Your Quick Guide to Hiring a Principal Software Engineer in 2023

April 11, 2023

The hunt for top-tier IT professionals has become a challenging endeavor today.

The demand for software engineers is at its all-time high, about 37.5% of senior executives admit that they will continue to struggle to find skilled developers in 2023. To keep up, you not only need to hire a principal software engineer but do your best to retain them as well. 

The stakes are high: 64% of IT executives cite the talent shortage as a major obstacle to implementing new technology and, thus, a major threat to companies’ reputation and competitiveness.

Are you ready to champion the quest for top tech talent? Then, keep reading our ultimate guide to hiring a principal software developer in 2023 to learn modern strategies on how to hire remote software developers effectively. With remote work on the rise, our insights will be invaluable in expanding your talent pool and securing the best specialists with principal software engineer skills for your projects.  

After reading this article, you will have a clear understanding of:

  • what does the principal engineer do
  • the current software engineer market state
  • why you should hire principal developers
  • and how you can hire them right

Definition of a Principal Software Engineer 

To begin with, let’s figure out what is a principal engineer, what they do, and what their responsibilities are.

A principal software engineer is an expert who seamlessly integrates managerial and technical expertise to design and refine an organization’s software, technologies, and processes in line with business goals. Acting as both mentor and supervisor, a principal software developer fosters cohesive team dynamics while supervising large-scale, intricate software projects, often too big for a single 10-person team. 

Also, they independently navigate business objectives, enhance productivity, and generate a significant impact, at least at the division level. And their goals are more general, like optimizing available resources or scaling by 10 – 100x times. 

The responsibilities of a principal software engineer have long been shrouded in ambiguity since they vary by company. But at the core, they establish and maintain technical benchmarks for projects while also assisting with testing and troubleshooting software. 

Importance of Hiring Qualified Professionals in Software Engineering 

As the backbone of countless industries and businesses worldwide, software plays a crucial role in driving innovation, efficiency, and success. And hiring the best experts in this field will help you achieve all these goals.

Qualified tech expert with extensive experience, like a principal software development engineer, deeply understands complex systems, programming languages, and best practices. So, the investment in talented professionals will unlock the potential to streamline your processes, improve user experiences, and ultimately boost your bottom line.

Moreover, the software engineering landscape constantly evolves, with emerging technologies and methodologies appearing daily. Skilled professionals stay abreast of these developments to ensure your organization remains at the forefront of change and can swiftly adapt to shifting market demands.

Finally, hiring qualified professionals in software engineering is vital in building and maintaining your company’s reputation. When you can deliver high-quality, innovative solutions, you not only satisfy your customers but establish your brand as a leader in the industry.

Software engineers: The current market state 

The demand for software products continues to be on the rise. As a result, most companies now need apps or custom web development services to keep up with the latest trends and ensure an excellent customer experience. 

According to the 2023 State of Software Engineering report, backend engineers experienced the highest demand at 59%, slightly surpassing full-stack engineers. 

Within the same one-year period, Natural Language Processing (NLP) engineers saw the highest salary growth and received the top average salary among software engineering roles in 2022. This is no surprise considering the rising prominence of AI businesses fueled by the public releases of ChatGPT and its latest iteration, GPT-4.

It used to be big tech companies that actively hired IT specialists, but nowadays, financial and healthcare institutions are chasing IT talent as well. Recent studies also show a top principal software engineer enjoys some of the highest salaries, third to only C-level executives and solutions architects.

When it comes to skills, Ruby on Rails, Scala, and Go became the most sought-after languages by employers, possibly due to the market saturation of JavaScript devs, which is widely taught in boot camps. 

What are the software engineering levels?

In this section, you will find some useful information about the standard software engineering levels, so you can better understand the role of a principal developer. This software engineer-level comparison is based on the standards that most prominent tech companies use.

The levels are as follows: 

Level 1: Software Engineer

This title is sometimes referred to as Junior Software Engineer. At this level, the programmers receive assignments from senior team members.

The general flow of work is like this: Top-level engineers find problems and pass them to middle-level engineers who are supposed to look for solutions. When a solution is found, level 1 software engineers begin to code.

These specialists’ remuneration varies, but junior software engineers in the US usually earn an average of $61 908 per year.

Level 2: Senior Engineer

This level is typically assigned to a software engineer with at least three years of experience. The expectations for these engineers surpass those of junior engineers, but they will still follow directives from management when working on solutions.

They are also expected to guide junior engineers in tackling their tasks. In the US, senior engineers earn $119 126 per year on average.

Level 3: Staff Engineer

This position is usually given to individuals with six or more years of professional experience. At this level, one is officially a part of the management team. 

A staff engineer usually gets orders from higher management, finds a solution, and passes it down to the engineers working on the code. 

They have to make sure that the coding team develops a robust solution for the problem at hand. In the United States, staff software engineers earn around $143 178 per year.

Level 4: Principal Engineer

There’s usually considerable confusion between a principal vs. a senior software engineer. However, it’s important to note that this level is a step higher in management. 

In this position, more focus is directed on the company as a whole. While other tech specialists are responsible for providing solutions to existing problems, a principal software development engineer defines these problems first. 

At US tech companies, the professionals in this role get an average salary of $157 704 annually.

Level 5: Distinguished Engineer / Fellow

Now, these are the guys at the top. Their influence is well known and felt by the whole company and usually throughout the entire industry. 

Distinguished engineers have years and years of experience developing, launching, and maintaining numerous successful projects. Salary.com says they earn an average of $205 160 per year in the US.

Software engineer career levels
Source: levels.fyi

Principal Software Engineer: What is this role all about

A Principal Software Engineer is generally responsible for all the technical aspects of the organization’s projects. They must develop, document, and regulate systems to resolve problems identified through testing so that the software can meet end-user needs. They also carry out strategies to enhance integration and efficiency and provide technical guidance to software development teams whenever needed. 

So, when hiring a principal software engineer, consider someone with a clear understanding of architecture and design elements that go far beyond the general technical area of expertise. 

If your company is flexible enough to get remote principal software developers, you may hire dedicated software developers remotely who will do the job just as well.

The difference between types of top-level software developers for hire often raises questions. So, to help you decide what specialist with what skills you need for your project, here are some helpful side-by-side comparisons:

  • Architect vs. principal engineer

These two work together to achieve a set goal. A principal software architect generates a plan with provisions for different businesses and technical requirements and oversees software product development. 

On the other hand, a principal software engineer actively participates in the development team. Taking the plan or design created by a software architect, they collaborate with programmers to write the necessary code and use the most suitable language for building the product.

  • Principal vs. senior software engineer

Both implement complex solutions and fix bugs in the systems and do it with ease considering their 5+ experience. However, principal engineers rank higher and report to senior management, having 7+ years of experience. It’s more of a managerial position, whereas a senior engineer reports to the leadership of their respective divisions and is mainly a technical position. 

Principal Software Engineer responsibilities

When hiring a principal developer for your company, you need to have a clear picture of what the position’s responsibilities are. So what do these specialists do?

  • design, code, and debug software
  • maintain and upgrade existing products
  • improve the performance of software
  • train other developers
  • recommend new technologies
  • manage the technical aspects of projects
  • explore software-related complaints and make necessary improvements

Here are some specific examples of principal software engineers’ duties:

  • managing and fixing bugs with the JIRA bug-tracking app
  • developing Master/Content pages using HTML and CSS for consistent layouts from screen mock-ups
  • designing modules for cross-hardware integration using XML, JMS, HTTP, JAXP, and SSL technologies

Recruitment Process for a Principal Software Engineer 

The process of hiring a principal developer is an important undertaking in the current realities of the technology job market, requiring a careful approach to selecting the right candidate for this role. Indeed, many organizations have introduced additional steps into their hiring processes for a more comprehensive assessment of candidates, extending hiring by 22% in 2022. So, what steps to include and how to organize the process?

Recruitment Process Steps

A well-established recruitment process demonstrates your organization’s professionalism and commitment to excellence, attracting top talent in the industry. In addition, these crucial steps ensure a comprehensive and efficient hiring experience, allowing you to effectively identify and select the ideal candidate for your organization’s needs. 

Sourcing Candidates

A well-thought-out sourcing strategy not only increases the chances of finding the ideal candidate but also streamlines the overall hiring process. Here are some key aspects to consider:

  • Define the specific skills, experiences, and qualities you seek in a principal software engineer. This information will help you tailor your sourcing efforts to reach the most relevant candidates.
  • Leverage multiple channels like job boards, social media, and professional networking sites like LinkedIn to engage with potential candidates. 
  • Encourage your existing employees to refer qualified candidates from their networks. 
  • Reach out to professionals who may not be actively seeking new opportunities but possess the desired skills and experience for the role. A personalized approach can pique their interest and potentially lead to a successful hire.
  • Collaborate with recruitment agencies, as their expertise in the field can help you save time and resources in the sourcing process.
  • Partner with software development companies with an extensive pool of expert developers. 

By taking these measures, you’ll increase your chances of discovering top talent for the principal software engineer jobs. 

Screening Resumes and Cover Letters

As you identify potential candidates for the principal software engineer position, the next step is to carefully examine their resumes against your qualifications and skillset for the role.

Pay close attention to each candidate’s professional background, considering the complexity of projects they’ve handled, their leadership experience, and the technologies they’ve worked with. Also, check their cover letters, as they can give you valuable insights into a candidate’s motivation and communication skills.

As you review each candidate’s resume and cover letter, rank them based on their suitability for the role. This will help you prioritize candidates for the interview process. 

Conducting Interviews

Interviews provide an opportunity to engage with candidates personally and delve deeper into their qualifications, experiences, and cultural fit. To do it effectively, follow these best practices:

  • Develop a structured interview format with a mix of technical, behavioral, and situational questions for a fair and comprehensive assessment.
  • Assemble a team of interviewers, including technical experts and key stakeholders, to evaluate technical knowledge, problem-solving abilities, and leadership skills.
  • Use behavioral and situational questions to assess communication and soft skills.
  • Explore the candidate’s cultural fit by evaluating their values and work style in relation to your company culture.
  • Encourage candidates to ask questions, revealing their level of interest and expectations.
  • Promptly follow up with candidates after interviews, providing feedback to enhance their experience and maintain a positive relationship with your organization.

Technical Assessment

Most technical hiring processes include technical assessment. There are coding challenges, take-home projects, or online platforms with tailored assessment tests. Select a format that suits your needs and the specific skill set you want to evaluate. 

Note that your test should simulate the real challenges your team faces daily. Thus, you won’t only test the candidate’s knowledge and skills but also provide insights into how they approach real-world problems, think critically and strategically. Clearly communicate the assessment objectives, instructions, and evaluation criteria to candidates. And allocate adequate time for candidates to complete the technical test, considering the complexity of tasks and the candidate’s level of expertise.

Recruitment Process for a Principal Software Engineer

How to Hire a Principal Software Engineer

The hiring process can be daunting, especially if you lack insider knowledge on finding the right talent that aligns with your business needs and vision.

Navigating the job market to hire the perfect candidate who will seamlessly integrate into your organization presents a set of challenges.

However, there’s no need to worry any longer, as we will help you tackle the most pressing concerns and offer easy-to-implement hiring strategies and practical solutions to streamline your recruitment efforts.

So, what are the hiring challenges, and how can you address them?

What are the challenges of hiring senior developers?

One of the biggest challenges in the tech industry is hiring an individual with excellent principal software engineer skills. 

A principal developer doesn’t click the job search icon looking for vacancies to find their next job. Instead, it’s usually through referrals, so they are mostly off-market. 

The increase in tech graduates in the past years should be expected to offset this, but for now, over 56% of job recruiters still have difficulties obtaining the right individuals with the talent and skills they require. 

As if that is not enough, many businesses also face the challenge of high recruitment costs. According to Glassdoor, it costs an average US company about $4,000 to hire a new employee, taking, on average, 24 days to fill a position.

Even with the finances and hiring expertise, sometimes the process can take up to 4 months to find the ideal candidate. Why it might take so long?

The reason is that the IT industry has seen an average of more than 200,000 unfilled positions over the past year due to the lack of qualified candidates. Despite the widely reported layoffs in the tech sector, industry analysts point out that most of those affected are not IT professionals. In reality, there continues to be a significant shortage of skilled tech specialists, leaving at least unfilled 100,000 IT positions in 2023.

This causes the few available talents to demand high salaries because they know there is a shortage of developers, and competitor companies will offer higher wages to lure them.

General tips

Hiring a principal software engineer might seem overwhelming, but there are ways to streamline the process and appeal to top-notch candidates. So, how to hire a software developer effectively? Here are some strategies to make your hiring journey smoother and more enticing for prospective talent:

  • Analyze your every step

Consider the metrics because they help you evaluate how effective the recruiting process is.

Check the conversion of job opening applications and look for bottlenecks. For example, it might not be proper to ask a principal software engineer to finish his interview process with a test assignment.

  • Check out the trends

Always keep yourself and your business up to date with the current market trends. For example, you need to know how much is being offered for this position by other companies out there.

  • Evaluate the soft skills

Often when recruiting, managers focus only on technical skills without considering other characteristics. Aside from technical qualifications, look for individuals with enthusiasm, relational smarts, and some humility to collaborate well with other team members.

  • Use the proper hiring channels

Find the best recruiting channel. You can try LinkedIn and Telegram when it comes to recruiting individuals for the principal engineer role. 

how to hire a software developer

Principal Engineer’s job description: Example

Below we provide an example of a basic job description that you can use and change according to your needs to find the candidate:

We are looking for an experienced principal software engineer who will maintain and upgrade all our existing software. 

The responsibilities will include recommending adjustments to resolve software issues, improving the functionality of existing software, and ensuring that the design, application, and maintenance of software meet the company’s quality standards. 

You should also be able to mentor and guide other engineers in your team.

Skills and requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree in computer science/ computer engineering or a related field
  • Robust analytical skills
  • Proficiency in advanced programming languages, like Java
  • Good communication skills
  • Excellent leadership skills
  • Proven experience in software development methodologies
  • Proven experience in building complex web systems

Principal software developer interview questions

Here are some questions you can ask a principal developer during the job interview:

  • Which programming languages have you used before, and what are your top two programming languages? 
  • How comfortable are you in a start-up environment, or would you prefer working in an already established company? 
  • Can you explain the app architecture where you last worked and the reasoning behind the choices?
  • What’s the most important to look for or check when reviewing another team member’s code? 
  • What do you consider principles of good software engineering? Can you share some basic principles people should follow? 
  • Why should we hire you for the principal software engineer position?
  • If required, how would you go about designing scalable applications? Could you walk us through your process?
  • Do you think you have the qualities of a good principal software engineer? 
  • Why do you want to work with us?
  • Do you have any questions to ask us?

How to hire a Principal Software Engineer with no hassle

Finding the perfect principal software engineer can seem like navigating a labyrinth full of challenges. But fear not, as the journey can be smooth and effortless with the right tools and guidance.

Now you are equipped with more than just a guide on hiring the best talent – but a platform with readily available, effective, and highly-skilled IT professionals at Relevant.

While there are various methods for hiring principal software engineers, such as recruitment platforms, talent agencies, and IT companies, it’s the strategic collaboration with IT firms that often yields the most fruitful results.

At Relevant Software, we’ve been helping businesses build their teams for over ten years. With us, you can find tech specialists with the right expertise and skill set.

Whether you want to hire a mobile app developer, a principal software engineer, a tester, or a SaaS development pro, Relevant Software is your reliable partner and a one-stop solution.

Also, we possess the magic formula to create an entire team in record time and within your budget, delivering a tailored and delightful hiring experience that exceeds expectations.


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