6 mins

Make sure to bring clarity to roles and responsibilities when creating new engineering roles.

As organizations evolve and tackle new challenges, engineering leaders must create new roles – both formal and informalto address gaps and explore opportunities. These new roles may be intentionally ambiguous, as we trust our engineers to go and figure it out. We may even be called upon to step into one of these roles ourselves. 

Back in 2017, I was thrust into the new role of Asia-Pacific (APAC) Liaison, as my company decided to expand its engineering presence in the Greater China region, based out of Hong Kong. This required me to coordinate with the different engineering offices across APAC and with senior managers and teams in our New York and London offices. As a result of these conversations, I was able to better understand what my priorities should be, and the expectations of the different groups of engineers. 

The priority issues we had to address were a combination of technology, process, and culture challenges. We needed individuals who were passionate about these problems to take the lead in finding solutions for them, so I created the new role of Pillar Lead. These Pillar Leads would each focus on improving one of the following areas: developer experience, training, communities, and recruitment. 

Each Pillar Lead would have to work with engineers in other offices and with specific departments across the organization. This informal role was something the engineer would do in addition to their regular day-to-day responsibilities, but it was an opportunity for them to develop their abilities to lead others and create a network to get things done within the company. The role was later adopted across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). 

New roles like these may start out informally, as a means to find solutions for problems the organization does not yet know how to solve. Some may eventually become formalized within the industry. Examples of these include Site Reliability EngineersStaff Engineers, or other technical roles that have gained popularity over the past two decades. 

Some new roles may be very niche. For example, when regulations are introduced in an industry, someone may need to investigate what these new rules mean for an organization and translate them into concrete technology strategies. 

Other new roles may come with a wider scope. Consider the Staff Engineer role. Depending on the organizational context and the engineer’s specific skill set, these engineers can be deployed in a plethora of ways to tackle all kinds of problems, depending on the needs of the organization.

In a best case scenario, a new role can be empowering and exciting for the individual who holds it. It’s an opportunity to solve new problems, acquire new skills, and make a broader impact. In a worst case scenario, an undefined role can lead to frustration, conflict, and failure in achieving the organization’s desired outcomes. 

When we help an individual define their new job from the outset, we increase the chances of success for both the individual and the organization. How do we enable an individual to take ownership and accountability in defining their new role and responsibilities?

Empowering the individual to define their role

When defining these new roles, I worked with my HR partner to focus on four fundamental aspects: the scope of the role, the definition of success, the stakeholders involved, and the support needed. Using this “4S” framework, each individual has the opportunity to articulate their own expectations for the new role. 


Start by asking the individual to explicitly write down and share their assumptions about what the job will require. The scope of the role may include: 

  • Specific problems the role was created to solve or opportunities the role will explore

  • Any restrictions to the solution space 

  • Whether the role is responsible for defining a strategy or implementing one

  • Decisions that fall within their remit (and those that do not) 

  • Whether the role requires influencing or directly leading others 

  • Any boundaries, especially if the role overlaps with pre-existing functions within the organization 

  • How their time is allocated, particularly if the role is in addition to their other existing responsibilities 

This approach is not meant to create a comprehensive list of duties. Instead, aim to flesh out the individual’s ideas about their role and responsibilities. If some aspects of the new role are truly unclear, then the individual should specifically call these out as areas that need further clarification. 


Let the individual reflect on what they believe success looks like for their new role. What are the outcomes they want to achieve? What are the appropriate metrics to use to define and measure success? 

The individual should also consider what failure looks like, as this can uncover nuances in how they achieve success. For example, delivering a solution on time while accumulating technical debt beyond the department’s budget could be considered an undesirable outcome.


Who are the stakeholders, peers, and teams the individual will involve, consult, or inform? This should capture how the individual sees themselves navigating the surrounding organization to get their job done. 


For the individual to be successful in their job, there is a degree of support they will need from the organization. This may be as simple as getting the time to focus on the role, the training to acquire the necessary skills, or access to pertinent information. Sometimes the necessary support involves people, technology, or the budget to get things done. This is also an opportunity for the individual to highlight any additional concerns they may have. 

Aligning expectations between individual and manager 

Once the individual has completed their definition of the new role using the 4S framework, it now becomes possible for us to engage in discussions that surface any misalignment in expectations. 

With the individual’s assumptions clearly spelled out, we can confirm whether their ideas about their new role and responsibilities align with or diverge from our own, as their manager. Having a candid dialogue around the scope, success, stakeholders, and support for the role provides the individual an opportunity to incorporate feedback and map out next steps to add further clarity to their role.

We may also identify key stakeholders who must be part of these discussions, especially if these stakeholders will be engaging closely with the new role and may bring a different perspective as to what defines success. 

One potential outcome of this process is that we discover the individual’s view of the role is vastly different from what we may have had in mind. Perhaps we need to take this into consideration and adjust our own expectations. Perhaps we give the individual the chance to rethink the role with our feedback and go through a second iteration of the 4S exercise. Perhaps this is not the right role for this individual. We may need to find a more suitable candidate for the role and look for other opportunities for this individual. 

Once we’ve aligned with the individual on their new role and responsibilities, it’s time for them to step up and get the job done! But don’t forget, as leaders, we have the responsibility to ensure we provide the support the role needs.