So you just started your career in tech. You’re a Sales Development Rep, a Business Development Rep, a Lead Development Rep, or some other iteration of one of the hardest jobs in the world. You grind every day, researching, calling, emailing, and pursuing good fit buyers to meet with your Account Executives.
And sometimes, you sit on the opportunities you sourced. As they develop, your AEs loop in their Sales Engineers. The SEs seem to answer all the tough technical questions while also providing strategic direction to the conversations.
If you’re wondering what it takes to make the case to go from SDR to SE at your company, I’ve got a few tips.
Why me? Well, I did it.
Why Would You Even Go This Route?
Before getting into how to get there, let’s talk about why you’d want to be an SE.
This answer is going to be different for everyone. And the answer is in opposition to the idea that SDRs should become AEs. That is the most common route, but it’s not for everyone. If you find yourself focusing on technology more than your peers and answering technical questions ahead of your AE, then being a sales engineer might be right for you. Additionally, if you want to master the tech while still working on the sales team, be (in many cases) on a high volume of calls, and combine your artistic and scientific sides, then again, being a sales engineer may be right for you.
For me, I wanted to get on a lot of calls and I wanted to use my technical background. At my company, our SEs are aligned with a few sales reps. Early on in my career, I wanted the chance to be on as many calls as possible to learn as fast as possible. At the same time, I wanted to keep my tech skills sharp and learn how to use technical knowledge to help win a customer. I also wanted to learn MarTech, the space I’m in, on a deep level.
As I said, the answer will be different for everyone. That’s something you’ve got to think about. If you come to the conclusion that being an SE is your desired next step, this article can help you do all the right things to get yourself ready and qualified to do so.
Hit Your Number
I know, I know. This one’s obvious. You need to do it though. If you’re making the case to your leadership that you should take an unconventional path, you need the numbers to show it. No matter what, you need to hit your quota as an SDR.
This doesn’t mean you have to be the best SDR of all time, where everything you touch turns to a qualified pipeline. It means that you should be consistently performing over time. Earn the trust of your manager. Earn the trust of your AEs.
Some businesses see their SDRs as a pipeline for AEs and at others, they’re perceived as a pipeline for talent. If you’re in the latter category, it will be easier to make your case. If you’re in the former, consistently hitting your number actually gives you leverage to go in a different direction.
It is really hard to hire good SDRs. They’re often coming directly out of school or going through a career change. If you’re regularly delivering your AEs qualified opportunities, you’re far more important to your company than they’re probably letting on.
For me, my company originally wanted me to be an AE. Being a top-performing SDR helped me to start broaching conversations about other directions. Without those numbers, I wouldn’t have had any influence on the conversation.
Know your worth when you’re crushing your numbers. And leverage it.
Get Familiar with Your Product
When you bring in opps that are helping you to hit your number, work alongside your AEs and SEs to follow the opps even after you’ve done what you need to do to get paid on it (for most SDRs, this is typically some level of qualification).
Every company’s qualification criteria are unique. Depending on yours, you might not even be seeing the product by the time the SDR to AE handoff happens. By continually strategizing, attending calls, and watching demos, your product knowledge will skyrocket. If you can get access to call recordings, watch the more technical demos that tend to happen later in a cycle.
If you want to get an internal promotion to SE, you need to know your product really well. Ask if you can get certain permissions or access to a sandbox environment to play around with. One of the best ways to learn is by actually doing. For me, that meant getting practice integrating with our major partners. Once I did that, I felt more comfortable speaking to the integrations.
Build a Proof of Concept
While we’re talking product, if you can create a Proof of Concept (PoC), do it!!
For many SE orgs, creating proof of concepts is core to their jobs. Again, what this looks like can vary, but they typically involve implementing your software or hardware in a customers’ environment.
Now, this might seem intimidating, although as an SDR, you’re in a perfect position to do this. If you source the opportunity, why not ask your SE if you can help them with a PoC? This way you get to do the job before you’re doing the job. If you can show that you’re already building PoCs, you strengthen your case. Never mind that if your PoC comes early in a deal, your AE might just accept that opportunity a little more easily. I know this isn’t a “How to SDR” article, but I couldn’t resist tossing in that tip.
Often a PoC leads to a closed-won deal. One of the best ways to get a job you want is to do the job before you have it; if you can show that you helped build a PoC to help a deal close, you’re already doing the SE job. If your PoCs don’t lend themselves to a project like this, consider what other aspects of the SE role you could be doing as an SDR and do them.
While you learn the product and build PoCs, industry certifications are another excellent way to gain credibility, both internally and with customers. Find out what the major certs are in your industry and get one. Your company might even pay for your cert. It’s work-related and will only make you better at your job. I work a lot with Marketing Automation Platforms, tools that help companies streamline their marketing efforts. To get technical validation, I often have to demonstrate how my product works with these tools. I started with one Marketing Automation certification (Adobe Marketo Certified Expert) and then went on to grab a couple of others.
This made it clear to my leaders that I was ready to move on from my SDR role because I went above and beyond the typical professional development at that level. It also helped me earn the trust of my customers as a newer SE. Introductions are crucial for SEs, and I’ll confess that when I was a bit newer, I’d get my AEs to mention those certifications when introducing me. It absolutely helped earn trustworthiness right away.
The PreSales Collective also offers a number of ways to learn general SE knowledge. The combination of their PreSales Enablement and PreSales Technical Enablement courses provide really good backgrounds for the basics of the sales side and the engineering side. Even as a newer SE, I found the courses really helpful in accelerating my development.
If we’re talking about development, mentorship plays a huge role. Find someone who is in the position where you want to be. When I was looking to make the jump from SDR, I expressed interest to one of the senior SEs at my company, Andrew. He was open to working together and we set up weekly syncs where he’d give me assignments and subjects to learn about.
This not only helped me, but it helped Andrew, too. Soon after I became an SE, Andrew would become my manager. Mentorship is a two-way street. You’ll get a lot out of it and so will your mentor.
It doesn’t always come that naturally, though. If you can’t find someone internally, search elsewhere. If you’re in any kind of business that uses sales engineers, someone on your team probably knows a good sales engineer outside of the business. Use those connections to find someone, or use communities like the PreSales Collective to get connected with more senior SEs.
Even as a junior SE, I found PSC valuable for networking and learning how others are executing on their craft. There was the SE Manager, Kevin (different Kevin!), who told me, “Just be an expert for an hour,” which helped me early on to prepare for calls differently. There was the senior SE leader, Dave, who shared why he thought being an SE was the best job on earth. And there was the new SE Manager, Maggie, who shared a little bit about her transition into leadership.
Work with Your AEs
On the note of mentorship, this doesn’t always have to come from another SE. As an SDR, you have to work closely with your Account Executives. You are likely teaming up to find new business in a territory. As an SE, you also have to work closely with your Account Executives. The nice thing about going from SDR to SE is that you’ll have experience collaborating.
AEs are not SDRs bosses (how many acronyms can I find in one sentence?). It’s a partnership, where you work together. AEs can become incredible mentors who can help you get to the next stage.
As an SDR, I had an AE with whom I’d meet every week. My AE, Anthony, told me how he went from SDR to AE. He wrote out his goals, KPIs, and things he’d need to learn to become an AE. When I explained that my goal was different, we went through the same exercise to create a roadmap to become an SE. Every week, one agenda item on our one-on-ones was to check in on my progress there.
When I became an SE, I had experience working with AEs. I was able to navigate the nuances of how to partner up to work a deal. If you’re trying to get that promotion to SE, don’t discount your experience working alongside your AEs. Use that experience and tell stories about how you've worked with AEs before. The interpersonal part of the AE-SE relationship is huge, and your experience as an SDR provides a valuable grounding in making it work. Funnily enough, Anthony and I ended up working together quite a bit in the AE-SE role too. Our prior experience led to a fantastic working relationship after I changed positions.
If All Else Fails….
This is how I did it and this is mostly geared towards SDRs looking for an internal promotion to SE, but a lot of the advice still applies.
Use communities like the PreSales Collective to forge relationships and see if there is an SE role right for your business. My team recently hired someone that we met through the PSC Slack channel. Jacquie was looking to make a pivot from a very different industry. She met with us and had such a passion for sales engineering, that we had to get her on the team.
And she is crushing it. SEs can come from anywhere, not just developers or SDRs or AEs or Customer Success Managers. A common theme here is that every journey is different. Focus on yours and how to get to where you want.
If you’re an SDR trying to make the jump to SE, you should:
- Hit your number: this is table stakes. Crush your current job to earn credibility to do your next one.
- Learn your product: get access to play around and learn the tech.
- Build a proof-of-concept: do the job before you have the job!
- Get industry-respected certifications: if you pass a standardized exam, you only make your case stronger.
- Find a mentor: learn from someone who has done it.
- Work with your AEs: they were probably SDRs too at some point and had promotion goals of their own. Learn from them.
This list is by no means all-inclusive. It does, however, provide a starting point for making the jump to one of the coolest jobs in the world. Your experience as an SDR is really valuable and you’ll take it with you to any role, especially that of an SE.
Good luck out there!
Kevin Jacobs is a Sales Engineer with a passion for all things MarTech. He holds a Master of Information, a BA in English Literature, and an ok sense of humour. When he isn’t at work you can find him making things up on stage, careening down a pop culture rabbit hole, or watching old seasons of Survivor.