I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Sales Engineers pick the positions they occupy. Depending on the company you work for, the SE role can involve very different day-to-day tasks. There are some obvious and more obscure reasons to choose one company (or type of company) over the other. I don’t know that I need to cover basic aspects such as salary, benefits, culture, travel, etc. While they are important, I’m sure they have been covered elsewhere. What I’m more interested in is what aspects of being an SE draw certain people to certain roles.
To begin with some type of logical progression, let’s start with a startup. Certain products are so complex companies need to begin hiring SEs at the same time/pace as reps. In this environment the SE is able to deeply specialize in one product. The SE will probably even be a key determinant of product direction and will have a close working relationship with the developer. At the same time the SE will also be spread very thin between accounts and will be acting in a sales capacity a large portion of the time. New companies have poor territory coverage and therefore reps and SEs are not always at the same account at the same time. This situation is what I refer to as product specialized; business generalist. The SE intimately knows the product, but covers many business angles between engineering, sales, support, services, etc. From past experience (and only a slight psychology education) I am positing that this SE either 1) really enjoys or gets comfort from understanding all aspects of a product, or 2) really likes being involved in all parts of the business, or seeing the product all the way through the lifecycle as it were.
As you move in to medium size businesses, the product mix is likely still such that it is easy for the SE to maintain deep expertise across the entire product line of maybe 1-4 products, especially since there is almost always a dominant product. There is, however, much more clearly defined infrastructure to support the sale and accompanying process. The SE would be spending much more time tied to the rep and the majority of work is within a stricter definition of the SE role. To me this is product specialized; business specialized. This SE would enjoy or be more comfortable within the confines of the job description and still be able to have ultimate mastery of the technology. It also likely provides additional stability not found in startups.
When you get to large business, it gets more interesting because there is likely a continuum of responsibilities inside the SE organization. You can “specialize” as a generalist meaning you are the big picture guy/gal. You can work channel, SMB, top tier accounts, product specialist, industry verticals, etc. In that sense you can define your career (or market) as anywhere from product generalist/specialist to business generalist/specialist. If you’re at a large company you are probably there for a reason: job stability, great benefits, variety in positions available, etc., but the interesting questions to me are 1) Does the average SE understand this continuum and market themselves purposely? and 2) On what basis are they making decisions (i.e. why choose one over the other)?
Again, going back to experience to try and answer these questions, my belief is that most SEs do understand this facet, though mostly at a subconscious level. This means that for question 2, the answer is mostly instinct and not a result of careful/thoughtful planning. If you’ve never thought specifically about this concept before, it would be very beneficial for you to understand your current and desired path to see if they align. If I had my eyes set on a product manager position, it might behoove me to seek SE roles that allow me to specialize in a product line but give me wide berth in terms of business areas I touch. If your goal is try out being a rep, you’ll need wide business exposure along with a broad understanding of the portfolio, competition, marketplace, etc.
This process isn’t only about complementary skills but also about setting yourself up to meet the right people and build the right network. For example, being seen as a technology leader inside your company for a product is sure to get noticed by the product manager.
As you gain rapport with the right people and build the right skills, doors mysteriously find a way of opening.
The implications for SE managers should be clear. I think it is our duty to have these conversations with our people. Once we understand (or get our people to understand) what path they would like to take, we gain deeper insight into personality types. We can point people to roles that will set them up for success and greater satisfaction. Even if you don’t do it for the right reason, do it because your competition (internal and external) will.