What is the highest level for technical people? How does one get there?
- Not just a honorific
- What Distinguished Engineers Do
- Diplomatic Skills
- How to Become a Distinguished Engineer
- Job Descriptions
NOTE: Content here are my personal opinions, and not intended to represent any employer (past or present). “PROTIP:” here highlight information I haven’t seen elsewhere on the internet because it is hard-won, little-know but significant facts based on my personal research and experience.
In some organizations “Distinguished Engineer” is the highest engineering position, in others (Google, Bell Labs) there is a higher “Fellow” level.
A Distinguised Engineer is akin to a senior non-commissioned offer who serves as the subject matter expert in their field (https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Master_sergeant) – in the US: Sergeant Major in the Marines, Command Sergeant Major in the Army, Command Chief Sergeant Major in the Air Force, or Master Chief Petty Officer in the Navy.
Not just a honorific
Grade ladders describe the grades and steps to which a worker is eligible to progress and compensation value associated with that grade and step. You may create different grade ladders for your enterprise: one for technical grades, another for management grades, and a third for administrative grades. Examples of Job Grade Ladders:
- At Capgemini consulting, the highest level is “A9”.
But I disagree with statements in https://qr.ae/pGQP7S that “Distinguished Engineer” is an “award” for talent and accomplishment where “a Principal Engineer is a 1st string NFL starter, a Distinguished Engineer is a Pro Bowler or MVP, and a Fellow is a Hall of Fame inductee.”
But to me, being a Distinguished Engineer is more than about techical know-how and achievement.
Misunderstandings about role can lead to Distinguished Engineers feeling they should “mansplain” technical topics and give perfunctory “blessings” for technical achievements, which lead to disdain rather than respect.
My advice? Aspire to be a Distinguished Engineer not because you want a trophy as the “Top Dog”, but because you desire to make a bigger impact in the lives of others: to reduce frustration, foster more security, and achieve greater properity for all.
Organizationally, Distinguished Engineers are individual contributors reporting directly to a VP or the CTO.
In terms of status and pay, Distinguished Engineers are generally on the same level with Directors, even though they don’t have many direct reports. They’re considered executive-tier employees.
Distinguished Engineers provide the voice of technical developers and operations among executive managers. They identify and mitigate unintended consequences of decisions involving technology and technology workers.
Why is that necessary? Aren’t Officers, Directors, and Vice Presidents suppose to be the voice of the people under them?
Executive managers are focused primarily on business financial objectives, using (largely financial) executive management terminology and concepts such as Payback Period, Break-Even Analysis, ARR, NPV, IRR, WACC, EAC, Risk, ROA, ROIC, EBITDA, CAGR, CapEx, OpEx, Balanced Scorecard, KPI, OKR, PEG, QOQ, SWOT, TBL, and other financial concepts.
Distinguished Engineers translate technical to financial.
That’s because Distinguished Engineers usually have achieved both breath and depth in their knowledge so they can identify and achieve integration among domains such as:
- Agile Transformation (Agile Sensei)
- Site Reliability Engineering (Operations)
- Digital (application development)
- Data Engineering (and Analytics)
Distinguished Engineers develop a sense of what technical employees want and need while coaching and mentoring engineering teams.
What Distinguished Engineers Do
But although Distinguished Engineers can be “the expert other experts go to when they have a problem,” their primary role (contribution) is not just on individual projects or service, but to:
set the stage for more innovation, speed, quality, security transformations
ensure policies make sense to the entire organization
identify redundancies and roadblocks to productivity
lead enterprise-wide technical initiatives
provide “thought leadership” to establish best engineering practices, methods, standards, SDLC through solid design decisions, processes, and tools.
Distinguished Engineers influence through logic from experience and research, not positional authority.
They help to articulate a clear technical vision.
Distinguished Engineers learn, through reading, tutorials, relationships, and videos, new technologies and best practices being used in other organizations.
They can disseminate knowledge (though thoughtful blogs, videos, Slack posts, emails, etc.) to “level up” others.
Their success is based on their ability to build strong partnerships at all levels across the enterprise. So they need strong communication skills, both written and verbal. I mean next level persuasiveness.
Thus, courses on negotiation at HBR, MasterClass.com; as well as “Difficult Conversations” emphasize being a good listener by showing empathy; maintaining curiosity rather than conflicting positions; and keeping focused on moving forward toward mutual value.
Distinguished Engineers need to have developed a high level of emotional intelligence.
How to Become a Distinguished Engineer
Here’s my advice based on what I have tried:
Become an expert on the basics to help others get productive quickly:
Configure Mac keyboard shortcuts and other ways to be quick and confident at using computers, so you’re not fumbling around
Achieve expert-level skill at formatting PowerPoint, Word, Excel, Zoom, Teams, Slack, etc. so you can help others learn tricks you’re comfortable using
Collaborate with experts in the intricacies of adopting Agile ceremonies and tools such as Jira
- Configure for no long-running secrets</a> in your laptop and use dotfiles to automate configuration of new laptops
- Be able to troubleshoot use of git with GitHub across several GitHub accounts (organizations) so you can contribute Innersource and open source without incident
Install git with secure signing using MFA and perhaps FIDO chips to provide assurance that your account is secure
Create automation on cloud sandboxes (using Terraform) so you can build secure production-level stacks quickly and not leave services running overnight
Work with others on initiatives such as reducing onboarding time to one day or less, so new employees and contractors feel included and are enabled to be productive immediately. Such efforts can be preparation for other initiatives to improve processes.
View roadmaps of vendors’ products and to vendors be an advocate for enterprise features your organization needs
- Become certified in the products your organization offers
Distinguished Engineers need knowledge that’s both wide and deep. So don’t focus solely on what you’ve been told to work on. Most organizations want individuals to “stay in their lane” (until they become obsolete). So you’ll have to do learning “on your own time”. Shift your time watching TV, doom-scrolling, and playing games, to learning and getting certified on technologies needed in future jobs.
- Maintain a web page commenting about web sites and their features which are great looking or especially useful
- Help build websites with non-profit technologists to hone your front-end development skills using various technologies (Drupal, JAM stack, Serverless, etc.)
- Participate in hackathons to hone your base libraries and automation (join devpost.com)
- Use interview preparation sites to see what some find to be important (dynamic programming)
Reduce your blind spots (where you don’t know what you don’t know) by going out of your way to find publications offering alternative views in various disciplines. Keep a list of the periodicals and schedule time to read them each week.
- Does your organization have a Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations? If not, start one. I created Quizlets while at SAP, HP, and Salesforce. I also have ones about Secure IoT and AWS.
- Even if your company is not SOC2 and ISO certified, be ready by knowing what questions auditors ask of your cloud vendors.
- Know recommendations and tools from vendors around the “Well Architected Framework” for managing clouds (from Amazon, Azure, Google)
Even if your organization is dependent on a single cloud vendor, be able to implement open technologies using a single availability zone (data center) in two clouds (AWS, Azure, GCP):
- Open Kubernetes services
- Open databases (MariaDB, MongoDB, Apache Casandra) instead of AWS DynamoDB or Aurora
- Standard networking protocols (802.1q, BGP for load sharing and optimized routing)
- Open Linux (Ubuntu, Red Hat, CentOS) instead of AWS Linux2
- Commercial non-cloud-specific tools, marketplace firewalls, and VPN concentrators that can hold a nearly identical configuration in both clouds (Cisco, Palo Alto, Fortinet, Checkpoint, etc.).
Distinguished Engineers typically represent their organization externally when speaking at public events (contributions to open source software, conferences, user groups, meetups, webinars, hackathons, etc.).
- Seek out the advice of your corporate Public Relations and Marketing people
- Keep track of industry conferences, and request to speak
Contact other speakers before conferences
- Send a connection request to each person who provides you their URL to LinkedIn, such as instructors of courses and writers of articles
- Send connection requests to maintainers of open source software. Recently I messaged on LinkedIn a maintainer who was not responding to Issues, and got a reply which resolved a transitive dependency with security vulnerabilities.
- Write articles in Medium.com and cross-publish to other websites
Distinguished Engineers have a role in attracting and recruiting the industry’s best talent to their organization. So:
- Read the job descriptions of positions
Review guidelines and training provided to those who interview candidates. There is a science to avoiding bias and identifying needed talent which doesn’t shine through on resumes.
- Get the equipment and software to make videos in YouTube, TikTok, etc.
- Create courses on Pluralsight, Udemy, etc.
Have others proof-read every page before publication
- Encourage employees to post positive reviews on Glassdoor, Indeed, etc.
Here are samples from the internet
Home Depot Job Description
Distinguished Engineers are recognized as experts in one or more domains across the industry.
They represent the senior technical experts within the organization and have a strong track record of growing and influencing others.
Distinguished Engineers will connect teams to one another in a spirit of collaboration and will champion opportunities to make teams more efficient.
As a Distinguished Engineer, you will be responsible helping to shape the go-forward direction of the organization; working with senior leaders, vendors, and partners to influence technology roadmaps and the adoption of new technologies across the enterprise.
In addition, you will teach, mentor, and grow other domain experts within the organization.
Major Tasks, Responsibilities & Key Accountabilities:
30% – Strategy & Planning:
Works with senior leaders to shape the go-forward vision for the organization from a specific domain perspective
Works with vendors and partners on the successful strategy, planning, and implementation of critical tooling and platforms
Participates in and influences development of technology roadmaps across the enterprise
Evaluates new technologies for adoption across the enterprise
Drives thought leadership and innovation within the organization
30% – Support & Enablement:
Fields questions from product, project and support teams
Evangelizes successful usage of tooling and technologies with teams
Monitors tools and leads conversations to encourage collaboration across product teams
Learns, through reading, tutorials, relationships, and videos, new technologies and best practices being used in other organizations
25% – Delivery & Execution:
Teaches, mentors, grows, and advises other domain experts in the organization (including direct reports, if applicable)
Documents, reviews and ensures that all quality and change control standards are met
Works with vendors and partners on the successful planning and implementation of critical tooling and platforms
Understands and articulates the value creation and business proposition to teams and functional partners
Participates in and leads review board sessions to drive consistency across the enterprise
15% – People:
Acts as a point of escalation for teams facing extremely complex challenges
Participates in and leads learning activities within the organization
Connects teams facing similar challenges and problems to encourage consistency
Presents at and attends conferences and learns how to apply new technologies and concepts
Capable of jumping into a variety of teams to resolve issues
Provides leadership, mentoring, and coaching to direct reports (if applicable)
Conducts annual and mid-year reviews, reviewing individual development plans and providing performance feedback (if applicable)
Attracts, retains, develops, and motivates top talent (applicable if incumbent has direct reports)
Capital One Job Description
Sr. Distinguished Engineer are …
Deep technical experts and thought leaders that help accelerate adoption of the very best engineering practices, while maintaining knowledge on industry innovations, trends and practices
Visionaries, collaborating on Capital One’s toughest issues, to deliver on business needs that directly impact the lives of our customers and associates
Role models and mentors, helping to coach and strengthen the technical expertise and know-how of our engineering and product community
Evangelists, both internally and externally, helping to elevate the Distinguished Engineering community and establish themselves as a go-to resource on given technologies and technology-enabled capabilities
Leaders who gain the trust and confidence of those around them, from hands on engineers to executives
Capital One is seeking an Sr Distinguished Engineer to drive technology strategy and adoption. In this role, the engineer will help define and drive towards an end state that is based on simplicity and the adoption of digital technologies, cloud hosting, and open source software. This role also requires significant interaction with business and technical stakeholders. An ideal candidate will have outstanding communication and influencing skills, the ability to overcome hurdles and impediments.
Distinguished Engineers are individual contributors expected to solve problems in a fast-paced, collaborative, and iterative delivery environment. In order to meet these demands, candidates should be influential engineering leaders with deep technology expertise, and a collaborative style that brings others into the decision-making process. Distinguished Engineers will significantly impact the Tech agenda within their organization and devise clear roadmaps to deliver next generation technology solutions across organizational boundaries
Develop and maintain an overall architecture for the division, in alignment with divisional and enterprise guidelines
Look broadly across multiple domains to ensure consistency in architecture across the division and in alignment with company-wide strategy and best practices
Collaborate with other architects and stakeholders within the division and with colleagues in other divisions to ensure consistency and work together on cross division topics
Identify opportunities for application reuse and consolidation to build reusable horizontal capabilities to support multiple domains or lines of business
Represent and advocate on behalf of your domain to the larger architecture community, particularly the Divisional Chief Architect and peers in the architecture center of practice
Guide the domain architecture teams in problem solving activities, ensuring that all voices are heard and understood while driving to timely, realistic solutions
Ensure architecture decisions are clearly documented, communicated, and maintained for all initiatives
Promote a culture of engineering excellence and being well-managed, using opportunities to reuse and innersource solutions where possible
Effectively communicate with and influence key stakeholders across the division
Lead the way in keeping both the technology and the technologists in the division up-to-date with modern architecture practices and help grow talent within the division
Protect against missed opportunities by providing or soliciting diverse points of view on how to solve our problems
- Bachelor’s Degree
- At least 8 years of experience with application architecture and design patterns
- At least 6 years of experience with complex architectural patterns (SOA), building APIs, microservices, and event streams
- Master’s Degree
- 10+ years of experience with application architecture and design patterns.
- 5+ years building cloud native architectures and architecting enterprise applications on public cloud platforms (AWS, GCP, Azure)
- 6+ years experience with DevOps or DevSecOps and building CI/CD pipelines using Jenkins, Artifactory, Chef, Ansible, AWS CloudFormation templates, GitHub, and Sonar
As a Distinguished Engineer with Verizon’s Managed Network Services team, you will use your experience and knowledge of principles, theories, and concepts of routing, switching, and security technologies to create world-class network designs for external F500 customers seeking network transformation. You will serve as the lead technical design and architectural expert across Verizon Business’ communication solutions portfolio. In this role, you will collaborate with technical and business leaders to develop solutions and designs to execute customer strategies, create greater efficiencies, and transform enterprise networks. The focus of this position will be on LAN, WAN, WLAN, SD-WAN and data center technologies. You will work directly with the customer, build trust with stakeholders, and own the design process as a Network Architect. You will work closely with Verizon and Customer Operations, project management, and engineering teams to ensure the customer’s requirements are met. In addition, you will provide technological vision for network transformation, serve as the engineering team lead back into Verizon, and ensure information is flowing to engineering resources assigned to project.
Design, implement, and support solutions involving, but not limited to, WAN, LAN, WLAN, Data Analytics, Security and Virtual (e.g.; Virtualization, SDN, NFV) technologies.
Focus on solution development and architectural design for assigned customer base with specific emphasis on Verizon Business’ global managed services and communications solutions portfolio.
Create client solutions based on business requirements involving advanced networks, data center, security, and virtualization technologies; as well as development of fault and performance management policies and automation rules.
Collaborate with Engineering/Planning, IT, Product Development, and various Verizon and external delivery and support teams to manage the design and implementation of client projects.
Provide technical training and support for the Managed Services Operations team.
Develop a deep knowledge and strong ability to articulate Verizon offerings across multiple disciplines including data, voice, managed services, IT, security and mobility strategies.
Translate customer business issues/opportunities into technical solution/business requirements.
Analyze, evaluate, and communicate network capacity and performance data with the objective of driving improvements to customer’s network.
Provide Matrix supervision of a team for specific projects, resource management, process documentation, and peer mentoring.
Oversee customer network documentation such as solution design document, record of change, and network diagrams.
Act as an escalation point, providing 4th level incident support for customers.
Create presentations and demonstrations related to technology, process, or client solutions as necessary.
Author and deliver network designs, statements of work, and technical project plans incorporating service and program management activities.
As a Subject Matter Expert in network technologies, address technical challenges and opportunities in your domain of expertise the vast majority of the time.
Act as the technical SME for network architecture to Verizon sales professionals by providing customer needs analysis, engineering and design of technical solutions, pricing and proposal assistance, technical presentations, technical consultation to internal and external customers, and to assist as the technical closer on sales opportunities.
This hybrid role will have a defined work location that includes work from home and assigned office days as set by the manager.
What we’re looking for…
You’ll need to have:
- Bachelor’s degree or four or more years of work experience.
- Six or more years of relevant work experience.
- Six or more years of experience as a Network Architect.
- Six or more years of network architecture experience in conceptualization, definition and development of IT and/or telecom based products and service with verifiable instances of implementing one or more of the following: Data and IP Services (MPLS, VoIP, PIP, VPN, IP PBX), Managed Network Services (LAN, WAN, Content Delivery), Data Center Outsourcing (application hosting, managed storage), IT Applications Management (SOA, Web Services, RTE).
Even better if you have:
- Master’s Degree in Engineering, Computer Science or other technical field of study.
- Six or more years of experience in a Engineering Design Authority (EDA), Data Center technical design and engineering role, with an emphasis on IP-based network, communications and mobility solutions.
- Current industry certifications: CCIE, CCDP, CCNP, CISSP, ITILv3, etc.
- Six or more years of experience in customer facing positions (sales engineering, consulting).
- Demonstrated and verifiable track record of prior successful customer engagements. Examples of network designs, statements of work and/or technical project plans.
- Knowledge of network, communications and mobility protocols as well as switching, routing, server, video and mobility equipment.
- Experience with Managed Security Solutions.
- Excellent interpersonal, written, or verbal skills to effectively work in a team environment and explain complex system solutions customers.
- Excellent presentation skills with the ability to present both technical and non-technical information to broad audiences.
Even if you’re not invited to be a Distinguish Engineer by an executive recruiter, apply to those jobs anyway.
Or ask to be mentored by a Distinguished Engineer.
And strive to become one by improving yourself and contributing to others.
All the best to you!