Principal Thoughts

To Be a Principal

To Be a Principal

The goal of The Aspiring Principal is to help you level up your career and become better at what you do. I aim to help you advance and work towards excellence in the software industry. In this post, I will help you understand what it is we are aspiring to become as Principals.

While job titles are highly variable — and title inflation is worse in the Software industry than many others — the idea of a Principal is universal. In some major companies they are called Partners or Distinguished Engineers. Regardless of their title, Principals are at the pinnacle of individual contribution, the ultimate step in the progress of a career as a scientist, developer, engineer, product specialist, or project manager. Many worthy and highly skilled individuals will retire before achieving this level. Not everyone will even want to exercise the level of broad influence required to excel as a Principal. However, aspiring to become a Principal provides a clear path, a north star, and a guiding light for your career ambitions.

So what does it actually mean to be a Principal? Specific job responsibilities vary depending on the organization and focus. A Principal Scientist has a very different set of daily responsibilities than a Principal Engineer or a Principal Technical Product Manager. However, many aspects of the role of Principal cross disciplines, and it is those aspects that I will focus on through the rest of this post.

First and foremost, recognize that a Principal operates at a strategic level. This means that as a Principal, you will be interacting with Vice Presidents, Directors, and even C-suite executives on a regular basis. You will be thinking in terms of months or years, not weeks or days. And the projects you work on will have massive impact, driving the success or failure of the company as a whole. The stakes are high, but this level of impact and influence is the responsibility of a Principal. This level of impact also justifies rewards pursuant to the degree of responsibility: the salary, benefits, and organizational perks associated with a senior position.

On a day-to-day basis, a Principal must be a trusted role-model. Integral to this is the ability to be a mentor to anyone, trusted to make good choices, and to be right more often than not. How do you do these things, while balancing your time and focusing on the most impactful actions? There will be a lot of conversation on this topic in Principal Thoughts, but if I had to pick the one most important behavior, I would say it is listening. You listen to the people you work with, both more senior and less. You listen to the business, customers, partners, product specialists, engineers, developers, scientists, managers, and to the most junior intern.

You listen constantly, and by listening, you learn. You absorb the context and scope of the problems you face. By listening, you synthesize the critical actions the organization needs to take to achieve success, and you earn the trust of every one of these people, which you will need to execute on the strategy you define. By listening first, you can be right when you finally do speak, and your solutions and statements are not “dictates from on-high,” but instead are clear expressions of what everyone is already thinking.

So, what is it to be a Principal? It is a lot of things, but a listener, a synthesizer of data, and a decisive driver of policy are at the core.

Through the content on this site, you will learn about many aspects of successful operation in the software industry. Through guest posts and insights from other trusted industry professionals, I will discuss how to become a Principal through career development, technical skills, “soft” skills, and even industry theory and business concepts. With effort, you can achieve your goals, whatever they are, and you, too, can aspire to be a Principal.

Justin, of The Aspiring Principal