Where's the Login?
I don't think there is a straight forward answer on this.....Usually it is a mix of both....
We see people starting very product oriented, when they start their work and gradually build industry expertise. We also see people getting to know products given that they work on a specific industry!
As years go by, you mix both of them to your advantage and ofcourse advantage of your customers and employees!
At all time, be focused, what ever you do do it well and always be open to new things!
I think there's a 3rd element to this also, the soft skills.
In order of importance, I think it would be Soft Skills > Industry > Product.
Over the course of your career, the products you present will come and go. That's either through job change or demands of the market.
To a lesser extent, the industries may change also. However, industry knowledge will always give you greater gravitas in front of the client.
But no matter what happens, if you don't have the proper soft skills, you're not going to excel. Soft skills will always travel with you and transcend industry/product knowledge. If you can demonstrate effective soft skills, someone will have a spot for you.
Franklin, agree completely. In fact, during our interviews we ask candidates the following question...
"We know that all 3 are important - but if you absolutely had to rank the following 3 skill sets from most critical down...what order would you rank them - Soft Skills/Sales Skills, Vertical Skills, and Product Skills"?
The strongest candidates (at least for our org) put them in that order.
At my current company, we sell a lot of different products (review management, surveys, business listings, social, ticketing) to some very different verticals (e.g. HLS, property management, auto, retail, etc.) and it is such a challenge as an SE to get fluent on everything during ramp, especially because there are only eight of us. This experience is teaching me the immense value in having varied industry expertise on the team.
I started at my company in March and am still getting my arms wrapped around the different ways to position our platform! That said, one way our team has addressed this is by hiring different kinds of SMEs into the more senior SE roles, then expecting everyone to learn and be able to position all of the products. For example, my background is in digital marketing with an emphasis on social media management - I've been brand-side, a consultant, and an SE for SMMS vendors, so I have a lot of knowledge that enables me to help our salespeople do better discovery and position us more intelligently to the buyers I'm most experienced with. Another SE on the team came to us with deep CX knowledge and he does the same, another from healthcare, etc. Our backgrounds are super diverse. As a result, we lean on each other for product knowledge as any SE team does, but we also have the ability to swap industry strategies and stories and our collective intelligence about the different lenses through which our buyers view our space is always growing. The more junior SEs are exposed to a lot more than they would be with a more homogeneous knowledge set, which makes them grow faster, as well.
So, to address your question directly: I think at an individual level, building industry expertise is always going to be a smart play because you can leverage that knowledge in multiple ways. At a team level, I fully believe that any SE worth their salt can learn and sell a product. The best ones share their knowledge effectively - so it's always smart to build a team with diverse (and deep) industry expertise.