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Interesting article. A lot of the qualities the author descrives as required trains of a principal are things I always say a senior engineer/tech team lead should have—e.g. ability to act as a force multiplier, leading by example, and being active in less technical activities like mentorship and recruiting.

Am I off the mark? I suspect I may just not have been at enough orgs with a well developed career track, what the author here calls a 2-level technical track.

The senior/principal distinction is relative, of course. At my org, there are two flavors of principal (when the justification memo is written — the final title is the same.)

First, “state of the art”, with publications and recognition by professional societies. This is relatively easy to distinguish from a Senior, because the publications mount up.

Second, “state of the practice”, with extensive influence on major products/outcomes. The justification in this case usually comes in the form of testimonials like “X led the design and delivery of Y, and without him/her Z, for which Y is critical, would not have flown.”

This kind of person is harder to distinguish from a “solid Senior”. There is some resulting soreness among seniors who haven’t climbed to Principal. There’s a committee of Principals that gives recommendations but management makes the final call. Sometimes retention and organizational strategy are in play, besides just on-paper accomplishments.

Hiring directly into Principal does happen. The committee above makes a special out-of-cycle meeting to review such cases.

So, the difference between Senior and Principal can be in the visibility of the results and level of difficulty. The principal can still be the motor of a relatively small team - as small as 4 or 5 people - if the scope of the accomplishments is enough.

Specific numbers may be helpful. There are also two levels above Principal, Senior Research Scientist and (highest) Fellow. There are about 40 fellows in an org of 6000. There are about 250 principals. One of the fellows is Adam Steltzner, who designed the sky crane landing system for the Mars Curiosity lander.

Hah, small world! My old man worked as a systems engineer in some of the spectrograph equipment on Curiosity. Did you by chance spend time at JPL?

Still do, but it’s a big place! Sometimes I get lucky and recognize someone, but your last name (just looked) makes that hard ;-).

I think it depends on the organization. But I think the distinction made in other comments is a good one. You can't really be a "principal" until you are familiar with the organization, the products, the people. And in reality, while most every engineer can become a "senior" contributor, only a few senior-level people can have the impact being described here to truly be a "principal".

This depends on the culture & hiring philosophies of the company.

I've seen many places that "only hire the best" or "only hire seniors" then end up with a bunch of engineers who dont mentor or force multiply but tend to just focus on what ever pice of a system they own.

I've also seen senior used only to justify a pay bracket as well.

Personally I agree that a senior or lead enginner needs to have these skills.

I’ve been at the kinds of places you describe as only hiring seniors. I’m personally not a fan of that kind of mentality for a few reasons:

1. (In San Francisco) This can lead to reqs being open for way too long. My company had several roles open for upwards of a year and wouldn’t back off until I convinced my manager that we could train/mentor a less experienced hire to fill those reqs faster than we could fill them directly.

2. I think teaching a skill is important to the development of a skill. It forces you to distill what you do know, and articulate it in a way others can understand. This process is a huge boon to a lot of other traching-related soft skills as well.

3. (Personal opinion) I think we a professional, perhaps ethical, responsibility to improve the quality of our craft. I don’t think most places know how to write and maintain software well as an organization. The state of software as a profession will not improve until we raise the lowest common denominator and do a better job disseminating hard-earned lessons and best practices.

4. Companies have an ethical responsibility to provide their workforce with on-the-job training. The ones that don't are not only mooching off the ones that do (by hiring trained engineers away from them), but also pressuring colleges, through their feedback to students ('You don't have relevant experience in the stack we use') to provide training in 'current technologies' like iOS and Android dev instead of timeless fundamental CS concepts that will actually give them a good foundation for a career spanning several decades.

I guess this is off-topic, but this is hitting a chord for me. I've been fighting with HR for quite some time about this. Over the last 2 or 3 jobs in fact. Yes it's great to hire the miracle senior guys that'll fix everything. It just doesn't happen.

In my book, it's beneficial to stop thinking in titles, and start thinking like trades, in tasks. As a team you have to execute a number of incoming tasks. Tasks collide with a team member, and they can either handle the task or they can't. If they can't, they can ask a more experienced member to split up the task into more manageable pieces.

This has a powerful effect - you can usually add less experienced people to the system to get more throughput. As long as someone can split their own time consuming tasks into simpler tasks they can delegate, there is more throughout to be had.

And this in turn teaches people about the technology involved. Yes, you're just following instructions, but you should be picking up knowledge about configuration management, application management, databases, terraform, and so on along the way.

And with that, it's a lot easier to find people, because we can hire people directly from education. And I'm ethically fine with hiring people from education, because we're teaching them a broad set of valuable skills.

Sorry for the rant. I've been discussing the whole senior shortage for far too long.

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