The recipe to becoming a principal engineer

Start developing your skill set early.


It is human nature to desire progress. Most often, when first-year engineers graduate from school, their next goal is to land a great job, at a great company, and in a great city. The last thing on their minds is becoming a principal of a company. However, after a few decades of working in the industry, many engineers want to become the leader in their company—and maybe even the principal engineer.

Although the recipe to becoming a principal engineer includes all the normal ingredients, such as a positive can-do attitude, honesty and integrity, time- and task-management skills, and a strong work ethic, being selected out of a large field of colleagues to be a principal engineer in the company will require additional skills and traits that set you apart. There are many steps engineers can take to help them move forward to possibly becoming the principal engineer at an engineering firm.

Become an expert at your company

Most engineering firms offer a variety of services that may be outside of the discipline from which you studied. For example, to stay competitive in today’s market, most mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineering firms need to provide a variety of services that are constantly developing. A principal engineer at an MEP firm is required to manage teams that will include engineers from all of the company’s service offerings.

Becoming a well-rounded expert in your company’s services will set you apart from your colleagues/competitors. One must begin by learning all of the disciplines from the start. Methods for accomplishing this include seeking out colleagues who are already experts and learning from them, taking continuing-education courses in other disciplines, and spending time performing cross-discipline quality control reviews. Obtaining registration in more than one discipline will underscore your commitment and prove your expert status.

Set personal goals

Setting personal goals, such as learning a new language or obtaining a certification, are very time-consuming and require discipline to achieve. These goals may not directly help you at work; however, developing the excellent habits of commitment, dedication, and persistence will follow you for life. Principal engineers are normally faced with long-term goals, such as implementing a new technology to increase efficiency. Starting early to develop the habits to persevere at these types of tasks will show in your everyday work life.

Join a public speaking club

According to a survey performed by Chapman University, more than 25% of Americans fear public speaking. This is higher than the fear of heights, snakes, and zombies. A principal engineer not only will have to speak to groups within the company, but also will have to give speeches and presentations and run large meetings outside of the company.

Mitesh Smart, PE, LEED AP, RTM Engineering Consultants, Orlando, Fla.Joining a public speaking club is an effective way to polish your speaking skills, while also working on the habits previously discussed. One of the most notable public speaking clubs is Toastmasters International. When attending a weekly meeting, every word that is spoken is carefully examined and ahs, ums, and unnecessary pauses receive “dings” from the other members. Although at first, this could be very difficult for an introvert, over time, the structured course designed to eliminate these bad speaking habits can make anyone a polished, confident speaker.

There are many standard traits to exhibit in order to obtain a leadership position; however, to become a principal, an engineer must be able to possess additional skills, habits, and traits that will sustain the company’s performance and growth. By implementing some of the suggestions provided as early as possible, an entry-level engineer who has set their sights on becoming a principal engineer will be better suited to achieving this goal.

Mitesh Smart is principal at RTM Engineering Consultants and has more than 25 years of experience in MEP/FP system design for projects in both the public and private sectors. He is responsible for the overall quality of projects to ensure the highest level of service is delivered to clients.

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