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Understanding the individual contributor (IC) career path can be confusing.

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It’s less established or well-documented than the path for engineering managers, with all tech companies approaching titles in their own way. There’s a wide variety of the same role across different organizations, making it hard to identify patterns around job scope, skills, and experience.

To find out what IC leaders do have in common, LeadDev spoke to a group of staff, principal, and distinguished engineers and asked them to describe their own roles and responsibilities. Here’s what we learned.

The typical IC leadership career ladder

Fellow

Distinguished

Principal

Staff

 

Staff engineers

Staff engineer is the first IC leadership position, a level above senior engineer. As well as technical strength, core leadership skills such as critical thinking, judgment, listening, empathy, and communication are essential at this level of seniority.

These folks lead deep, complex, or high-risk technical projects, and control the communication around them. They support the organization by providing context and technical direction, defining technical specifications, and documenting processes. The percentage of their time spent coding differs from one person to the next, but averages around 20%.

They also play an important coaching and mentoring role by sharing best practices with other engineers and creating new opportunities for their growth. And they give technical performance reviews, aiming to improve the technical capacity of the entire engineering organization.

Staff engineers tend to work directly with permanent teams as well as pairing with other temporary project teams. The reporting line varies from one company to another, but they have a certain level of autonomy: usually, they report to a manager but control their own day-to-day activities.

Principal engineers

The rank above is principal engineer. It’s harder to pin down the day-to-day execution of this role because each person’s journey depends on their own expertise, and how they can apply it to help the business achieve its goals. But they exist to guide the technical direction of the company.

Principals have a deep, strategic understanding of company priorities, and make technical decisions to solve business problems. To do this, they draw on ground-breaking technical experience, an understanding of risk, and an ability to navigate different perspectives and priorities.

These folks are the connective tissue between the on-the-ground work completed by engineers, and senior executives. The way they do their job is completely up to them; they have an extreme level of autonomy and often don’t belong to a team. But to be able to make good decisions, they need to collaborate (and be completely aligned) with management. They lead with influence, advising and asserting their ideas without official authority.

Distinguished engineers

Very few people make it to the level of distinguished engineer. This role has an honorific status, given in recognition of outstanding technical achievement, and is just one step away from the ultimate title of fellow. Not all companies have distinguished engineers, and the ones that do are generally large organizations. Like principals, they’re here to make the technical product and organization run better, but there is no standardized way to do this.

These leaders have the time, space, and flexibility to build out their own areas of expertise to strengthen the company. They act as technical thought partners for the company, steering on strategy and shaping the future of the business. This includes working closely with other stakeholders and executive teams, working hard to keep aligned with management, and avoid frustration on both sides.

Summary

Getting to grips with senior IC roles is hard. There’s little alignment in the industry, with organizations approaching titles differently based on their own needs (which can change as they grow and need different things from a role). But the leaders we interviewed all shared some common ground: they lead and advise on the big, technical decisions that impact a company’s future; they work to empower engineering squads; they build relationships with stakeholders and bridge gaps with senior management; and they find ways to lead with influence, rather than authority.