In order to provide unique experiences and opinions, this article has been co-authored between 3 members of the PreSales Collective, Pabel Martin of Sprinklr, Liam Mahoney of Oracle, and Travis Strickland of Adobe.
A common question we all arrive at is whether or not to specialize in one technology and be focused (e.g. analytics), specialize in an industry/vertical (e.g. financial services), or be a generalist across different technologies/disciplines/verticals and specialize in ‘PreSales’. The classic specialist vs. generalist dilemma.
While we don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer, each path has its pros and cons. This article is meant to capture the thought processes that help people arrive at one vs. the other, as well as the experiences you may have in each. It is important to note that as a whole, the role and skills of a PreSales Professional is transferable to any type of role or organization, so you can always adjust or change course. It's more just a personal preference as to how you want to apply your skills and experiences.
Everyone has at least one or two ‘go-to’ technical specialists right? That person you know is going to have the answer, and if they don’t then you know there is no known answer. To achieve that level of technical aptitude typically takes years of dedication, learning, and passion. Not everyone is cut out for this type of role, as it goes far past the ‘generalist’ level of knowledge to the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours level of mastery. Individuals that aspire to this type of role may or may not stay within industries or verticals but they are nearly always dedicated to the same primary pursuit and goal from a career trajectory, whether that be back end coding, front end HTML building, or being a product-specific expert. I think that these types of individuals are extremely valuable to any organization and provide a wealth of knowledge and expertise ‘on-demand’ that other PreSales individuals might have to go learn about or ‘build’. This type of PreSales pro can be critical in establishing trust and favor in an opportunity with a customer.
By specializing in a single industry or vertical, you can position yourself to become a thought leader in the space throughout your career. You’ll not only understand the industry from a technology point of view but over time you’ll gain a holistic understanding of everything in the space. For example, that could range from common industry-specific marketing, procurement, or human resources procedures all the way to specific accounting and reporting requirements. This path is especially appealing to people with past industry experience. There is no training in this world that will make you understand an industry more than actually spending time working in it.
The flip side of the specialist is the generalist and that is equally as good! At the end of the day, we are all professionally curious and ultimately want to help others. While an organization of specialists is great, it might be too closed-minded without even knowing it. Sometimes it takes someone different, from a different type of background or vertical or industry, to shed light on something that you’ve never thought about before or even realized was a problem. As an example, maybe someone with a Professional Services background will be highly sensitive to issues in the PreSales process/function that make life harder for the teams that need to implement for the customer. You know, just a hypothetical. The cross-pollination of ideas and concepts that generalists bring to an organization is critical for continued growth. There is also the other side of the coin of why it’s valuable for the generalist themselves. Typically generalists learn new things relatively quickly and have a wide breadth of knowledge on many topics and experiences. Over time this makes them valuable (and employable) across many different situations, organizations, roles, geographies, and working with many types of personas, both internal and external.
How Did It Happen
Liam here. As technology evolved, so did the time required to fully understand a singular application, platform, stack, or anything in between. Due to the limited amount of time in the day or an individual’s entire career, this led to people in the tech space becoming more and more specialized. What used to be a team of three Information Technology specialists, became a team of one person focused on hardware, one person focused on the day to day maintenance, and one person focused on the application. As technology increasingly becomes more and more complex, I forecast this specialization trend to deepen itself.
As somebody interested in a huge variety of industries, this personally seemed like a good fit for me early in my career because it allows me to work with many industries, but at a more technical level than I maybe could have otherwise. I focus on the financial and analytical side of things, but this applies to any industry (even if all I’m learning about is how that industry records and analyzes their data). Thinking more long-term, if down the road I decide to focus on a specific industry/vertical, I’ll have applicable technical knowledge to make myself more impactful and valuable to that team.
Travis here with my two cents on this as I am 4+ years into my planned dedication to the MarTech space, with a specific focus on Marketing Automation technology. It took a switch to the ‘generalist’ category to realize my desire to stay in MarTech and specialize in this industry. I think for anyone debating this type of situation you really need to sit back and ask yourself questions like: Do I enjoy the buyers? Do I enjoy the technology? Can I have an impact on the industry and customers? After making the switch away it became painfully obvious to me that I really did enjoy it and that I missed it. So I came back, and I have no plans to leave anytime soon. I also have the additional experience of having worked at a competitor, which I think can be very valuable when helping customers understand the value of various companies and platforms in a very crowded space. All of that culminates in the fact that I believe I can have a much bigger impact by having a deeper wealth of knowledge on personas, buyers, attitudes, technologies, integrations, goals, pains, etc. that all contribute to a sales process in the MarTech space.
Pabel here. The truth is that I found PreSales by accident. I’d love to claim some great strategic thinking and decision making to take the generalist path but the reality is that I’m not sure I had another option. My career started in software testing, IT audit, and then security consulting as I found my way. I then made a home in Professional Services as an individual contributor and worked my way up to Sr. Manager before finally admitting it wasn’t for me. Numerous mentors encouraged me to go into PreSales so I went to a competitor in the Security space where I had some credibility and started my PreSales journey. From there I was recruited by some folks in my network and switched from Security to Communications. That pattern repeated to an Integrations company and now at a Customer Experience and Marketing technology company. Even though I’ve switched technology domains/disciplines 5 times now, there’s been one consistent thread: I love PreSales. The skills you develop in PreSales roles are valuable across all companies, verticals, and domains. Fortunately for me, the generalist path fits my personality, strengths, weakness, and preferences, and I’m forever grateful I found it.
In terms of specializing in one technology, you do risk that technology becoming obsolete. Another risk is that you may become pigeon-holed in a specific space. Say for example, if an individual were to specialize in enterprise grade supply chain software. Later in their career, they decide to pivot to music publishing or the fashion industry, unfortunately that pivot may be more challenging than somebody who positioned themselves as a generalist.
This may be rare, but it is possible for an industry to get disrupted so significantly that even a specialist in the space will have a more challenging time deepening their career. Take for example, an individual that specialized in the telegraphing industry. When said industry was disrupted by telephones and emails, those specialists likely had a more difficult time pivoting when compared with their generalist counterparts.
Taking the industry/vertical specialization approach does potentially expose you to extreme disruptions such as the telegraph example mentioned above. However, the benefits of being an expert in your domain tend to outweigh any potential disruptions or chances of being stuck in a certain field.
The generalist path can often be an emotional roller coaster. Each time you “switch”, expect to feel dumb. You’re learning an entirely different technology, industry, vocabulary, and buyer. There might be the savants out there that can avoid this dynamic, but I’ve not had that experience. It often takes anywhere from 12-18 months to feel like you’re “back” and on your game in a PreSales role. The main issue is that even though you may know how to do PreSales, the foundation of the job is knowing your technology and understanding where it fits in the market. That is not something you can fake and it takes time to rebuild. Additionally, you have the pressure of proving yourself internally and externally to the “experts” since you don’t have the built in credibility of previous experience. It’s not impossible by any means, but you have to get the tone right and strike the delicate balance between humility of knowing where you have to grow while also displaying the confidence that you have the right to be there. Finally, an unavoidable reality is that it is challenging to justify to the next company in a new domain that they should bet on you. Your network can and often will get you very far, but at the end of the day, you have to prove you’re worth the gamble and that often adds an extra layer of stress and pressure to the interview process.
Those that fully understand a technology empower themselves to use that technology to innovate. If you look at most successful founders of technology companies, they usually have an extensive background and understanding in their respective technology.
Additionally, for those that position themselves with a technical skill set that becomes increasingly desired in the economy, their employability, negotiation power, and overall economic return can grow significantly. An example of this would be those who studied data analytics in the early 2000s. Since then, the demand for their skills has skyrocketed, making them some of the most sought after employees in the world.
The rewards of specializing in an industry or vertical culminate in the fact that you have a deep understanding of the buyers, technology, integrations, thought leaders, business objectives, pains, etc. This will help you position yourself throughout each sales process as a thought leader which will help you to gain trusted advisor status in a much more meaningful (and easier) way. That thought leadership status applies both externally with prospects and customers as well as internally as you can help you teammates and colleagues to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the space.
It’s shocking every time it happens, but your knowledge from other domains finds a way of sneaking into your current conversations and can give you a different type of authority/credibility in certain situations. As an example, the global pandemic has really elevated the visibility and importance of the digital customer experience. Knowing how customer call centers work (from my telecommunications days) enables me to help my current customer champions in Marketing understand how to work with and connect to their internal teammates in Customer Service. I’ve even found myself speaking to security and compliance concerns and questions. It’s not like always remembering how to ride a bike, but it's certainly better than being clueless about the topic. Having additional areas available to you for connecting with your audience(s) will surprise you in its value.
Also, on a somewhat selfish level, being a generalist offers a unique experience in terms of network building. You end up connecting with customers and colleagues in so many different areas that over time the switching gets just a little bit easier each time and your credibility to do so continues to deepen.
We hope this helps. The beauty is that you’re not ever locked into one path or the other. While the aim here is to help out folks starting in PreSales or those asking this question, the reality is that there’s no right/wrong answer. PreSales professionals are some of the most diligent, adaptable, and hard working people in tech, so even if you find yourself wanting to switch journeys, it's well within your reach to make it happen and any good organization will welcome your expertise and experiences, regardless of the path you took to get them.
For 16 years, Pabel has helped some of the largest companies in the world provide amazing experiences through customer experience, communications, security and emerging technology solutions. Passionate about the intersection of business and technology, he has worked across the U.S. with enterprises in the technology, retail, and financial verticals. Now residing in the UK, he is originally from the Dominican Republic, holds a B.S. and M.S. from the University of Florida and an MBA from Auburn University. Connect with Pabel on LinkedIn.
Liam Mahoney is a detail-oriented Financial Solution Engineer working for Oracle who is passionate about digital transformation. Throughout his career, he has gained experience in marketing, sales, channel partnership, and consulting for a variety of companies in the enterprise technology, finance, and start-up worlds. Connect with Liam on LinkedIn.
For Travis, the one thing that has stayed constant throughout his move from Sales to PreSales is his commitment to the best possible customer experience. As a Senior Solutions Consultant focusing on the MarTec industry, he strives every day to help his customers solve issues and realize their full potential through a consultative approach. This approach also extends to his teams internally, where he spends his extra time building and refining enablement programs so his colleagues (and himself) continue to grow both professionally, and personally. Connect with Travis on Linkedin.