Case Study: Enhancing Collaboration with a Principal Engineer at TechGlobal

Sid Mustafa
May 5, 2024

An Engineering Manager (EM) at TechGlobal Ltd seeks advice on improving the working relationship with a Principal Engineer (PE) who, despite having extensive experience and a strong principled approach, poses challenges in team interactions and project progress.

The PE’s direct and often critical communication style has led to a division among team members, impacting their willingness to engage and collaborate effectively.

This case study delves into the complexities of integrating a high-level strategic vision with practical implementation steps in a technology-focused environment.

I think on the topic of perception, what I have seen over many years leading teams is that perception becomes reality, so leaving a person on a team that makes others “afraid” to participate unintentionally says it’s OK.

Dallas G.

Context and Challenges

  • The PE brings a wealth of experience from a major tech company, holding strong and principled views on engineering practices.
  • Described as loud and curt, the PE’s approach in technical reviews and meetings has created discomfort among team members, leading to avoidance or unnecessary adjustments in project scopes.
  • The PE often critiques current architectures and proposes advanced future state architectures, but lacks intermediate steps and practical guidance to achieve these visions, leaving a gap in execution plans.

Specific Incidents

  • Some engineers avoid presenting their work if the PE is involved, while others over-engineer solutions to preempt potential critiques.
  • A specific instance involved a junior engineer documenting the use of cloud-native tools, where both the junior engineer’s and the PE’s proposals lacked practical details and actionable steps, reflecting a disconnect in expectations and execution.

Discussion Points

  • How can the EM facilitate a shift in the PE’s approach to offer more constructive, actionable feedback without dampening the valuable critical perspective?
  • What strategies can be implemented to improve the communication style of the PE to enhance collaboration and reduce team division?
  • How can the EM work with the PE to develop clear, actionable transition plans that bridge the current state to the desired future state architecture?
  • Considering the belief that teams need replicable patterns to succeed, what frameworks or methodologies can be introduced to support this need?

We invite you to share your insights and experiences on navigating similar challenges within your organisations.

How have you managed to align senior leaders with practical team dynamics?

What approaches have you found effective in balancing visionary technical leadership with actionable team guidance?

Peer Advice (Actionable Solutions from our CTO Community)

Vigi J.

If I were the EM I would provide feedback immediately after the meeting to reference the specific scenarios as they are fresh in people’s minds. If the PE is open to such feedback I think they would use the opportunity to grow. It’s also best to follow up verbal feedback with written feedback as well and make sure the hiring manager is aware of the situation. If the PE does not receive the feedback well perhaps a conversation with the hiring manager is needed. If the PE does not receive the feedback well you should follow up with a hiring manager conversation. I’ve been in the beer buddies situation before and it’s hard. In my case I continued to give honest and straightforward feedback and eventually the beer buddy was replaced. 


I’m going to be potentially a bit controversial here and say this sounds like a people problem that in my experience is hard to resolve with a process or strategy. Hence the outcomes (dismissal) described.

People problems are inherently contextual and relational, but I’d recommend the line manager open conversation with the PE to understand how they see their role, how they see it needing to be executed, how confident they are in discharging their role, etc. I’d also set out (as line manager) clear expectations on not just what they do, but how they do it.

It’s important to be both open but also clear and factual in this case, and not editorialize, but provide reasonable support to the PE. I don’t believe in just dropping them into soft skills training – they need to understand and appreciate the problem, and their contribution to it.

If that doesn’t work then performance management steps are appropriate. But I’ve had very good results with a coaching approach if it’s done early and nipped in the bud.

Seetharam S.

I have served as a Principal Engineer/Architect for many years, leading teams in both startup and large corporate environments. My success has stemmed from building trust and effectively communicating my ideas. When faced with disagreements, rather than imposing my views, I encouraged the team to develop a proof of concept before progressing to a comprehensive solution. This approach allowed the team to encounter and address challenges early on, with my guidance.

The primary challenges I encountered were from upper management who sometimes perceived me as a threat rather than a collaborator. However, the support from my immediate supervisors, primarily Senior Vice Presidents, was instrumental. Their faith in my abilities and experience was crucial, as they advocated for me among their peers.

Paul W.

I’ve seen this kind of thing happen a few times.  One particularly memorable case was after a change of CTO.  One particularly senior engineer ( essentially a PE) used this as an opportunity to quite publicly attack the credibility of several engineers. This same individual had a history of aloofness, over engineering, slow delivery and being generally ‘superior’.  He was indeed a very good technical guy but would ignore business realities in favour of technical perfection then critique others who were forced to make trade-offs in order to deliver.  It backfired horribly, with the new CTO immediately identifying the guy as toxic and dismissing him virtually on the spot.  This really made the rest of the team feel protected and valued ( and sent a clear message re toxic team behaviors).   I think people like this are extremely difficult to change, and can be incredibly bad for team health.  If they don’t show immediate change after mentoring, performance plan etc.. then I know what I’d be doing :point_up: ( of course it will depend of the severity  and context of the problem also )

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One response to “Case Study: Enhancing Collaboration with a Principal Engineer at TechGlobal”

  1. Holger Hammel

    Given it is not a clear case of a “brilliant jerk”, that has been covered already in the comments – it is basically a coaching topic. The step from senior to Staff/PrincipalArchitect usually implies a significant shift in role expectations – is this clear to the person? Is it stated in a role/level description and properly discussed and reviewed in 1:1s?
    Imho it helps to find out together where the ineffective behavior comes from? Is it that they are feeling like an imposter, defensive, overwhelmed? Or rather bored by the same problems, same questions, mistakes, arrogance of more junior engineers or managers for decade(s)?
    Different coaching strategies can be developed based on this self-reflection by the PE and 1:1s or 360s.
    A few tools I have used or seen working include: 1) re-framing it as a problem to solve – not a character flaw or soft skill to get better at – here is the problem: we shall lift the quality, flow, avoid risk: how do you do that w/o you doing it?
    2) Succession planning: for managers it is more common to make succession planning an explicit part of someone’s goals. Apply the same to senior technical leads and ask them to identify, support, coach and make sure that the next generation of principal engineers is growing (and seniors ..)
    3) Write things down – it is OK to be opinionated and define guardrails, standards for many aspects, but then write them down and be accountable; help PEs to do so in an inclusive, open way

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