What is the Career Path for a Sales Engineer?

There is no defined path to becoming a Sales Engineer. The best Sales Engineers I’ve known over the years have come from a variety of different backgrounds. It seems the mix of technical curiosity and people skills draw Sales Engineers in from all walks of life. Personally, I started in the Oil & Gas Industry working on CAD systems and transitioned from there (see my previous blog post on this topic).

But after you’ve mastered being a Sales Engineer, what’s next? Where does the career path take you? That’s the topic for our blog today. 

Sales Engineering Manager

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The most obvious path is to move into a management role, managing a team of Sales Engineers. I’ve done this twice in my career. At one point I managed a team of 10 Sales Engineers. We were focused on a the manufacturing vertical within North America. 

In this role, you’re taking on the responsibility for hiring new Sales Engineers. You are the one creating the training plans, reporting on metrics and dealing with any escalations. Your company might have a 1:1 model or or a pooled model for Sales Engineers and Account Executives. If it’s pooled you are monitoring resources and load balancing the team by opportunities, deal size and skill sets. If it’s a 1:1 ratio, you may still be doing some resource allocation. Chances are you will also be doing some conflict resolution between your Sales Engineers and Account Executives on occasion. 

Account Executive

Another logical career choice is moving into Sales, becoming an Account Executive. It’s a logical move that I have seen a lot of Sales Engineers be successful at it. You know the products, you understand the sales cycle. You also have the technical selling skills, plus you have the personality. But you have to learn the other aspects of the sales cycle. On the front end it’s the prospecting, qualifying and cold calling. On the back end of the sales cycle it’s the business aspect. What is the purchasing process, who’s the decision maker, what are the acceptable business terms, etc. 

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I never moved into direct Sales for one simple reason. Personally, I don’t like talking on the phone. Tasks like cold calling, prospecting and tracking opportunities didn’t appeal to me. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of ex-colleagues become very successful Account Executives. Just be sure you understand the demands of the role before you jump in. 

Staff Engineer

Now, who says you have to stop being a Sales Engineer? I have a couple of friends who’ve remained Sale’s Engineers their entire careers. They had no interest in managing teams or direct reports. They enjoyed the Sales process and have remained in the Sales Engineer role their entire careers.

In some companies you’ll see a title called Staff Sales Engineer (or something similar). These are team members who have vast amounts of experience. They have gone through many product releases, product launches and changes in the market. Chances are they have seen it and done it all. Most importantly, they are well respected across the organization.

These are the team members who get called in on the most strategic opportunities. The deals with important new logos, are highly competitive, or that are very complex in nature. You will find it is the Staff Engineers who may be the project leads on head-to-head proof of concepts with your competition. Opportunities where the client has narrowed it down to you or your competitor (There is nothing I like more than the challenge of a head to head shoot-out with the competition.).

Competitive Intelligence

Every Sales Engineer is always looking for a competitive edge. What’s that magic ‘silver bullet’ that will knock out the competition in one shot. That’s where Competitive Intelligence comes in. My first role outside of Sales Engineering was taking on the role of building a Competitive Intelligence team at Documentum. A Sales Engineers understanding of the market, the technology, the competitive landscape and the buying cycle make this a natural role to transition into outside of Sales. 

When I first started doing Competitive Intelligence work it was all about product comparisons, creating detailed matrices for every competitor. That was the Sales Engineer in me, looking at things from a technical viewpoint. It didn’t take long to find out that approach was not maintainable with my small staff (2 of us). Plus, it did not meet the broader needs of the company. We quickly learned we had to transition to a more sustainable model while meeting the needs of everyone:

  • The Executive Team
  • Sales and Sales Management
  • The Sales Engineers
  • Marketing and Analyst Relations

I’ll do a blog one day on the role of CI in an organization. Feel free to check out the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) for more information on the role CI.

Technical and Product Marketing

One other logical choice is Product Marketing. I’ve seen more than one Sales Engineer transition into a Technical Product Marketing role. In Technical Marketing, you are tasked with a variety of responsibilities such as:

  • Building standard demonstrations for the field
  • Sales and Partner Enablement
  • Competitive Intelligence
  • Technical asset creation (white papers, videos, etc.)

When you think about it, these are all activities that a Sales Engineer is involved in during their their Sales role, especially in a smaller organization. The Technical Marketing role is normally created when the company has grown enough to support the dedicated resource. 

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As you gain more experience with the Product Marketing process, you may transition into becoming a Product Marketing Manager. For example, when I was ready to move out of Competitive Intelligence, I took on a more traditional Product Marketing role. In this role you take on responsibility for defining the market requirements, product messaging, Sales enablement and the launch process. You may find yourself doing a lot of speaking engagements. Pragmatic Marketing breaks this down nicely.

Summary

The skills that make a good Sales Engineer also provide you the ability to transition into many other departments across a company. The combination of technical knowledge, sales and presentation skills, plus the ability to learn on demand make Sales Engineers a valuable asset to every company. There are other career paths you can choose as well, these are only a few examples. 

My only advice is, if you are thinking about a change, take a moment to identify what it is you really like, and dislike, about your current role. You should objectively look at the primary functions of the new role. If you hate talking on the phone, Sales might not be the best choice. But, if you love building demonstrations, Technical Marketing may be a great fit. Public speaking your thing? Maybe Product Marketing is the way to go. 

When you make a change, how you are measured and how you motivate yourself will change. If you move outside sales, you may miss the thrill of the chase and the competition. You have to find new ways to measure success.

Good selling. 

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