Understanding the individual contributor (IC) career path can be confusing.
The IC career trajectory is less established than the path for engineering managers, with tech companies approaching titles differently. The same role can come with a wide variety of titles depending on the organization, making it hard to identify patterns around job scope, skills, and experience.
To find out what IC leaders have in common, LeadDev spoke to a group of staff, principal, and distinguished engineers and asked them to describe their roles and responsibilities. Here’s what we learned.
The typical IC leadership career ladder
Staff engineer is the first wrung on the IC leadership ladder, 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 steer all the communication channels 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.
The rank above a staff engineer 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. Generally, principal engineers 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 their wealth of technical experience, an understanding of different risks, 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. They're extremely autonomous in their day-to-day work, but should be able to collaborate (and be completely aligned) with management in order to make good business decisions. Though they aren't on the management track, they lead with influence, advising and asserting their ideas without official authority.
Very few people make it to the level of distinguished engineer. This role recognizes these individuals for their outstanding technical achievements and is just one step away from the title of fellow. More commonly, this role exists within larger companies and these folks help to shape the organization's direction, carve out strategic roadmaps, and meet business goals.
These leaders have the time, space, and flexibility to build out their own areas of expertise to strengthen the company. This includes working closely with other stakeholders and executive teams, keeping aligned with management and avoiding frustration on both sides. This folds in with distinguished engineers having a strong history of growing and influencing others, highlighting a need for exceptional interpersonal skills.
Getting to grips with senior IC roles is hard. There’s little alignment in the industry, with organizations approaching titles differently based on their business 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.