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Principal Software Engineer: What It Is + How To Become One

11 minute read | October 4, 2023
Monica J. White

Written by:
Monica J. White

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Progressing from a junior to a mid-level role and eventually earning a promotion to senior software engineer is a common career trajectory for software professionals. Senior engineers enjoy numerous advantages, including increased influence, autonomy, and enhanced compensation.

However, becoming a principal software engineer takes even more time, extensive experience, and a commitment to continuous learning. The path to this role can seem obscure, especially if you’re still early on in your career. 

So we’ve put together a set of actionable steps to help direct your efforts toward achieving a Principal Software Engineer position. Whether you’re just starting or on the cusp of advancement, we can offer insights to help you excel in your journey.

What Is a Principal Software Engineer?

A Principal Software Engineer is a highly experienced and skilled software engineer who typically holds a senior-level position within a software development organization. This role is associated with significant technical expertise, leadership responsibilities, and contributions to complex software projects. 

They often participate in high-level technical and architectural decisions, helping to define the direction of the software and technology stack. The role can come with a different title depending on the organization—staff engineer, distinguished engineer, and technical fellow are all possible options. 

Principal Software Engineer: Career Overview

Let’s have a look at the details of what a principal engineer does and how the job description might look. 

What Does a Principal Software Engineer Do?

The role is heavily linked to the specific circumstances of the organization, and the responsibilities can vary. However, here are some of the most common tasks and responsibilities you can expect to shoulder as a principal software engineer: 

  • Architectural design
  • Technical leadership
  • Coding and implementation
  • Code reviews
  • Problem-solving
  • Collaboration
  • Innovation
  • Documentation
  • Project management
  • Technical evaluations
  • Communication
  • Continuous learning
  • Technical evangelism

Principal Software Engineer Job Description

If you look at job posts for principal software engineers, you’ll likely see some of the following responsibilities and qualifications:

Responsibilities

  • Lead the architectural design and development of complex software systems.
  • Provide technical guidance, mentorship, and support to junior and mid-level engineers.
  • Review code and ensure it adheres to coding standards and best practices.
  • Solve challenging technical problems and optimize complex software systems.
  • Collaborate with product managers, designers, and QA engineers to align technical standards and solutions with business development.
  • Document architectural decisions, design patterns, and best practices.
  • Assist in project planning, estimating, and resource allocation.
  • Evaluate technical feasibility and potential risks of proposed projects.
  • Communicate effectively with technical and non-technical stakeholders.
  • Invest in continuous learning and professional development.

Qualifications

  • Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Computer Science or related field (or equivalent experience).
  • 10-15 years of experience as a software engineer, with a proven track record of technical leadership.
  • Proficiency in relevant programming languages, tools, and technologies.
  • In-depth knowledge of software architecture, design patterns, and best practices.
  • Excellent problem-solving and troubleshooting skills.
  • Effective communication and collaboration abilities.

How To Become a Principal Software Engineer

As you can see from these responsibilities and qualifications, a principal software developer is not something you can become overnight. It’s a very senior position that isn’t an expected part of the average programmer’s career path—it’s a position for people who want to go above and beyond, and for people who are passionate about driving technical direction. Having said that, anyone can become a principal engineer—app developers, web developers, cloud experts, and all the other areas of software development. Let’s dive into what you need to do to make this coveted position yours.

  1. Meet the Educational Requirements

  2. Start With a Relevant Entry-Level Role (and Begin Moving Your Way up the Career Ladder)

  3. Build and Hone the Needed Skill Set

  4. Pursue a Certification (and Keep Learning)

  5. Gain Necessary Knowledge and Expertise (As You Progress in Your Career to a Senior Role)

  6. Grow Your Leadership Acumen

  7. Your Network Is Your Net Worth

  8. Try To Find a Mentor To Learn From

  9. Work Toward a Principal Software Engineer Position (Internally or Externally)

Meet the Educational Requirements

The exact educational requirements vary depending on the areas you’re most interested in and the industry you want to work in, but here is a condensed list of the principal software engineer skills and technical knowledge you need to obtain:

  • Programming skills: Learn programming languages like Java, Python, or C++.
  • Projects and internships: Gain practical and professional experience in software development through coding projects and internships.
  • Problem-solving: Develop strong problem-solving abilities.
  • Communication: Improve communication skills for teamwork and user understanding.
  • Math skills: Basic math knowledge, especially in discrete mathematics and algorithms.
  • Version control: Familiarize yourself with Git for code management.
  • Continuous learning: Commit to ongoing learning and staying current with industry trends.
  • Soft skills: Cultivate soft skills like teamwork, time management, and attention to detail.

You can develop these principal software engineer skills in a number of ways—through a college degree in computer science, self-study, or an online bootcamp (check out our list of free software engineering bootcamps here). As long as you work hard, master the skills, and develop an impressive portfolio, you’ll have a fair shot at any job, regardless of the educational path you choose. 

Start With a Relevant Entry-Level Role (and Begin Moving Your Way up the Career Ladder)

Everyone has to start somewhere, and when it comes to your first entry-level role, it’s a good idea to explore as much as you can and develop your knowledge in a range of areas. 

Build and Hone the Needed Skill Set

You’ll need to have advanced technical skills to land a job as a principal software engineer. But you’ll also need exceptional leadership skills, too, so that you can manage your team.

Technical Skills

  • Programming languages
  • Data structures and algorithms
  • Software architecture
  • Database management
  • Web development
  • Version control
  • Operating systems
  • Networking
  • Testing and quality assurance
  • DevOps and CI/CD
  • Cloud computing
  • Security
  • Complex web systems
  • Performance optimization
  • Containerization and orchestration
  • Microservices
  • Big data and data analytics
  • AI and machine learning
  • Coding best practices
  • Documentation
  • Problem-solving
  • Soft skills
  • Project management
  • Industry-specific skills

Soft Skills

  • Leadership
  • Communication skills
  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving
  • Adaptability
  • Time management
  • Attention to detail
  • Leadership
  • Critical thinking
  • Empathy
  • Conflict resolution
  • Creativity
  • Decision-making
  • Self-motivation
  • Networking
  • Presentation skills
  • Negotiation skills
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Listening skills
  • Adaptability
  • Client-centric approach

Pursue a Certification (and Keep Learning)

Certifications are a great way to practice continuous learning — especially since you can list them on your resume. Here are some options you could choose from:

Of course, the right certifications for you depend on your interests, goals, the industry you work in, and what you want to learn. 

Gain Necessary Knowledge and Expertise (As You Progress in Your Career to a Senior Role)

To grow your technical knowledge and expertise, you need to be proactive by inserting yourself into conversations and meetings, developing your own opinions and ideas, and taking the steps to involve yourself in the decision-making process. No one will just suddenly ask you to be a part of this, no matter how well you do your job—you have to make it happen yourself. 

Grow Your Leadership Acumen

Leadership is another important part of climbing the ladder. Most principal engineers will take on a lead role or manager role at some point because it’s an important part of learning and understanding the different angles of the development cycle. 

Take Initiative

You don’t need to be in a leadership role to start leading, though. Technical leadership often starts with a person simply deciding that something needs to happen and getting it done. While it can seem unnatural to start something without getting an okay from your manager first, it actually shows initiative. Besides, for some ideas, it’s difficult to convince someone that it can be done without proof—and to get proof, you need to just go do the thing. 

Mentor Junior Folks in Your Organization

Mentorship is also important. It shows your maturity as a programmer, your passion for the work, and your commitment to furthering growth and new ideas at the company. It also helps you grow as an engineer, giving you more practice in explaining complex concepts and expressing your views. 

Other Tips

Make it a point to always know what’s going on around you. Find out what initiatives connect and influence your own projects and find out who’s in charge of these different areas. This goes beyond just other software development teams—you need to know the product designers, marketing associates, SEO managers, software architects, and many more. Set up chats, get to know people, share your ideas and goals, and bring them over to your side. Depending on the size of your company, this can be complex and take a lot of work, but the knowledge, deep understanding of the bigger picture, and connections it gives you will be invaluable. 

Your Network Is Your Net Worth

Understanding the community, your users (if you work for a product/service-based company), and the industry is very valuable. Here’s how to get involved.

Harness LinkedIn

As you progress into senior roles, the list of people you know and meet will grow unbelievably long. Harness LinkedIn to keep them all close and reachable—it’s your own directory of useful people, and you never know who you might need and when. 

Attend Industry Events and Conferences

Whether it’s your company event or other industry events, attending events and conferences is key. As you grow in seniority, it’s also a good idea for you to speak at such events. This can help you spread your ideas and become a more notable and well-known figure in the industry. 

Get Involved in Online Communities

Discord, Slack, Reddit, and online forums are all great places to meet new people and keep up to date with advancements in the industry. 

Try To Find a Mentor To Learn From

Getting to know one of the current principal developers at your company is a great way to both learn about the role and, if you’re going for an internal promotion, get in with the exact crowd that will help you get it. For such a senior position, there are often boards of other high-level staff that will have to approve your promotion before it’s official, so getting to know other principals is a good move. They can also fill a mentor role for you and can help get you ready for the job.

Work Toward a Principal Software Engineer Position (Internally or Externally)

When the time finally comes, there are a few things to keep in mind as you go for the principal role. 

Work Toward an Internal Promotion

If you’re happy and passionate about your current company, internal promotion can be a great idea. As well as your general expertise, you’ll also have a long history with the company and specific domain knowledge that will help you over any external candidates. 

Apply to Multiple Companies

If you’d be happy with either an internal or external move, then go for both. While you’re working for an internal promotion, you can also send applications out to multiple other companies and use your network to see who’s looking and whether anyone can refer you.

Update Your Resume and LinkedIn Profile

Don’t forget to update your resume and LinkedIn profiles—just about everyone who considers you for a position will check them out. 

Prepare for Interviews

While your expertise will speak for itself, it’s still a good idea to research the companies and their values before you interview. If you have any connections at the company, set up a call and see what kind of extra information you can get. And remember—when you’re interviewing for a role at this level, it’s not about jumping through hoops to impress the interviewer. Ask questions, be insightful, and assess how good of a fit you’ll both be for each other.

Get To Know Other Software Engineering Students

Rafael Alvarado

Rafael Alvarado

IT Support Engineer at Amazon

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Abdelkareem ElSharief

Abdelkareem ElSharief

Software Engineer at Bread

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Bryce Dunn

Bryce Dunn

Associate Software Engineer at Egen

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General Requirements To Become a Principal Software Engineer: Quick Overview

  • Bachelor’s degree in computer science or related field
  • 10-15 years of progressive software development experience
  • Proficiency in programming languages and software architecture
  • Strong problem-solving skills and ability to tackle complex issues
  • Leadership experience, including mentoring junior engineers
  • Effective communication and collaboration with cross-functional teams
  • Proven track record in guiding complex projects
  • Continuous learning to stay updated with industry trends
  • Strong commitment to excellence and innovation in software development

What Does the Career Path to Becoming a Principal Software Engineer Look Like?

Most principal software engineers follow these steps:

  1. Entry-level software engineer
  2. Junior software engineer
  3. Mid-level software engineer
  4. Senior software engineer
  5. Staff engineer or lead engineer
  6. Principal software engineer

How Much Does a Principal Software Engineer Earn?

principal software engineer annual salary

The typical salary range for a principal software engineer in the United States is between $198,000 and $329,000 per year, with highs of as much as $412,000. These are, of course, extremely high levels of compensation, and they reflect the seniority and importance of the role. Only a small number of principal engineers exist at any given company, and their influence is significant.

Becoming a Principal Software Engineer: Real-Life Examples To Learn From

For some less generic and more personal information about the role and how to get it, check out these videos from real-life principal developers. 

David Byttow

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To find out more about the role, watch David’s “A Day in the Life of” video. Working at the principal level with over 20 years under his belt, David provides a real-life example of what the job is like.

Steve Huynh

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It took Steve eight years working in a senior position before he finally got the promotion to the coveted principal role. Watch his video for advice on what to do, and what not to do, if you want to get promoted. 

How To Become a Principal Software Engineer FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions on how to become a principal software engineer.

Is Being a Principal Software Engineer a Good Role?

Yes, the role of a principal software engineer is considered highly prestigious and rewarding. It offers the opportunity to lead and influence complex technical projects, make critical decisions, and mentor others. It’s a position that comes with substantial responsibility, recognition, and often competitive compensation.

Do Principal Software Engineers Code?

Yes, principal software engineers definitely code since it is still a software engineering role,  but their primary focus shifts toward architectural design, technical leadership, and decision-making. While they may not code as frequently as junior engineers, they often work on critical and complex parts of a project. Their coding efforts may involve setting coding standards, conducting code reviews, and addressing high-impact technical challenges.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Principal Software Engineer?

The timeline to become a principal software engineer varies, but typically takes 10 to 15 years of progressive software engineering experience. This journey involves moving through entry-level, junior, and senior positions while honing technical and leadership skills to become the ideal candidate. Continuous learning, career development, and industry trends influence the duration.

What Can You Do After Being a Principal Software Engineer?

After reaching the principal software engineer level, one may progress to roles such as that of a distinguished engineer or technical fellow. These positions involve greater industry recognition, influence on the organization’s technical direction, and broader responsibilities in shaping technology strategy. Leadership roles in senior management, such as engineering director or VP of engineering, are also common career paths.

Is a principal software engineer more senior than a senior software engineer?

Yes, a principal software engineer is typically a higher-ranking position than a senior software engineer. While both roles require significant expertise, principal engineers often take on more responsibility in architectural design, decision-making, and mentoring, making them more senior in the organizational hierarchy.

Since you’re here…
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About Monica J. White

Monica is a journalist with a lifelong interest in technology, from PC hardware to software and programming. She first started writing over ten years ago and has made a career out of it. Now, her focus is centered around technology and explaining complex concepts to a broader audience.