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In these org structures where Principal Engineer has significant say in technical decision making but no reports: a) are they (at least potentially) 'tech lead'; b) who is the manager of the rest of the engineers on the team?

My only experience is with a full technical ladder being available, but the team technical leadership being the same as the team people management.

I can’t speak for larger companies, but classic organizational theory is that there are three levers of influence in an organization - relationship, expert, and role. I’ve found it much easier to leverage relationship and expert power at smaller companies than larger companies. I insisted on a nice sounding title when I was brought in to lead a project at a large company just for that reason. I needed role power.

I insisted on not having a grand title at a small company because I thought it would lead to resentment and I knew I could leverage the other two levers.

Orgs than blend people management with technical management seem suspect to me. You need to get elbow deep in problems to maintain the technical leadership and it doesn't happen often that you can do that if you're also in the middle of recruitment and communication and 1:1s and all the other machinery of management. Further, the authority of people management conflicts with technocratic leadership, which should be much more meritocratic.

People management requires a different set of skills to technical leadership. Looking to the same person to provide both is unlikely to be successful, IMO.

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