Setting a Deliberate Path to Principal Engineer

two beautiful businesswoman office worker discussing in the office

two beautiful businesswoman office worker discussing in the office

I ran into Cathy Spence (@cw_spence) at the Intel IT Leader’s Summit in San Jose. She mentioned she had just found out she was promoted to Professional Engineer. I realized I didn’t know much about the process or what that really means, so I interviewed her recently after everything was announced. Here’s our conversation.

Tell me about what you do at Intel.

I have two jobs.  First, I’m the Hosting Portfolio enterprise architect and my domain expertise is in Cloud Computing.  One area where I go deep is in Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) where I am the technical domain owner and have overseen the path to production. In short, I provide direction on how Intel IT can use the cloud to better run Intel’s business.

My second job is that I run the technical arm of the Open Data Center Alliance (ODCA). The ODCA is an industry group that has come together to express requirements for Cloud Computing.  It consists of ~300 companies including BMW, Lockheed Martin, SAP and the National Australia Bank.  The best part is working with my peers in other companies and learning how they are dealing with the same challenges that we are addressing in Intel IT.   

You have built a pretty amazing career in engineering, what’s your background?

My education is in engineering and computer science. I went to Trinity College in Hartford, which had a very small engineering department, then at Harvard I studied software engineering in grad school.  For many years I worked as a software engineer, became a supervisor and eventually I ran a consulting practice.  The focus of the consulting was helping customers use Intel components in computer-telephone solutions.  This practice manager job provided me some great customer focus and I learned a lot about business.  After that, I moved into IT where I have been for 10 years, in research and enterprise architecture teams.

Congratulations on your recent promotion to Principal Engineer. What exactly is a Principal Engineer?

A Principal Engineer (PE) is a very senior individual contributor in Intel’s technical career track.  In order to be considered for this promotion, you must demonstrate accomplishments in a set of readiness indicators.  Not only are you expected to be a deep technical expert with significant impact in your technology area but you also must demonstrate strategic contribution and be a role model & mentor within the organization.

Intel IT promoted three individuals to PE this year including two women. That brought the total number of women PEs in IT to 5 out of 25 in total. That’s significant progress for us technical women.

Tell me about your journey, your path to Principal Engineer.  

It took years of hard work to get to this point. In order to have enough impact, I had to build up enough critical mass working with my team.   You can’t do it all by yourself; you have to bring the team with you and carve out your specific contribution.  And that takes time and energy.

Plus you have to have enough visibility so that you are immediately associated as the expert in your area.  Think of it as your brand identity.  When you hear about cloud computing, I hope my name comes to mind – especially PaaS (platform as a service), which is my deep technical area.  One way I created visibility was to sponsor a global series of hackathons in Intel IT.  The hackathons not only trained developers on how to build apps for the cloud, they also introduced them to concepts around PaaS.  A bigger impact was created by combining a few purposes together.  People remember you for those big impact accomplishments.

Did you get sponsored?

Your manager nominates you for a principal engineer based on the readiness indicators. A lot of work goes into preparing the nomination package including your academic credentials, your claim-to-fame projects (so you have be known for delivering something pretty big), and your publications & patents. You also need to have recommendations from senior technical and business leaders and external influence. It comes down to the evidence that you have crossed the high bar – and have others inside and outside the company willing to testify on your behalf.

What’s changed in short time since this was announcement? Where do you go from here?

I’m rethinking my scope of responsibility now. There have been some leadership changes and movement within the IT organization, which opens up opportunities. I need to up-level my perspective, take even more leadership and create opportunities for more people to contribute. 

Do you have advice for other women engineers? 

Know it’s possible – women can be successful in this kind of field. If you are on an engineering path, step back out of the day-to-day work and take a look at the bigger picture.  Advancement to the principal engineer level is a multiyear journey. Do the things on the horizon that move you toward it and be deliberate!

What else could we do to help technical women chart their career paths?

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