Tell me about your sales engineer/field support job
December 16, 2009 9:07 AM   Subscribe

After 12 or so unhappy years in the tech world, I'm looking for a career that is more people oriented. Wondering if sales engineering might be the way to go, and if so if I have the right skill set.

Loved, loved, loved cs school, but never really found my career niche. By many perspectives I've created a great situation for myself - I work part time as a freelance software developer, and part time as a musician. So I should be happy, but....I think I may be ready to do something other than software development, and from trying to figure out what's missing, I know my next move needs to involve more interaction with people. I'm exploring some complete 360 career switches, but it'd be great to find an enjoyable/profitable way to leverage my tech experience.

I've seen sales engineering mentioned as a tech job that requires people skills. I think I've got the people skills, and I definitely need to do something where I'm problem solving. But I'm not sure I've got the tech skills. I look at the posting on job boards and frankly, my eyes glaze over, I can't make heads or tails of most of the job descriptions. Mostly I've built web/database applications (various languages), but I don't have a lot of experience in networking or systems admin, electrical engineering, I have little experience with enterprise systems like SAP, Salesforce, etc. The only remote experience I've had with sale engineering was when I was first out of school and worked for a medical device company and did some installations of our equipment in hospitals (tagging along so I could see how it was actually being used).

I would love to hear about your sales/support engineering position - what industry you are in, what you do, what skills you needed, etc. Double points if you live a distance away (several hours) from a large metropolis, or if you've managed to work only part time (I recognize I may have to give that part of my lifestyle up for a more rewarding career).

anon since I'd rather my coworkers not know I'm looking to move on
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I work at an art school and we worship our IT staff. The director hires the IT staff based on their great personal skills, and all of them a very valued members of our community, nay teachers, nay gurus. Get a job in the right context, because with your skill set and people skills you are golden to a creative environment.
posted by effluvia at 9:13 AM on December 16, 2009

In addition to sales engineer, you can always work in sales for a value added reseller. Those jobs involve both sales and technical knowledge, and you can get trained really quickly in the technical aspects - the primary hiring criteria is (or should be) personal/sales skills. Feel free to memail me if something like that interests you.
posted by lorrer at 9:43 AM on December 16, 2009

In my company, there are Sales Engineers who work directly with very large Fortune-500-esque clients and help them implement their versions of our systems. How much you like that will depend on how much you like the clients, and what kind of people they are. In my non-tech experience dealing with the very high end of clients, some of them can be complete dicks because they know they can get away it, and everyone on our side hates dealing with them. On the other hand, with clients that are more forward-thinking, you might be able to form a happily creative and mutually-beneficial relationship, which is great. On the balance of things, I think it's about a 70:30 dicks:nice people split, so your overall satisfaction will be impacted by how you can filter the 30.

Alternative, there are Sales Engineers who are entirely internal-facing. They work with the sales teams to build small but high-impact tools and projects that are important and generate revenue, but would never get on the overall company's product develoment roadmap as they are not high-impact enough. That jobs mixes talking to people, understanding the business and tech skills; if I had the right balance I would go for it myself (but I lack the programming side).

Feel free to mail me if you want to discuss further.
posted by StephenF at 9:48 AM on December 16, 2009

I think of the tech industry as an ecosystem with room for a lot of different roles, and good for you for exploring and finding a role that's more suited to you. Most of the roles do have more human interaction than straight-up software development.

Could you speak a little about why sales engineering caught your eye more than technical writing, business analysis, project or product management, testing/QA, interaction design/information architecture/usability, or community management did? I think it would be helpful to get a better sense of your particular interests, skills, and likes and dislikes.
posted by brainwane at 9:49 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you liek the hardware side of it.

I am a network tech at a library and half my job is helping the staff and patrons of the library use the machines. So maybe you should try the network admin and network tech side of IT for your people interaction without having the go back to school.
posted by majortom1981 at 12:37 PM on December 16, 2009

OP Here (in hindsight being anon seems a little tedious for this, sorry admins!):

Thanks for all the great suggestions and a reminder that indeed the tech world is big world with lots of possibilities. As to what attracted me to sales engineering, it seemed like it might fulfill my desire to learn more about how the world works...I feel like I've been so caught in details of the code. I also feel that I have a woeful number of contacts for having been in the industry so long, a product of mostly working at small (< 10 people) companies. I thought SE might provide me an opportunity to learn about different businesses, what services they needed, expand my connections and worldview. It also seemed that it could fulfill my need to have my work make a difference, answering questions, explaining things, catching 'gotcha's before they become big issues, etc. Doesn't have to world changing, just the idea that at the end of the day, some little corner is a little bit brighter.
posted by snowymorninblues at 1:06 PM on December 16, 2009

snowymorninblues: A laudable set of goals! You might want to think about "business analyst" as a position to consider. The business analyst translates from a customer's needs into a functional specification for the technology they need. As I see it, a sales engineer has a similar job but is focused on getting customers and on aftermarket support; I think the broader role of business analyst might suit you better.

Another way to expand your perspective is to do a little volunteering in the open source world. You already use Linux so you're aware of how much it can burnish your professional reputation to have open source experience on your resume! You're a musician, so you might be a valuable contributor to the Audacity recording/mixing app or the Hydrogen drum machine app. And once you feel comfortable contributing to an project whose userbase you're familiar with, you can move on to CiviCRM, or Miro, or Apache, or GStreamer, or some other app whose userbase you find intriguing. Open source gives you more contacts, it definitely improves the world, and it helps you broaden your perspective on different communities and fields.
posted by brainwane at 4:47 PM on December 16, 2009

I've worked in a number of these IT mixed with people skill roles.

Currently I'm a technical account manager. I work from home. I have five customers who I look after for a set of products. So that can be technical support, some programming, getting them in touch with the right people in the company.

With the right customers it can be a very sweet job. Although with the wrong customers it can be bad. Being people facing in IT can be a double edged sword.

I used to do IT training which is a great people facing job. That can be a lot of fun. Although often includes a lot of travel and it can be gruelling being the focus of attention all day every day.

I've never taken a sales engineer job, but have a lot of friends who have. Good money in it but you have to be take to take the sales side in your stride. Meeting quotas, confidently presenting on technical areas you only have a superficial knowledge of in order to sell product, recommending products you get commission on regardless of whether they are the right product.
posted by aTrumpetandaDream at 3:12 AM on December 17, 2009

I've been a sales engineer for a software company for the last 3 years. Previously I was in the core engineering organization. I realized that I really liked the SE-type aspects of my job (small company, lots of hats) and after spending a few years cranking out code, I switched to the SE job.

I liked writing code--interesting challenges and it was a rewarding job. But the SE position gave me a lot more flexibility in a lot of ways--I had different kinds of problems to solve, I met more people, and I got to do a bit of travel. The travel is fun up to a certain point. Most of my time is spent working on presentations, proofs of concept, delivering demos and technical presentations tailored for a particular prospect, etc. MeMail me if you want details.

Overall, I felt that the SE job is a better fit for my skillset. I was a good engineer, but I didn't have a deep computer science training.

Oh, and you can make more money in sales. The closer you are to the customers, the more money you make.
posted by tybstar at 7:55 PM on December 17, 2009

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