we...." and move on.

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    I like the positive approach and I also take it like that - it's an opportunity to grow. It's also a pleasure to work with highly qualified people!
    – ciabatta
    Feb 18 at 11:27
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    “It made me work harder” just be aware of burnouts and don’t try to compensate with working overtime.
    – Michael
    Feb 19 at 8:06
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    "Work harder" by limiting your hours and working within the time allotted. Most people mistake working longer with working harder, but it's really working longer that burns you out. If you truly work harder, your efficiency goes up and eventually it'll plateau and become easy. Compensating by working longer lowers your efficiency, and you end up having to work even longer.
    – Nelson
    Feb 19 at 14:25
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    Right. How many complaints do we see on this stack about "my supervisor won't listen/take correction." OP is in a good position to be a "good" leader. She recognizes that people on her team will sometimes know more or know better.
    – B. Goddard
    Feb 20 at 13:36
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When I'm confronted about this ("so what level are you actually?"), should I...

Just tell them your level and move on in the conversation.

If you don't make a big deal out of your title, the chances are much lower that anyone else will.

I certainly wouldn't "acknowledge myself being overhire" or claim to be awesome at negotiation. It will be very hard work to ever get respect for your technical abilities if your colleagues' early impression is of you talking yourself down.

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    Good point about "talking yourself down". I'm usually just trying to be very honest, but in the end it probably comes across like that. Probably also a factor in my "underhire" history.
    – ciabatta
    Feb 18 at 11:26
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    Your impression of you comes from inside your head. Others' impression of you comes from outside of your head. Don't "try to be honest" because you'll reveal stuff that needn't be revealed, and that will lower others' opinion of you. Be honest, but like, don't tell people what age you stopped wetting the bed, ya know? Feb 19 at 5:16
  • personally I have a "manager" at first met saying he is just "staff" like me, but just 1 hour later started ordering me around with pointless task during hectic hour, which does not leave a positive first impression. Please act according what you are saying if you first meet your staff. Feb 19 at 10:28
  • "Your impression of you comes from inside your head" That's pretty deep.
    – cst1992
    Feb 21 at 7:58
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Careful! Don't shoot yourself in the foot by talking about being overhired. It sounds like you're highly competent, just feeling a little overmatched in a new environment, which is to be expected...

Your view of the team can go in a negative direction (being intimidated) or a positive direction (feeling respect). I think you should focus on the positive side. If your team is like most people, they don't need to see you as a superstar who outshines them in every way. They need to see you as a competent — which you are — and to feel mutual respect and trust.

In this new environment where the established people have a good level of comfort that makes them seem even stronger than they are, one of the best tools you can bring is good questions. I don't mean new developer questions like "What does this line of code do?" but deeper questions that probe the decisions that were hardest for them to make, where they did lots of thinking. This benefits both yourself since you learn key aspects of the project (and the team's perception of the key aspects) and your standing in the team when they see that during this inevitable catch-up period, you're attentive, recognize their competence in getting where they are, and have the insight and desire to perform at a high level. If you understand the answers in a nuanced way, can see the alternatives they had to choose from, and can develop the line of thought further in the direction they're going — you'll soon be in a good place to work on the level the team seems to be at.

You can't just start asking intelligent questions right away, though. First you have to review the project structure and code, doing a lot of focused listening, to gain a basic familiarity with it and figure out what to ask about — what the important and interesting questions are.

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    What I like most about this answer is that it focuses on bringing out the best in OP's teammates — raising their game, rather than trying to prove something or compete with them.  They'll recognise and respect that, and OP's game and standing will be raised along with them.
    – gidds
    Feb 19 at 11:34
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    I remember feeling intimidated when I went from my first job (a very small company where I ended up practically running the show as a "junior") to my second, a bigger place, where there were people who obviously knew much more than me. I floundered for a few weeks before I finally realized the immense value in having smart people around and not having to solve everything myself. As a newcomer you're not expected to know all the ins and outs. No matter how good you are, the veterans know their systems and their business better than you do. So make good use of that.
    – hobbs
    Feb 19 at 18:26
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I've been on the other side of this with people being brought into our team as the Team lead or head architect who the team felt was at our same level or maybe a little lower. I would say the only thing one of them did wrong, was throwing their weight around to prove that they deserve the position. Just be a good teammate and it will work out. If there is any resentment, I've normally seen it directed more at management than the person who got the better job.

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I think the big problem here is that you are trying to apples-to-apples compare yourself to the people with a lesser job title to you. You've already pushed away imposter syndrome as having an effect here, so we can safely conclude that you just have really great people working with you. That being said, it doesn't mean they are greater than you at the skills you need in your position.

Every company is different and some of them apply job levels fairly arbitrarily, but typically any level above senior starts to push away from the typical skills that you'd expect from a developer. You aren't there to just create a super optimized function to retrieve user data, nor are you even there to just make sure that the codebase is living up to standards. A staff engineer should be competent and have the ability to do those things, but the job is about approaching development from a higher level. At this point, the work you do is the work the rest of the company is going to emulate.

This means that you're going to need to be able to understand business needs and connect them technically. You are going to need to make sure the path to that connection will be one that leads to high-quality code that sticks to the architecture your company has chosen. And, perhaps most importantly of all, you need to be able to advocate for these things in a way that can bring everyone on board.

The great thing about the position you are in is that your team is already highly competent. This means that you can have some level of confidence that the ideas brought to you have merit by the virtue that your team is the one that brought them to the table. This also comes with the downside that coming in with an ego will probably destroy you. Bar that, however, you can rely on the guidance of the team to help you move forward.

In summary, don't view the members of your team as your goal post. Their roles should serve to help you be better at yours. I think you've gotten a bit lost by your history of being held back, which has you stuck in the mindset of "my job is to be better at this than the person below me." While this is true in the senior/junior relationship, past that the roles begin necessitating that you are able to leverage the abilities of people who may be technically better than you. I'm sure that you showed an effective ability to communicate technical topics and portrayed yourself as someone who can work as an effective filter for the company at a high level, which is why you were hired.

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I have worked for two very large companies where salary is determined through mysterious HR processes far removed from us in the development groups. There have been many times we lost candidates to other employers because our salary offer was not in line with the current reality of the ever changing the job market.

Until this type of problem gets fixed/adjusted from above, the workaround is to tie our job openings to a higher employee level so that the salary might actually compel someone accept an offer. It works, but then internally you have existing employees at level X and in walks a level Y guy off the street (you can always count on a few people finding out and getting bent out of shape about it). I've seen this many times.

So my point is, perhaps this is the case with you. From my experience, I'd say it is possible that your new employer was simply impressed and wanted to be sure you would join the company. So I join the other commenters who suggest not worrying about it. Everything could have happened the way it did intentionally for some internal reason.

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This is an excellent opportunity in more than the obvious ways.

You have been trusted to be competent to run this very competent team. Consider the possibility that actually, you are that competent - but just never had that situation yet.

Sometimes there's nothing so good for rapid skills improvement than a challenge. Take this situation that way. Become that person - every role has something new, learn what's new here and acquire the experience and familiarity that you may not have had yet.

Secondly, there are two dovetailing things I'd strongly suggest to leverage from my own experience of being promoted into challenging roles.

You have a team of competent individuals. Trust them. Make yourself a good manager by doing so. Higher level roles are all about people skills, so this is what you ought to be doing anyway.

Rely on your team and trust them. Don't be afraid to delegate, to trust your team members to make judgements, to run things, to handle a lot of it themselves. Ask "What do you think?" and tell people "I trust you, go do it and let me know how it goes". Use your role to empower and add the guidance and key decisions needed, rather than to dominate everything. Be a manager who supports their competent team,and adds their own skill to it.

That way you achieve several goals at once.

  1. You become a better manager/team person, because everyone likes a manager/team player who trusts, supports and empowers their team. And because good managers with a good team, by and large know their own strengths and add those to the the team members, rather than micromanaging their competent team members who will then feel constrained.
  2. You can leave a lot to your team, which means you can learn by watching your team perform. You can cover up any learning curve (if you need to) by watching your team, once you free them to use their initiative. This will help you with the issues in your question.
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I think the main thing to think about is that even though the Staff level is on a technical/Individual Contributor track (as opposed to Management), it's still a leadership position.

As such, there are (or should be) some stark differences between the type of work you would do in this position compared to the Senior level.

Your value is not to know more technically than every (or even any) senior engineer; it's to leverage your significant experience to apply their and your knowledge effectively.

So instead of evaluating yourself at a purely technical level, think about where you can shine that they can't (or can, it doesn't actually matter since your ability to perform is not diminished by theirs).

If you decide that stepping up to take on more of a technical leadership role (again, not management) is not for you, then I think you might be justified in thinking about how to "get out" of it, since you're unlikely to remain happy.

But with 20+ years experience you probably do exhibit these qualities so give it a shot.


I'll add on that I've been enjoying Will Larson's latest book Staff Engineer on the subject, and you can read much of it on the website too (no affiliation).

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This answer is a latecomer to an already rich conversation, but I feel it can really capture the situation and your feelings. I will try to make it brief and straight to the point and complement what has already been said.

  1. It's a delicate situation, but you will be fine
  2. You feel you haven't been completely honest
  3. Yes, you are a woman
  4. You want to talk your way out of the pressure
  5. Worst-case scenario
  6. How should you behave? Here are some tips

1. It is a delicate situation, but you will be fine

It is delicate, but solely in that if you do not act upon it, it will blow up. You will be fine, by harnessing this grace period in which you are expected to be overwhelmed. If you weren't, they wouldn't be doing anything special or truly relevant in the field or in the market.

You took a different approach to that hiring process. You made the decision to change; not just your job. Take the challenge and please allow yourself to enjoy it.

2. You feel you haven't been completely honest

Firstly, you have been selected from a set of top-level candidates. Imagine the CVs, technical skills, personalities, etc. they had to choose from, risk-free. You cannot be "just good at negotiation". And, since when? Since this last interview for which you "decided to negotiate harder"? To such extent as to scam your way into this position? The reality is that you are a top human being. The HR department and all the people that had to say a word concluded, all highly qualified, that your were the chosen one.

You may feel you have not been completely honest about your current level, but one never speaks only from our current self, but also from our future self. Maybe you not only "discarded it as a negotiation tactic", but also approached possible higher requirements by being honest and confident about your capabilities, which include leveling up professionally; as you have already, and as you would if the job required it. Well, it does; more than imagined, but you have the capability.

3. Yes, you are a woman

It is a reality that you are most likely to experience some situations. In such a competitive environment, people are going to test you, and talk about you, which we know is just natural. The higher the position, the more competitive and aggressive will be those surrounding it, which isn't bad. However, you should be ready for some comments and for possible coworkers trying to corner you, for reasons that are not here to be discussed, though interesting. Anyone denying this is out of touch with reality. It must be said though that it is most usually a game, that men are more into challenging each other, finding the most ingenious reply.

Make interactions with meticulous formality, establishing a highly respectful and professional environment. Avoid all informal scenarios until you feel confident enough with your technical abilities. Nourish the image others have about you by speaking little and being calm, because yes, a discrepancy can become a problem. Contrary to other answers, if you want to talk yourself down a bit, do so if it is humorous and portrays humility; it will be positively valued.

4. You want to talk your way out of the pressure

The solution to this distress won't come from being honest and confessing the truth about me. It seems like you are craving for a solution to the pressure that is upon you, placed by yourself and by the expectations. Firstly, remember that you have a grace period, that you are allowed to under-perform. Secondly, if you are impressed with some members of your team, canalize it by telling them, e.g., "stay healthy, you are one of the most valuable assets of our team". Find a coworker willing to dissect all the technicalities for you; you'd be surprised. Don't hesitate to ask anyone to share their knowledge with you, you might as well be evaluating them, and don't be too afraid to show that you are not the genius right there. Who knows what are the strengths, and how eminent, that brought you into this position; they don't know. You should be aware of your presence being also imposing. Be careful, however, with the questions you make and to whom.

It is OK how you are feeling; it is asking you for movement, because you cannot expect things to work out by just letting them happen (not at these levels of demand). Canalize your feelings into a plan to catch up with the project and the technology. As with an instrumentalist learning yet another musical instrument, you could be surprised to find all your current skills getting transferred and become exceptional. In your case, to the extent to "justify your higher level", or even to become a critical asset for the company. You are yet to know; give yourself time.

5. Worst-case scenario

It is often recommended for highly stressful endeavors to picture the worst-case scenario and solve it. Give yourself a generous but realistic time window and, if it is still that clear to you, communicate your intentions to abandon and switch companies. Definitely not the end of the world. It didn't work out, which is not that crucial to the company or to your career, both surely continuing to flourish.

It never feels right to quit, but it should when it is the best decision professionally (even the most legendary CEOs have a hard time stepping aside). If quitting really feels wrong, again: go ahead and tackle down this (beautiful) challenge.

6. How should you behave? Here are some tips

This may be in the end what you were asking for. Summing up:

  • Be strict in being very formal in all your interactions. This is number one.
  • Avoid undesired conversations by avoiding their most common scenarios, as well as their most common protagonists.
  • If the time comes, do not hide and do not fake it; calmly find your way out without being delusive and while keeping a solid image. You can be humble, you can be humorous and, definitely, you can be relaxed about being overwhelmed in a new project (it is what is natural if you are not "underhired" but healthily ambitious).
  • Don't talk about your feelings with strangers.
  • Speak little. As I say, if you want to enhance your competence, act more like a cat than a dog.
  • People will have confidence in you if you are calm and confident in yourself.
  • Don't be afraid to show you are getting your head around the project and the technology because you need your coworkers to help you on this. Find those healthy minds willing to teach. Remember that you are a respected figure and seeking for knowledge will extend this view if done right.
  • Making a compliment to a team member can alleviate the stress of having to be "clearly better" much more appropriately that confessing your "true technical level".
  • If you want to be all this precise and accurate in procedure, make sure to have real fun out of work or you will be done soon.
  • Find someone outside of work to talk to about this and about your progress. Maybe also a professional; you may know top executives do this.
  • Speaking of mentoring, you may want to try to look for someone with the hard skills you are aiming at, maybe through LinkedIn,and pay for some consulting.
  • Act with the feeling that you are an investment to the company which everyone should support and assist and that will eventually shine.
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    Why would you make yourself avoid conversations, speak less and not be approachable if you have nothing to hide or justify for? That sounds like living in fear
    – eckes
    Feb 21 at 8:01
  • I avoid conversations and speak little when I have to, while not coming off as unapproachable and certainly not living in fear ¿? One could argue the opposite, that fear would make you give in to peer pressure, and that leaders know when to be silent and where a conversation shouldn't head to (e.g.). Anyway, I wrote: "If the time comes, do not hide and do not fake it"; what it is to avoid is the cafeteria and the pushing coworker, not "the conversations". Like avoiding the route with the drive-thru on your way home. Arriving at a new team at a high-level position entails social intelligence. Feb 21 at 22:08
  • Ok, I don’t think it’s a General good idea to avoid cafeteria to not speak about your position, that’s living in fear
    – eckes
    Feb 22 at 7:19
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Good for you! What are you going to spend all that lovely money on? I sense that you're uncomfortable with responsibility and possibly decision-making. Fair enough.

You've been recruited on a he/she's good -- let's have him/her. The question is 'good at what?'. Your job is not to out-code the others. (Fun fact: As you get older your faculties wane.) Instead you've been practically dumped into a managing and mentoring role where you have to become a 'people person'.

So you need support and encouragement from 'the management'. At the very least I'd recommend you ask the higher-ups for guidance and try to get a comfortable relationship going. You and 'management' are on the same side! Describe how new things are appearing as a big challenge to you. Wheras before you were given specifications to code, now you're being given opportunities to manage a much larger workload. Scary! Luckily it appears you have a good team already and that probably reflects good higher management. It's quite possible that your new company can see your potential but you can't. Great! Ask them for help to develop your people skills. There are one or two million books on Management. Ask your boss to recommend one. (It shows you're interested, and with any luck they will have a similar mindset to the book they recommend so you've got something in common to discuss.)

As others have said, don't start working long hours. Here's a suggestion: Make the end of the day on Friday a review session. The team and you or your boss and you. This allows you to wrap-up the week then gently ponder the start of the next one over the weekend. (So much better than Monday mornings. And you get to go home early rather than have to get in early.)

You don't have to be a strong leader to be a good leader. A lot of 'quiet' people are good listeners and can often empathise quite well. If that is one of your traits then jump on it and listen to what your team members are actually saying.

You don't need to go overboard with team-building when you already have one. Organised fun can be awful. Ask the team.

Good luck. When you're really motoring the satisfaction is deep. You're out of your comfort zone now but give it a shot with help from all the good people around you.

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I recommend you stick with it, you are higher level so you sometimes will not be as sharp as the lower level devs who are doing different work. Also they may be highly thirsty for vertical movement which can be intimidating. Focus on your job, and if you absolutely know you can't do it, then help the company and move on. But otherwise you should go for it. Learn what is necessary and accept you may lack experience.

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    In "if you absolutely know you can't do it, then help the company" - what exactly does "helping the company" entail?
    – osuka_
    Feb 20 at 19:09
  • I think it meant "help the company by moving on". Feb 22 at 23:21

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