Sales Engineers are the MVPs of SaaS

I graduated college back in the mid-90s when a 56k modem was considered high-speed internet. I started my tech career in QA at a software startup called AimTech that created authoring software for multimedia apps. We competed with Macromedia Director, and eventually Macromedia Flash.

Through my QA job, I became an expert on our product called Jamba. Anytime someone wanted to learn how our a specific feature of our product worked, they came to me. Apparently, I was pretty good at explaining how our product worked, because one day the head of sales asked if I was interested in becoming a Sales Engineer. I had no idea what a Sales Engineer(SE) did, but I noticed they wore nicer clothes than me and none still lived at home with their parents, so I agreed!

And loved it. It was easily the best career decision I made in my life. 

As an SE, I traveled the world meeting with customers and prospects to talk about how we could help them build interactive applications on the web without having to learn how to write code in this new language called Java (I told you, this was a long time ago).

Me on the left giving a tradeshow demo circa 1997(?)

Eventually, my little New Hampshire startup was acquired by Asymetrix, a company founded by the late Paul Allen. Shortly after I moved to San Francisco to join the SE team at Macromedia. After a few crazy years at Macromedia, I joined a dot com era high flyer called Interwoven, which kicked off my journey into web content management. I started as an individual contributor at Interwoven and later moved into an SE leadership role before being asked to move into a Product Marketing role.

Looking back at that journey reminds me of how much I absolutely loved being a part of an SE team and how much of a lasting impact it had on my career. Nearly every skill I use today as a marketer came from my experience as an SE for well over a decade. 

Here’s are the 5 most valuable lessons I learned in my time as an SE:

Everyone in tech needs to learn how to sell. SEs sell. Most get paid commission and carry a quota just like an Account Executive. Sure, I didn’t have to own the forecast or be responsible for doing whatever it took to get a deal at the end of a quarter. But I always felt like I owned the number and that my success was binary: I either hit the number or I didn’t.

SEs are in the position to sell as a trusted advisor in a way that an Account Executive just can’t. And that doesn’t just apply to getting the technical buyer to recommend your product. The best SEs can shape business conversations in a way that leads to your product becoming the only option. Which leads me to:

The best SEs aren’t always the most technical. The endless debate in SE circles revolves around technical vs. business acumen. Sure there’s a foundational technical knowledge you need to have to get the technical win in a sales cycle. But a great SE can achieve a technical win without always needing to be technical, because they can change the conversation. 

For example, my ex-Interwoven colleagues John Narbaitz, James Santoro, and Ryan Sciandri were highly technical SEs. They were both able to blow customers away with brute technical force using highly customized demos and proof-of-concepts. Yes, of course both John and James were fantastic at driving the entire sales cycle (both are sales execs now) but being technical was a competitive weapon for them. 

Some of my less technical Interwoven colleagues like Rajib SenGupta and Andrew Wamberg worked earlier in the sales cycle to change the conversation from technical to business outcomes. They could do more in a few slides than I could do in a week of writing code. They were much better at listening than I was.

All were fantastic SEs who used different approaches to win. But over time my view has changed, and I now think that the very best SEs are the ones who can win with technical skills but almost never have to because they are so good at listening to the customer and driving the conversation away from the technical to the business value they can deliver.

Presentation skills matter. Life is about selling ideas. Whether you are selling your boss on your next promotion or at home selling your daughter on going to bed on time (my nightly challenge), we are always working to influence people and change behavior. And there’s nothing that will refine your persuasion skills quite like spending a decade on the road presenting to customers and prospects.

In my early SE days, I was a terrible presenter. I talked way too fast (still do). I used big words I thought would make me sound smart. I had awful body language and was too afraid to look at my audience. I talked about product features like anyone cared about them. I eventually became a good presenter by putting in my Freakonomics 10,000 hours. To this day, I’ve never taken any formal presentation training but I continue to work hard to get better because it’s been such an important part of my career (and life).

One easy way to stand out as a presenter is to always bring the energy, whether you are presenting to a small team of colleagues or standing in front of a room of 1000. Sure you’ve shown the same demo and slides hundreds of times, but why should an audience be enthusiastic about something that you obviously aren’t? Make this one simple change and you’ll 10x the results from your presentations.

SEs are the authentic voice of the field. Want to really know what’s happening in the field? Ask an SE. What are customers really looking for? Is your messaging working? What’s happening with competitors? SEs are always on the front-lines and are great at providing a spin-free perspective on what’s working and what isn’t. 

Because of this, SEs have an obligation to have a strong internal voice. If something isn’t working, speak up.

The SE role uniquely prepares you for any career path. There’s no other role that better prepares you for whatever direction you want to take your career. There are so many options:

  • You can advance through multiple individual contributor roles into team leadership. My SE journey went from being a Sales Engineer to Senior Sales Engineer to Principal Sales Engineer to SE Manager and eventually SE Director.
  • Many SEs eventually move into Sales. As an SE you get to learn a lot about the sales process and the expectations that come from being in Sales. The challenge that new SEs in Sales have are usually related to the start (prospecting &qualifying) and end (forecasting & closing) of the sales process.
  • More technical SEs sometimes move into Product Management, where they can use their hands-on knowledge of products and customers to build better products.
  • The smartest SEs move into Marketing, often starting in Product Marketing. Okay, maybe I’m biased 🙂 Product Marketing is a great landing spot for SEs as it lets you take everything you’ve learned in the field and apply it at a broader scale. 

I have so many fond memories of my time as an SE. I learned so many foundational skills that have allowed me to grow my career. I love being in marketing too, but I absolutely miss being on the front lines all the time. Which leads me to my next point: 

The SA team at Acquia is among the best I’ve seen

The SE team we had at Interwoven was absolutely amazing. Until I joined Acquia, I was sure it was the best team of SEs ever assembled. Now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been working closely with the SE team at Acquia (we call them Solution Architects, or SAs) for over 4 years and what I’ve seen them achieve is nothing short of spectacular. If you want to be a part of the best and learn from the best, you owe it to yourself to talk to Acquia. 

Here’s what the team at Acquia does that makes them special:

They start with the customer and work backward. The Acquia SA team is obsessed with customer value. They are experts in driving sales conversations by linking a customers high-priority needs to Acquia products. In most companies, this is usually the domain of the Account Executive. But in my experience at Acquia, the SA team is deeply involved in this process, which helps them avoid having to win on brute technical force alone.

They don’t rely on being technical. On the whole, the SA team at Acquia is more technical than the other SA teams I’ve been a part of. To be a great SA at a Acquia, you need to know Drupal and its role in the modern web technology stack.

When we’re in technical evaluations against competitors like Adobe and Sitecore, we almost always always win. That’s because our SAs are able to clearly demonstrate how Acquia delivers business value. They do that through expert discovery that connects customer requirements with unique value that Acquia can deliver.

Acquia nails the SA career path. I’ve never seen a more well defined and supported career path for SA. From formal titles definitions with clear goals and milestones necessary for advancement to support for SAs joining other parts of the organization, Acquia’s got it down.

There are multiple SA levels at Acquia including Associate SA, SA, Senior SA, Master SA, and Principal SA. And Acquia SAs have moved into many other positions in the organization, including Sales, Customer Success, and Product Management.

SA are strategic. There’s nothing an SA hates more than being asked to just “give the demo”. Give a demo of what? To whom? Why? 

The SA team at Acquia is used to drive strategic sales conversations. Of course, giving demos is an important part of this process, but only when it makes sense. And only after the work has been done to setup the demo for success. 

They care deeply about winning. This is near and dear to my heart. The thing I most miss about being an SA is that feeling you get when you win against a competitor. Our SAs know that they are in sales and embrace the challenges and opportunities that come from being responsible for hitting a number.

I believe that the Acquia SA team is the best in the WCM / DXP industry. So if you’re are an SA at Sitecore tired of dealing with all the technical debt and leadership changes, we’ve got a home for you. Or if you’re at Adobe and are tired of crazy quotas and constant reorgs, we should talk! Just drop a note to jakub dot suchy at acquia. Tell him this blog post sent you 🙂

Final thoughts on being a Sales Engineer

  • Learn how to command a whiteboard. It’s a lost art and a great way to have an interactive conversation with a prospect.
  • Saying “I don’t know” is better than giving a BS answer.
  • Never show anything in a demo that you haven’t practiced 100 times before. I don’t care what your rep asked you to show.
  • Don’t talk past the sale. When your prospect understands something, move on.
  • 9/10 times when something goes wrong in a demo the audience didn’t notice it. Just keep going.
  • Be careful when bashing the competition. There’s a right and wrong way to do it. I’ve learned this the hard way.
  • I hate blind RFPs too, but unless you are consistently crushing your number you’ll have to do some.
  • Be nicer to marketing 🙂 They work really hard too. If you don’t like something, just tell us why.

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