Friday, December 26, 2008

You said you are a SALES engineer? What the heck is that?

I'm a Sales Engineer, I admit it. This blog is mostly about technical stuff, but I felt I should write a not-so-technical post for once. For a techie like myself, and to someone else out there, even the Sales Engineer title may look weird. Frankly Sun doesn't have Sales Engineers, they have System Engineers, which is the same thing. Not. Not at all, it is something different. But I insist on being a Sales Engineer.

I have been an SE (as in Sales Engineer) on and off (mostly on) for a good 20+ years now, more or less always in the database industry (a short term with security software is the exception). I learnt the SE trade at another RDBMS company in the 1980's. I had joined them as Support Engineer, having previously been a developer. I learnt SQL the hard way, by using it. I learnt to use indexes by having not used indexes, realising things were slow, looked at the syntax and found the word INDEX which sounded like something that would speed things up, and it did.

Anyway, I now was working for a US corporation as a Support Engineer in Sweden. There was 8 of us. No, not 8 support engineers, 8 employees in Sweden. Only one Sales Engineer, and that was NOT me. I was not too keen on having to meet a customer, as I had been forced to be a trainer early on, and I was scared stiff by that experience. And the Sales Guys then. I hadn't dealt much with them previously, but now.. Oh my. So this Sales Guy comes into my room one day, the SE was off to something else, and a techie was needed at a customer meeting the next day. I was the only one available, so "Take your best suit, a white shirt and a tie and you are all set, it's easy", the Sales Guys said, trying to calm me down. It didn't. I didn't have a nice suit, nor a white shirt and a tie, well I did not ever want to wear one, and I didn't have one either.

But what could I do, I was the youngest employee by far, the lowest on the ladder and self-confidence wasn't something that was I too familiar with. So I got myself a suit, a shirt and a tie (in those days, if you were in Sales at all, you just HAD to wear a tie) and went along with the fast-talking salesguy. And I found out I liked it. So after some time, I went along, took some training and became an SE and was assigned the important task of carrying the Sales Guys cellphone (this is true. And cellphones were BIG in those days. And only management and salesguys had them).

Now, 20+ years later, what am I doing you ask? A consultant that isn't necessarily paid? A tech support service for sales guys and customers that Sales Guys think deserves it? Someone with the most contradicory title on the planet? Frankly, the job of an SE includes all those things. But the deal with an SE doing, say consulting or tech support isn't what we do, but why. We do engineering work in the name of Sales, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. That's the what and the why.

As for any customers reading this, and a few of you have probably meet me out there, what does this mean? Do we fake engineering abilities so we can get paid? Nope, a Sales Engineer is always an Engineer at heart. If my customers are happy, then I am happy. We are honest guys, it's just what we do is for a different reason than, say, tech support. But that doesn't mean we are evil, at least I try to avoid it (Santa was here fo me this year, so I think I am doing OK).

Doing what is right, from a technical perspective, is what we try to achieve. For example, a prospective customer wants to start a project based on this or that idea, and he is using MySQL for it. It is not the Sales Persons job to say yes or no to that, or even to understand if this is a good thing or not. No, the sales persons job is to make sure that the customer gets a fair deal on MySQL for this project. But what if the design of the thing is completely flawed? Anyone can see that this will not work, right? Well, the customer might not have worked with MySQL ´before, and maybe not even with an RDBMS. And it's not the salespersons job to understand or question this (which doesn't necessarily mean that he doesn't understand, it's just that it isn't his job). So whose job is it then to get back to the customer with Sales person and say that, "Hey, this is not really such a good idea" or something to that effect? The SE. That is what we do. And also the SE should provide some alternative design here.

And if the customer says, "I want MySQL, but I'm not sure about the design", well an SE can answer that. So we can spend a few weeks at a site for free fixing the customers design, before any contract of any kind has been signed. Nope, wrong. There is a balance here, SEs don't do things "for free", as it seems sometimes. But we do help out, point out a direction and give advice, in the extent we can do just that.

What kind of training does an SE have, what competences to we hold? Typically more a combination of many things than in most other professions. An SE typically knows little about many things, and combine that with knowing A LOT of a few things. I'm a good C hack for example (hey, I am *old* now) and I know a few other things well too.

Is what I am saying here trade secrets of MySQL / Sun Microsystems then? Nope, if you have worked as a Sales Engineer, you know it's about the same thing everywhere. Sometimes we are called Pre-Sale consultants, sometimes SE, sometimes Field Engineers or something, but the job and what we do is similar.

We are all in all the engineering side of the Sales Process. When a sales person doesn't know if technical project has any chance of being successful, he asks us. When a prospective customer has some technical questions, we answer them or get them answered.

And then there is one other thing. When the customer has paid up, are we gone into thin air, never to be seen again. Nope, as I said, we are after all Engineers, we like to see technology work, we want to help, and as MySQL is selling subscriptions, we will see you again next year.

SE's with MySQL / Sun Microsystems has a lot of freedom, more than with any company I have worked for an an SE. If a technology or a customer interests me, I am allowed to dig into that and get my hands dirty, should I wish so. Aand are we cometing with the MySQL / Sun Microsystem Preofessions Services consultants? Nope, we try hard not to.

All in all, we are techies, the work we do is stuff that a Support Engineer or PS Consultant can do, at times we do those jobs at least (we are probably not as fast as those guys at it though). We just do these things for a slightly different reason. And we ARE a bit salesy, I admit, we have to know what is going on in the market, we have to understand how to explain something in a few words to someone who might not be a techie, but someone who is signing the checks, for a customer.

After so many years as an SE, more than most I think, I can say that being an SE at MySQL / Sun is great. And I look forward to more of it. And (blushing a bit) I a´was here easrly enough to start it (we were 2 SE's back then). I can tell you more about that, but this posting is long enough already. Next posting will be back at technology, I promise!

Yours truly
/Karlsson

14 comments:

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That is a great perspective on your job! Thanks a lot for sharing that, really.

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Sales engineers also collaborate with the design, production, engineering, or R&D departments of their companies to determine how products and services could be made or modified to suit customers' needs. This aspect of sales engineering is important, because it is what allows the sales engineer to feel that they can maintain their personal integrity (ethically speaking) in the face of the inherent COI of the job (explained earlier). The sales engineer does not have to lie (ignore or negatively misrepresent the competitor's products or services) if they can reasonably tell the customer that their employer can tailor its solutions to the customer's particular requirements. Doing that may not be easy or cheap, which means that there is always a line to be walked to avoid overpromising-and/or-underdelivering.
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