Developing the Next Generation of PreSales Professionals

It’s no secret that filling open PreSales jobs has been an ongoing struggle for years. It can be difficult to find talent with the right blend of education, technical know-how, and interpersonal skills. What’s more, there is a shortage of qualified candidates seeking jobs in PreSales. Just take a look at these numbers:

  • Job postings for “Sales Engineer” posted on Indeed on May 13, 2021: 14,620.
  • May 2021 college graduates who hold a degree in Sales Engineering: 0.

If you are a hiring manager seeking to fill one of those 14,620 openings, there are two ways that you can put the right person in that job:

  1. You can work to recruit someone with “X” years of experience and hope you can beat out the other 14,619 hiring managers.
  2. You can recruit and train a group of recent college graduates who have all of the attributes that will make them great PreSales Professionals.

Twice in the last six years, I’ve had the opportunity and honor to help create programs for recent college graduates or what we call Early Career Professionals (ECPs).

My first experience was with a contact center software company that wanted to start developing its own sales talent. At that point, I had over 30 years of sales and sales leadership experience and was given the opportunity to create this training program from scratch.

Fast forward three years and I joined Salesforce with an opportunity to help create a similar program for Solution Engineers, Business Value Analysts, Designers, and Customer Success professionals.

If your organization is considering taking the leap into creating an Early Career Program, I’d like to share five tips for you to consider as you evaluate your options.

1. Career development programs require executive sponsorship.

This is not the sort of program that you can build from a grassroots movement. These programs require total support from the revenue leader of your organization. The main reason is that the return on investment for programs like this is typically two to three years. You are dedicating a leadership resource to run this program, materials for these ECPs, and they are probably not going to be fully productive until the end of the first year.

These programs are long-term investments, but some programs have seen graduates stay four or more years longer than a colleague who did not go through the program. I was very fortunate that the founders of both of the programs that I have worked on were that executive.

In our Sales University, the concept was the brainchild of the Chief Business Officer so I had the full support from the person who owned responsibility for the global sales number.

At Salesforce, that executive was the Executive Vice President of Solution Engineering who ran all of the traps and earned the buy-in from across the organization. This is the first decision point for you. If you don’t have an executive who is willing to be responsible for the success of your program, you should probably stop right here.

2. Start with the end in mind.

An early career program needs to be built around the skill sets that you want these young professionals to be able to demonstrate when they complete the program. For example, with our Sales University program, the company had created an inside sales organization that these graduates would move into upon completion of the program. That meant that there needed to be a strong emphasis on prospecting, discovery, and closing, and that they needed to be trained on delivering an effective demo.

At Salesforce, we knew that there needed to be a strong emphasis on professional skills so we built the beginning of the experience around public speaking, presenting, demonstrating, discovery, and crafting effective presentations. Only after they had successfully demonstrated these skills did we start deep-diving into the product.

When starting these programs, you need to work with your leadership team to understand the outcomes that are going to be important to them. Once you have established an agreement on that, then you can start developing your training program in a way that will prepare your ECPs for success.

3. Go back to school.

One of the best ways to get started building your ECP bench is to return to your University and work with them to establish a pipeline for recruiting. Sales programs and computer science programs seem like the natural ground for recruiting, but remember that PreSales is at the intersection between business and technology so be open to “nontraditional” hires as well.

I have been fortunate enough to work with ECPs from across the world and across majors including:

  • Sales
  • Computer Engineering
  • Product Design
  • Philosophy
  • Education (these people really know how to explain stuff)
  • Cultural Anthropology (my favorite!)

I have had the opportunity to serve on advisory boards and be a regular classroom speaker at several universities over the last six years, and I have found that giving back is the best way to attract the best and brightest. Professors love to refer their best students to people and programs where they know they will succeed.

4. Don’t walk alone.

Many ECP programs are run by a relatively small team. In the case of my first program, it was just me. With our current program, it has varied but typically a ratio of six to 10 ECPs to one leader makes sense.

That doesn’t mean that you are delivering every program every day. In fact, that is a HUGE mistake. A major part of starting a program like this is getting buy-in across the organization that the investment being made in these young professionals will result in them being prepared and being able to make a positive impact on the organization.

The best way to get people to buy-in is to involve them at various points throughout the program. This might include involving them in:

  • Panel Interviews
  • Delivering content
  • Serving as a buyer in roleplay scenarios
  • Providing feedback to presentations
  • Allowing your ECPs to shadow them on calls and customer meetings

If a program like this appears to be somebody’s folly, your ECPs will not be taken seriously or given the respect that their investment in time and energy deserve. Find your advisors and get them bought into the entire process.

5. Just do It.

There’s an old saying, “Nobody learned to ride a bike at a seminar.” That belief never rings truer than when you are running an early career program.

You have to build into your program a regular cadence of “doing the job” over and over. That includes multiples of:

  • Mock discovery calls
  • Handling objections
  • Crafting and telling stories
  • Creating and delivering Presentations and Demos
  • Shadowing real customer meetings (and then debriefing with the SE that ran the meeting)

You need to put your ECPs into as many near “real-world” experiences as you can. Remember, you didn’t learn to ride a bike the first time you sat on the seat.

I am very fortunate to have found my professional calling. Over the last six years, I’ve had the honor of helping over 200 Early Career Professionals launch their careers and the rewards have been overwhelming.

Six years after launching my first program, 83% of the graduates are still with the company. Look at 20 tenured professionals that your company hired six years ago. How many of them are still with you? An Early Career Program can be not only your answer to short-term recruiting, but also to long-term retention.

If you are running a program or are interested in starting one, there is a group of North American companies that meets regularly to share their insights, success, and challenges, The Cross Academy Association. If you are interested in joining, feel free to contact me at

Steve Bullington is a true Hoosier technology professional. Born and raised in Central Indiana, Steve attended Ball State University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Telecommunications and Marketing and then returned to receive a Master of Science degree in Information and Communications Sciences. Steve has spent nearly his entire 35+ year career in technology in Central Indiana including roles with Ameritech, Cincinnati Bell, FedEx, Interactive Intelligence, Genesys, and currently at Salesforce. Connect with Steve on LinkedIn!

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Sorry, this content is available for Leadership Collective Members only!

The Leadership collective is a group designed for PreSales leaders in a management capacity (Manager+ title) who are looking to network, grow professionally, and actively participate.

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