Anna Shipman : JFDI

Being a Principal Engineer in Customer Products at the FT

27 June 2022 / Leadership

At the FT we have a role called Principal Engineer. Many companies do; however, the shape of the role at the FT is different than it is at many other companies, so in this post I explain what the role is like on my team, Customer Products.

And if you are interested, we are hiring a people-focused Principal Engineer right now!

We have durable, multi-disciplinary teams

The Customer Products group is responsible for the website and our iOS and Android apps. We have 11 teams formed around product areas. Each of our teams has a tech lead, a product manager and a delivery manager, who together are responsible for setting the direction for the team, working out what opportunities to focus on, and weighing up priorities within the team. Each team also has a number of engineers, and if relevant to that team’s work, design, user research and data roles.

There are currently five principal engineers on Customer Products. They report to me, the Tech Director, and they each oversee two or three product teams.

A Principal Engineer does technical and people-focused work

Each Principal Engineer is like a Tech Director of their own area. That means they oversee the technical direction of their teams and support the tech leads where necessary; they each line manage around three senior engineers; and they work with me on the tech strategy.

Principal Engineers also work on strategic initiatives that reach out of Customer Products, with other tech groups, or the rest of the business. These might be technical, for example working with other groups to improve how we do AWS key rotation, or they might be people focused, for example building a career competency framework.

The diagram below shows some of the kinds of work that a Customer Products principal engineer might work on.

A diagram listing some of the things principal engineers might work on, ranging from technical on the left (e.g. “strategic tech projects”) to managerial on the right (e.g. “leading recruitment”)

I want the Principal Engineers to be ready for my job

My goal is for the Customer Products Principal Engineers to be running Customer Products engineering without me, and for any one of them to be a good candidate to take my job, as Tech Director for Customer Products.

Some of the things we’ve done towards that include clarifying the different types of work we do and making sure that we share as much context as possible, both from me to the team and the team with each other and me. We also follow an agile planning process and try to focus on the ‘rocks’ rather than the ‘pebbles’ and ‘sand’.

However, we are currently in the position that although the Customer Products Principals excel in both technical and people areas, the current preferences of the team are more skewed towards the technical end of the spectrum in the diagram above.

We are hiring a people-focused Principal Engineer

With any team you want a complementary mix of skills, so to create a more balanced senior team we’re hiring a people-focused Principal Engineer.

The kind of things that a people-focused Principal Engineer might lead on include:

It is also an opportunity for someone to lead on the more people-focused aspects of leadership within Customer Products, to gain experience to be ready for that part of the Tech Director role; for example ensuring our retention and reward processes are fair, effective and work within our budget, or looking at ways to improve the experience of working at the FT and in Customer Products; whether that is to do with productivity, diversity and inclusion, technical competence or other areas.

However, this is not a purely people and process role. This person will still have oversight of the technical direction of two to three teams, support the tech leads in making well-informed decisions, and work with other principal engineers and other tech groups.

The difference between this role and a more technical-focused principal engineer role will be in the types of strategic project they initiate and lead.

We do not currently have Engineering Managers at the FT

The people-focused Principal Engineer role I’ve described above is very similar to what many organisations call Engineering Managers. However, we do not have this role at the FT at the moment.

Before I joined the FT, there were Engineering Managers. At that time, the organisation was very siloed by discipline, and as part of a move towards multidisciplinary teams, it was decided that this role was no longer needed. Much of the work that Engineering Managers did then is done by Delivery Managers now, and the role then was quite different to the role we would describe as an Engineering Manager now.

At the FT, each tech group is set up in a slightly different way. We want ultimately to align our structures; so we might create an Engineering Manager role in the future, but that is a much bigger piece of work across the whole of technology.

Join us!

The FT is a great place to work. My colleagues are smart, motivated and kind, and our purpose is extremely important: it is hard to overstate the value of balanced and unbiased journalism in today’s world.

We use modern engineering practices and are always looking for ways to improve, and the organisation is one that cares about its staff. If this sounds like a place you’d like to work then please apply for this role, or check out our many other open vacancies.

This post originally appeared on the FT Product & Technology blog

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