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What is a Principal Engineer?

Principal engineers mentor budding engineers by honing in on leadership skills and developing technical standards.

By Hannah Ross  •   August 11, 2022  •   6 min read

Principal engineers are storied engineers who possess a great deal of experience. They’ve worked in their respective fields for many years and have ample knowledge to share. On any given day, principal engineers are responsible for researching, overseeing projects, acting as mentors, and fulfilling company duties in an attempt to bring high-quality projects to fruition. 

In this article, we’ll dive into what makes a stellar principal engineer while covering their key roles and responsibilities. We’ll also outline the differences between a senior engineer and a principal engineer while covering the skills that a principal engineer should possess to be successful. 

What is a principal engineer? 

A principal engineer is an engineer with many years of experience in engineering or in a specific engineering field. Principal engineers are experts or leaders in their respective fields and have an advanced understanding of engineering. To be considered a principal engineer, an individual needs to be experienced and storied. 

These engineering experts are responsible for overseeing the research, development, and design of engineering projects. Principal engineers are also responsible for developing teams and overseeing the staff responsible for bringing these technical engineering projects to fruition.

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Principal engineer roles and responsibilities

Principal engineers or developers are the highest-ranking engineers, ranking higher than software engineers, senior engineers, and staff engineers; as a result, they need to be well-rounded and possess a great deal of experience. 

Principal engineers’ roles and responsibilities include, but are not limited to: 

  • Ensuring that all projects are high quality
  • Mentoring and training software engineers
  • Supporting the software development life cycle  
  • Participating in risk assessments and mitigating activities
  • Assisting in analyzing and troubleshooting application issues
  • Recommending new technologies to help improve efficiency
  • Providing design reviews and giving technical recommendations
  • Regularly attending meetings to discuss projects, issues, and ideas
  • Coordinating with quality assurance (QA) to develop test cases, procedures, and plans
  • Working with teams to plan, prioritize, and complete project assignments
  • Supporting and facilitating in maintenance and upgrades of existing software 
  • Participating in technical audits and ensuring recommendations are implemented
  • Creating effective and applicable technical solutions that fit business needs and requirements
  • Developing and providing technical standards and guidance in all software design and development 

Principal engineer skills 

1Strong multitasking ability

Having the ability to multitask is one of the most important skills for principal engineers. Not only are principal engineers responsible for overseeing multiple projects at once, but they’re also responsible for guiding and mentoring other engineers within the organization while handling budgets and timelines. No two days look the same, and they’ll always have a variety of different tasks needing to be managed simultaneously. 

2Strong analytical skills 

Analytical skills are a must for principal engineers. Analytical skills not only enable engineers to consider problems from different perspectives, but they also enable these engineers to solve complex problems in the most effective ways. Identifying innovative solutions is at the core of everything they do, so they need to be able to think critically. While this is true for engineers, it’s especially true for principal engineers. Principal engineers need to be willing to constantly push the boundaries of what they know to identify transformative solutions. 

3Exceptional communication skills 

Principal engineers need to be exceptional communicators. As stated above, the majority of principal engineers assume a great deal of leadership responsibilities. The bulk of their workload is communicating cross-functionally with other senior executives, while simultaneously guiding and mentoring other engineers. This said, principal engineers should be able to think critically and convey their thoughts effectively. Communication will play a large role in their day-to-day work. 

4Excellent organization and leadership skills 

While there are other engineers within the engineering team who take on a great deal of responsibility, principal engineers are still responsible for an array of important tasks. To bring a project to fruition, a principal engineer needs to be able to plan for and anticipate their team’s needs. In many cases, this level of care and coordination will involve multiple departments and varying engineering disciples, among other factors. To stay on top of all of these moving parts, principal engineers need to be extremely organized and detail-oriented. 

5Proven experience in building complex web systems and developing software methodologies

While principal engineers may not be working on the ground level to build products or fix bugs, this doesn’t mean they don’t have to have a comprehensive understanding of the technical aspects of their respective field. To manage and mentor engineers, principal engineers need to be extremely well versed in their niche. Having an in-depth understanding of the technical elements that make up their field will ensure they’re always able to have their finger on the pulse. They’ll also be able to form an in-depth understanding of what their team is working on while providing support and planning for the future. 

Principal engineer vs. senior engineer 

Principal engineers and senior engineers work in tandem to ensure engineering teams can collaboratively research, design, analyze and inspect structures according to client or organizational requirements. While a principal engineer is more senior than a senior engineer, both roles are crucial. 

Key responsibilities of a senior engineer include: 

  • Overseeing projects
  • Providing process recommendations
  • Negotiating products and product terms
  • Generating reports and writing proposals 
  • Presenting design and research to customers 

Key responsibilities of a principal engineer include: 

  • Managing engineering departments 
  • Implementing process improvements
  • Planning overall engineering strategies
  • Determining long-term department goals
  • Providing expert advice to other engineers
  • Creating and managing engineering budgets 

Principal engineering career ladder 

1Software engineer

While software engineers are a crucial part of any engineering team, they are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to rank. A software engineer may be a junior or entry-level role used to gain experience or learn the fundamentals of engineering. During a typical day, software engineers are responsible for coding, developing new code, managing software projects, and collaborating with other engineering teammates to solve complex problems. 

2Senior engineer

The next rank up the ladder is the senior engineer. After working as a software engineer and gaining relevant experience, you may be eligible to work as a senior engineer. Senior engineers are responsible for designing and developing new products and services, and they’re also often tasked with overseeing a team of junior engineers. During this time, senior engineers will provide guidance and reassurance as the team works towards developing products or solving bugs. Senior engineers need to have extensive knowledge in their respective field of engineering. 

3Staff engineer

Staff engineers carry a different set of responsibilities when compared to software or senior engineers. These engineers are employed in a variety of sectors including civil, mechanical, industrial, or electrical engineering, and their roles vary depending on their area of expertise or specialty. During a typical day, staff engineers will lead the use of technical practices in an attempt to yield favorable results. These engineers are responsible for reviewing manufacturing and assembly plans of new product designs while creating new processes that capitalize on innovation and efficiency. Staff engineers are responsible for ensuring quality products are shipped or released. 

4Principal engineer

Principal engineers are at the top of the totem pole. Unlike other engineers within the organization, principal engineers assume a role that is predominantly based on leadership. Principal engineers guide staff to ensure the entire engineering team is completing projects on time and within budget. These engineers are highly experienced and will oversee a variety of projects from start to finish. Due to their level of expertise, principal engineers often take on a leadership role where they’ll offer support or guidance to their team members, and they are very rarely responsible for completing tactical or hands-on elements of a project. 

Are you an aspiring principal engineer? 

Principal engineers possess a great deal of responsibility. Not only are they responsible for overseeing projects, timelines, and budgets, but they’re also responsible for mentoring budding engineers and guiding them towards success. While becoming a principal engineer may be a lengthy process that requires a great deal of experience and industry knowledge, it’s ultimately a coveted and rewarding profession desired by many. 

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