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Close technical skills gaps with a principal learning engineer

A principal learning engineer uses their technical expertise and teaching background to facilitate strategic upskilling initiatives for tech teams.

Jul 12, 2023 • 5 Minute Read

Hot pink schoolhouse set against a dark blue data grid.
  • Engineering Leadership
  • Business
  • Learning & Development

Today, engineering leaders know that upskilling or reskilling their technical workforce is cheaper and more efficient than hiring external talent. But creating effective upskilling programs isn’t easy. It requires a high degree of cross-functional collaboration—typically between busy engineering leads and HR/L&D professionals—that often suffers from domain knowledge and communication gaps.

We recently argued that we need to bridge these gaps between tech and HR/L&D to create effective upskilling programs, but here’s another idea: What if we removed the need to bridge this gap entirely?

What if the L&D professionals planning and facilitating technical upskilling initiatives for technical teams were engineers? What if they were grounded in deep, technical competence and situated within technology organizations rather than people teams?

This exactly describes the principal learning engineer. This role is indispensable to companies serious about pairing technical learning content with internal subject matter experts (SME) to efficiently and effectively upskill or reskill their technical staff.

Read on to learn more about what this role entails and the skills necessary to do it well.

Table of contents

What does a principal learning engineer do?

A principal learning engineer plans and facilitates strategic, technical upskilling and reskilling initiatives. The idea of a principal learning engineer isn’t exactly novel. In fact, various technology organizations have technical leads who play a similar role.

But a principal learning engineer has a unique set of responsibilities beyond what the technical lead role typically entails, and they need a unique background and set of skills to do it.

So, what can a principal learning engineer do for you?

Determine skills your team members need the most

There are a thousand things your engineers could be learning right now, but non-upskilling priorities loom large and time is always limited. To move the needle on the most strategic company initiatives, the principal learning engineer will conduct in-depth, qualitative needs assessments to determine where tech teams should focus their upskilling efforts.

Create effective learning experiences that drive toward authentic objectives

Translating upskilling needs to specific, measurable learning objectives is no easy task, but the principal learning engineer should be ready—and excited—to do this. They’ll plan and facilitate learning experiences around a set of authentic objectives using a variety of methods and formats, from two-day intensive workshops to eight-week academies and 10-week study groups.

Facilitate opportunities for colleagues to learn from experts and real-world examples

The principal learning engineer will work closely with internal SMEs (typically senior and principal engineers in the company) to plan live demos and develop hands-on activities that push learners towards learning objectives within the company’s existing codebase where possible.

Collect, analyze, report, and act on success data and feedback

The principal learning engineer will understand that, just like in software development, successes must be actively communicated outward and upward. Improvement happens iteratively through the ruthless, data-centric examination of what went well and what needs improvement.

Cultivate and nurture a learning community within the technology organization

Without a healthy learning culture and visible community of learners, team members are unlikely to take advantage of learning opportunities. The principal learning engineer will make on-the-job learning accessible and communal to drive participation, engagement, and value.

How to identify your ideal principal learning engineer

Principal learning engineers need several skills and traits to execute these responsibilities successfully.

1. A formal teaching background

This person preferably has a formal teaching background. Former teachers (of any subject and context) who’ve transitioned into tech via self study or coding bootcamps are solid candidates for principal learning engineer roles.

Their understanding of instructional design, familiarity with processes like the needs analysis, and recent experience in learning technical concepts as an adult are unique assets they bring to the work of planning and facilitating technical upskilling initiatives.

2. Deep technical expertise

Ideally, they also have deep technical expertise. This person should’ve spent at least a few years with their hands in the code, working with product teams to build and ship value to customers.

This experience helps them in all aspects of the role; they’ll know what questions to ask when conducting needs assessments and collaborating with SMEs to develop curriculum and hands-on activities. If your company is lucky enough to have an entire team of principal learning engineers, you might consider hiring for front-end, back-end, and DevOps specialties.

This experience as a software professional provides other benefits, too. Engineering and development teams face unique conditions that quite often push focused learning to the wayside. They need an upskilling facilitator who gets the urgency of building software in the face of deadlines, high-priority bugs, and shifting priorities.

Teachers know that pacing and expectations must be continuously assessed (and sometimes adjusted) as a learning experience unfolds, and software professionals know what might warrant these adjustments for software teams.

3. The ability to champion learning culture

The principal learning engineer should also be a champion for learning culture and on-the-job upskilling. This person understands on a theoretical and experiential level the importance of focused, intentional upskilling.

They also understand that, historically, software engineering culture involved doing most (if not all) learning during one’s personal time “for love of the job.” They find myriad ways to remind folks at all levels that taking time for on-the-job learning carries no guilt; it’s something we’re paid to do and should be doing as part of our roles.

4. Experience building learning communities

The principal learning engineer should be a natural at building and nurturing communities, particularly learning communities, and doing it asynchronously. Coding is irrefutably a communal activity, and at its best, so is learning. They should understand and tap into these historical roots of programming culture to build and nurture communities of learning within the organization at large and for each individual learning experience offered.

5. Effective communication and collaboration

Along with these core skills and qualities, the principal learning engineer should be a master communicator, love to learn (particularly about tech), take initiative, and genuinely enjoy collaborating and developing meaningful relationships with colleagues.

Even better if they are a DevOps or software engineer at your company who already enjoys the respect and esteem of their colleagues, as this relationship capital can drastically increase learner buy-in to the upskilling experiences this person plans and facilitates.

Hiring your principal learning engineer

Are you ready to create this role in your technology organization? We have a few recommendations to get you started.

Consider hiring or reskilling current employees

First, consider hiring from within or reskilling existing employees. Your current DevOps and software engineers already have a keen sense of what technologies are most important for the company’s success and which of those might warrant strategic upskilling initiatives. They also likely have deep working relationships with the engineering leads and SMEs they’ll collaborate with to plan and facilitate these learning experiences. In fact, they’re likely the SME for certain topics.

Prioritize candidates with teaching experience

Second, prioritize applicants with formal teaching backgrounds. As mentioned earlier, there are many former teachers who rode the initial bootcamp wave who are now inching close to 8 – 10 years of formal engineering experience. The principal learning engineer role will likely feel like a dream job to those who miss certain aspects of teaching.

How principal learning engineers facilitate strategic upskilling

At Pluralsight, we have a team that facilitates strategic upskilling for our DevOps and software engineers. To learn how we plan and execute these technology learning experiences, check out the case studies for our DevOps Academy and web accessibility academy.

Interested in learning more about how this role operates at Pluralsight?  Feel free to reach out to to schedule a quick chat with us.

Kristen Foster-Marks

Kristen F.

Kristen Foster-Marks is passionate about applying evidence-based science to help software teams learn, work, and thrive. She combines eight years in software development and engineering leadership with extensive knowledge in learning science, pedagogy, and classroom-based research to develop innovative workshops, interventions, and curricula that promote effective behavior change on software teams. Kristen actively contributes to the engineering community through writing articles and giving conference talks, aiming to demystify empirical research on software teams for those best equipped to utilize its insights.

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