How to transition from engineering to sales or marketing?
March 4, 2010 7:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for advice and/or reading materials to learn more about making the transition from computer engineering to sales engineering or marketing.

2 years ago, I took a position at a company that develops and sells software to computer engineers (I had been one of their customers). I now work between R&D, customers, and the sales engineers, essentially in a very technical customer support role. I'm looking for new challenges and am very curious about sales engineering and technical marketing.

I've been fascinated by the sales and marketing roles, particularly because I am interested in and enjoy the customer interaction and strategy aspects of these positions. I also don't want to throw away my 14 years of technical experience, so I'm thinking technical sales or marketing may be a good fit. However, I've been a heads down, hiding behind a monitor type of engineer for much of my career, so I would appreciate any general information (including pitfalls), advice or reading materials about sales or marketing.

I know this question is kind of vague, but I'm not exactly sure where to start, which is why I'm coming here. Please feel free to ask more questions to clarify.
posted by j to Work & Money (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The best thing you could do is go talk to the people in your company - or other companies - that do exactly what you want to do. Ask the sales people if you can listen in on a call (with your line on mute). Take a marketing person out to lunch or coffee. Offer to help them by being the tech person they can call to ask dumb questions without being laughed at. Being that person will make you VERY valuable to sales and marketing.

That will also good training for being a SE, because being a SE is being the interpreter between the customer and the sales people and the people in product development. You need to be able to understand what the customer really wants (as opposed to what they say they want), you need to be able to make sure that sales understands so they don't try to force a 'gap analysis' that's really a feature request, and you need to be able to convincingly make your case to product development as well.

I get that you're a heads-down, head behind the monitor type of person, and so doing this may be very uncomfortable, which is why you're asking for things to read. But to transition into these roles you will have to start interacting with people for large parts of the day, so you'll have to get out of your comfort zone sooner rather than later. Reading will not get you what you need there.

In terms of marketing reading, I would ask your marketing folk what THEY read. It's probably blogs or columns and not books. But there are probably some books. Again, though, talk to them. You have to talk to people if you want to get out of this role.
posted by micawber at 8:04 AM on March 4, 2010

Best answer: I was an SE for 9 years, and believe it or not, moved back into an operational design role. I must say that as far as sales books go, Soft Selling in a Hard World was wonderful. That's about all the reading I can suggest. The rest is all personality and ability.

For example,

A lot of it is being able to truly suss out not what the customer wants, but to understand what they want to do - this will lead you to investigate and design the technical requirements to of what they really need. Advanced Solution Selling is the best way to succeed in the SE role. Can you draw out the information needed from your customers to design a solution that works for their needs today, and in the future?

Your ability to communicate, analyze situations, and present cost/benefit analysis to customers based on their end goals will be critical. Good technical writing skills (for RFP responses for example), are a must.

Ability to communicate internally with engineering and marketing resources is essential - can you bridge these two seemingly divergent worlds?

Can you manage multiple competing priorities? Every sales person will say their sale is the most impressive - think about what tools you will need to manage your sales people - you won't be their manager, but you will find that you have to focus them, keep them honest, and manage their expectations.

Work up your own analogies to technologies that allow you to explain complex things to non-technical people. If you can explain CSMA/CD in under 2 minutes to your mother, and have her understand it, then you've succeeded.

Lastly, and I say this rather frankly - are you a nerd? That is, are you truly passionate about the technology? Customers sense this quickly, and it builds so much confidence and trust with them. Plus, it ensures that you will always be striving for the best solutions instead of just a solution.

I hope this helped and wasn't too off topic.
posted by burhan at 9:07 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IBM sales personnel have been recommended Consultative Selling by Mack Hanan for decades, among other well known sales method books. Zig Ziglar's Selling 101 is also pretty widely recommended to those trying to get their heads in to a sales or sales support job.

In my experience, how successful you'll be in transforming yourself from a bit pusher to an SE is going to depend, to some extent, on your current company's internal culture. In some companies, 100% of the sales team is recruited, trained and managed by the sales management team, who have specific instructions from senior management to stay away from internal technical resources. There are business reasons for this, including protections of IP, and keeping key technical resources away from customers, who may try to recruit technical people for their own deployment and internal support jobs on complex products. So, if you're in a such a company, you may have to move on, as a practical matter, to accomplish a change of career tracks. If you haven't explored whether your company culture is of this type, you might want to have some discrete conversations with colleagues to suss out how many people have actually made such a jump, before you.

If you do find out that making such a jump is possible, or even actively encouraged in your company, you might want to look into recruiting a sales manager as a mentor early on in your process. Find out who the top SE people in your company are, and why they are considered to be tops. It probably won't be their vast product knowledge, and deep technical skills, so much as it is their ability to lead customer technical people into being recommend/referral sources and decision influencers, and perhaps, to be great at collecting and feeding back deep objections and competitive information, from customer technical personnel. Really valuable SEs are great at providing second channel sales intelligence early to midway in a sales cycle, and are often the ones to identify key informal decision influences in an organization, since clients don't readily perceive SEs as being strategic members of the sales team. But the good ones always are. So, you want to emulate the most successful SEs in your company, as identified by your sales manager/mentor, and learn from them how they interact with your sales people, and more importantly, how they contribute, beyond pure product knowledge and technical SE responsibilities, to the overall sales effort.
posted by paulsc at 9:53 AM on March 4, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone.
This is all really good information to think about and I'll check out the books recommended.

As I mentioned, I am in a customer support role. I interface with customers, sales engineers and engineers daily, so am able to communicate to people with various capabilities. In my company, jumping around happens pretty regularly, so I think it's something I could do, which is why I've been thinking about it.

However, I don't spend much time with sales engineers/marketing folks while they're with customers and actually off doing their jobs, so that's the missing piece. And it seems (to me) that each have very different approaches, according to their varying personalities. So, I think I just need to bite the bullet and start some dialogues with folks.

Thanks again - you've given me a lot to think about.
posted by j at 7:41 PM on March 4, 2010

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