Software Developer's Dilemma: Is Being A Sales Engineer a Cop-Out?

Monday Nov 17th 2008 by Eric Spiegel
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Sure, the die-hard developers snigger at the idea, but the upsides are enormous. (How does $130k sound?)

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Times are tough and about to get even tougher for software developers. The latest headlines say that 2008 could end up being the worst for tech job losses since 2003. So this a great time to switch careers, right?

Well, maybe.

Let me even go more out on a thin limb. How about switching into a career in sales? That sound I just heard was collective laughter from techies worldwide.

Sales?

To be completely frank, most engineers I know have few kind words for sales people. When a sales person complains they can’t sell software for whatever reason, the development team cries foul, convinced the sales person must be incompetent because the software should sell itself. From a techie’s point of view, a sales person is viewed as an impediment to selling software.

Well, now is your chance to help bridge this gap by becoming an intrepid sales engineer! You too can be a savior in the world of software sales who is worshiped by sales people and potentially appreciated by developers. Any sales person worth their salt would tell you they couldn’t be successful without a solid sales engineer. Any developer would tell you that they wouldn’t be caught dead being a sales engineer – that would be a cop out!

Remember, I wrote that sales engineers were potentially “appreciated” by other techies, but I didn’t write “respected.” You see, developers have paid their dues with many all-nighters while getting their computer science degree and then – again – in the working world, as they built software that some of them consider to be works of art.

They slaved for these accomplishments, which resulted in the techie badge of honor – solving problems that were deemed insurmountable in the wee hours of the morning, usually the day before a deadline.

You may ask: what honor is there in helping sell software?

Ask any executive responsible for revenue and they will say TONS! There are plenty of kudos to go around for anyone who helps close a deal. But forget about honor and kudos for a minute because there is a more important reason to consider this switch.

Sales engineers can make a bundle of cash.

Do I have your attention now techies? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, experienced engineers can make upwards of $130k in sales engineering. Granted, part of this compensation is commission, but the base is usually not too far off of a software developer’s salary. And, there are many fringe benefits.

Sales engineers may be granted the personal use of a company car. No, likely not a Porsche, but at least the gas and maintenance are covered with the extra bonus of no car payment.

It is true that you must be willing to travel, but the frequent-flyer mileage adds up quickly. In addition, some companies offer incentives such as free vacation trips or gifts for outstanding performance.

One sales engineer I know well has been in United Airlines Platinum Medallion club for years and as a result, hasn’t paid for a vacation in a very long time. Plus, he has traveled to many cool places on the company’s dime, including qualifying for President’s Club for exceeding sales goals, where you get an all-expenses paid trip to some swanky resort, sometimes in Hawaii or some other exotic location.

Not to say there aren’t local territory types of sales engineering jobs, but it’s safe to say that if you are more of a home body that enjoys coding in your cube all day, then you can stop reading now and go back to grinding out code.. Still reading? Good. Then let’s assume the potential for more lucrative compensation and interesting benefits has kept your attention.

Continued: The advantages of a sales engineer job

Even with all these incentives, finding good sales engineers is extremely challenging. As I alluded to above, this isn’t a fit for everyone and one of the reasons some don’t consider this career path is because some of the most talented developers have not considered moving to the dark side. And yes, the perception of sales being the “dark side” is half the battle for recruiters trying to convince techies to make the leap.

This perception may have you asking why should you consider the potential ridicule of your fellow developers and pursue such a position?

First, you will have more freedom to set your own schedule, so you can arrange time off when you need it. Many sales engineers have the opportunity to work from home because they travel so much.

Second, you will likely have access to a lot of training. You will have to be an expert on the software’s features and benefits, plus an expert on the competition. You will also have to maintain a strong grasp on general technology trends in your industry. All of this requires lots of reading and ongoing education.

Third, it will greatly improve your public speaking. I know, this isn’t at the top of a lot of developer’s “I must achieve greatness in” categories. However, consider that you’ll be speaking about topics that you are passionate about.

I once had a developer tell me to never ever put him in front of a customer. Well, I had two sales engineers out sick and an important prospective customer on the phone with a question. So I called in this reluctant developer (much to his chagrin) and put him on the phone. He absolutely helped us close the deal because he was so knowledgeable in an unpretentious way that really sold the customer – who was a serious techie as well.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a great people person. When it comes down to it, you would mainly be dealing with other techies – speaking the same language. And that common bond helps sell software much more than some semi-technical person talking out of their behind.

It’s true that there isn’t much coding going on in this position, which some developer’s simply cannot deal with. You will likely write some integration code here and there or maybe have a side project you can work on, but when it comes down to brass tacks your job is to make the software look like nirvana.

Now considering these difficult economic circumstances, perhaps this isn’t a good time to switch jobs. But if you find yourself out of a job, you may consider this move more seriously because you don’t have much else to lose. And it’s not likely that sales engineering will be offshored or outsourced in anyway, so in some ways a move like this may offer more job security in the future.

If it doesn’t work out, just think how you’ll impress your friends with those newly refined public speaking skills!

Eric Spiegel is CEO and co-founder of XTS, which provides software for planning, managing and auditing Citrix and other virtualization platforms.

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