6 Things We Learned About Becoming a Great Principal Engineer with Wes Hall and Samir Talwar

I held a discussion recently with Wes Hall, Consultant Technical Lead at notonthehighstreet, and Samir Talwar, Senior Engineer at Digital Asset and former founder/CTO at Prodo.ai.

Both are amazing technical talents and friends in the industry. This is just one of the events we run as part of the groups we organise at RecWorks. This was run as part of our Aspiring Principal Engineers community.

Wes and Samir had some really valuable lessons to offer aspiring engineers on how to skill up and take the next big step in their careers and what to expect once they reach it.

Here are 6 things we learned from Wes and Samir on how you can become a great principal engineer.

1. Think about business needs and not just technical requirements.

If you have been tasked with thinking strategically, the chances are you are already in a senior role.

If you are aspiring to land one, try to take on this mindset and focus on not just the needs of now, but the next five years. As Samir said of his own experience “It became about understanding where we were going as a company and trying my best to get the engineers in shape so we could get in that direction.”

2. Hone your communication and negotiation skills.

To be an effective principal developer you are going to have to be a confident broker, explaining to both technical and commercial sides the current challenges and opportunities. This becomes especially important when developing and releasing software. Wes has faced this and told us, “I feel like very often that first step is the first time that you are really in the middle, between competing interests.”

3. Gain the respect of your technical team.

To demonstrate that you can stand by and for your team with internal staff and clients, you’ll need the support of colleagues you may line manage one day. But this doesn’t mean you have to be the ‘best of the best’ to move up a rung, it’s more about attitude.“You don’t necessarily have to understand every line of code” Wes reassures us, “but when you are representing the team to wider stakeholders… it’s important that your team respects your technical chops.”

4. Be ready to step away from full time coding.

Whilst as a creative developer you will have your passions, in order to move into or succeed in a principal role, you’ll need to take a step back and focus on enabling your team to be the best they can be. As Samir told us “I like to say that the best tech developer is one that makes 10 other developers twice as fast, and that to me is the real value of a principal engineer.”

5. Start up a side business.

Our guests were in emphatic agreement that running your own business can give you a unique perspective; offering you the entire experience of building and selling a product. Samir told us “I learned more in a month working in a start up than I did in a year working for a live company, just because I had to do everything or understand how it was done so I could outsource it”.

6. Get involved in as much as you can.

How best to demonstrate just how much potential you have? “Get stuck in!” Wes tells us. “There is every opportunity in most organisations to get a wider view and take every chance that’s presented.” So push yourself in your current role and people will hopefully recognise what more you can offer. Join brown bag meets, or suggest a team learning hub to benefit you and your colleagues. You will benefit from the extra training that way, and also pitch yourself as a leader.

This discussion was organised by RecWorks, a community-driven recruitment agency focussing on tech placements in London. RecWorks are the creators of many groups and communities including Meet-a-Mentor, a free slack group that introduces aspiring CTOs to experienced CTOs, as well as more junior developers 3000 introductions made and counting! They also founded one of the largest Java User Groups in Europe, the 8000 strong London Java Community.

Founder of RecWorks (Tech Recruitment), Tech Career Hacker, Java User Group Founder (LJC), London CTOs Organiser, Mentor Match-Maker