PreSales Collective SE Spotlight column aims to provide education and insight while highlighting SEs from the community doing amazing things.
I just passed the 15 year mark in my career and felt prompted to write about the last 5 in particular. In a very roundabout way, I’ve stumbled into what I believe is the best job in tech: that of a PreSales Engineer (a.k.a. PreSales, Sales Engineer (SE), Solutions Consultant (SC), etc.).
My intent in writing is to share the meaningful parts of my journey, advocate for the PreSales role to anyone interested, and to shamelessly request the input/advice of those willing to share it. It probably also goes without saying that doing something that’s a bit of a stretch for me (writing) isn’t the worst thing in the world either.
My big observation: “The job is simple but not easy.”
I’m not sure who I heard this from, but want to make sure to put it in quotes so I don’t take credit for it. It’s the best distillation of the role that I’ve heard to date.
It really is simple. If a technology company employs you in a PreSales role, it is to generate revenue by driving increased purchases of software. It’s extremely tempting to get distracted by all of the variety that the job brings, but at the end of the day, you are tasked with selling more software. That’s it. The best SEs I’ve seen embrace and own this, everyone else struggles to remember it. I didn’t get comfortable with (or competent at) the job until I stopped being embarrassed by the word ‘Sales’ in my job title.
At the same time, the job’s not easy. I go into why I love the job further below, but the TL;DR version of why the job is hard is this: companies don’t often flippantly purchase software. In the PreSales role you must be able to understand, participate in, and at times carry a business conversation that has nothing to do with technology. Then, almost on the turn of a dime, you have to be technically credible with a separate audience and speak with authority on how to solve that particular business’ problem and/or help them generate revenue. If you’re lucky, you do this across a host of different types of businesses and organizations. And if this wasn’t daunting enough, you will find yourself repeating this dance of sorts with multiple team members, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
My big fear: “What Am I Missing?”
When I was 20 years old, I looked at my 15 year old self as a total moron. Then 25 year old me scoffed at 20 year old me’s problems. A few years ago 35 year old me legitimately wondered how 25 year old me didn’t kill us. At the risk of turning this into my own therapy session, I’m fairly certain this dynamic will continue as time goes on.
This dynamic is my biggest fear in the PreSales role. One thing has proven true 100% of the time I’ve been in PreSales: I laugh (sometimes audibly) at what the previous SE version of me thought he knew. And it’s been that way each of the 5 years in this job.
I’m afraid of what happens when I stop getting help. My natural state is to think I can just wing it and that I’m good. Cue the narrator of my biography saying “He isn’t/wasn’t.” The reality is that I discovered this job on accident, was not good at it when I started, and have had a ton of people invest in me. Today, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants and that’s an inescapable fact. What happens when I forget that (I so badly want to say if, but that would be a lie)? What happens when I don’t play defense against complacency? What am I missing that risks squandering the opportunity in front of me?
That all probably sounds more intense than it is, but it's the best language I have. This job is great, up until the point you think you are great at it. The PreSales role is just about impossible to master, but incredibly rewarding to try. The best ones I’ve seen make it look incredibly easy, but behind the scenes work incredibly hard at their craft. They make it seem so simple, but are the first to tell you that it’s not easy.
And with all that said, I know I’ll be reading this a year from now and trying to keep in a laugh.
Why I Love the PreSales Role
The truth is that I found the SE role by accident and only because of encouragement (and at times admonishment) from some folks I respect (hat tip to Bhanu, Emily, and Jeff). Now that I’m in it, however, I’ve really come to love and appreciate all of the opportunity it affords. As mentioned before, the role isn’t easy and does put some fear in me at times. It feels nearly impossible to master, but you quickly know who the great SEs are when you learn from them and, if you’re lucky, watch them work.
As I reflect on the last 5 years and dream into the future, I think there are four traits that have either been there or developed over time that really serve me well in this job. Whenever I’m asked how I feel about the SE role, my response seems to always focus on one or more of the following:
Desire to Have Impact
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” - Jackie Robinson
This is a trait that has always been present for me. Now, I'm definitely not saying I’ve always been able to have an impact, but I’ve always wanted to. I don’t even always have a positive impact, but I always desire to. Whether it’s personal or professional, something meaningful or something flippant, playing a sport or having a conversation, I have this strong desire to positively impact the people around me.
(photo caption: we brought the chicken sandwich challenge to a customer on-site)
One of my favorite parts of being an SE is the opportunity to impact customers, prospects, peers, partners, leadership, other teams, etc. with your day to day work. You really sit in the middle of a lot of interesting conversations and/or problems. The trick, however, is that you have to do the hard (and sometimes exhausting) work to be competent. You cannot skip that step. If you are not competent and you don’t understand your customer, their problem, the solution, the product, or your market, you might be having an impact, but it’s certain to not be the one you want.
Fine in Unpredictable
“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.” - Gilda Radner
This one is definitely not my natural state but something I have to actively work on. I scored in the 98th percentile for anxiety when taking a personality test in grad school so I can’t overstate how much I want to control things. As I work on this particular skillset, however, I find myself loving the SE role more and more.
As an SE, you really have to be ‘audible-ready’. Things can and will change on you fast and to be effective you have to be like the duck that looks cool and calm above the water while working furiously hard underneath it. There’s a danger in over-rotating on this skill though, because you might begin thinking you can just wing it. On my worst days, I’m arrogant, act like ‘I got it’ for no real reason, and the poor results follow. On my best days, I look at a phrase like ‘Delicious Ambiguity’ in a positive light and realize the power of it. The key for me is that the good days are not because I’m some magical Don Draper of the demo. The good days come from the hard work of preparing as much as possible with my team so that we’ve given ourselves the best possible chance to problem solve and respond when the unpredictable begins to happen.
Challenged to Grow
“The challenge of the unknown future is so much more exciting than the stories of the accomplished past.” - Simon Sinek
I’ve got a personal history that makes this trait a little more natural. I’ll save you the history of the chip on my shoulder, but let’s just say that I would not be offended if you accused me of having Napoleon Syndrome.
In any event, the SE role is hard because of the intersection it sits in. You’re expected to drive a business conversation just as well as you can drive a technical conversation. You’re asked to work with stakeholders at all levels of the organization and be equally as comfortable in each. As with most areas of life, finding this delicate balance is tough, but also an incredible opportunity to grow in a wide array of skills.
“Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.” - Jimi Hendrix
Yes, if you’re selling the right product, in the right stage of the market, and are at the right company, there are financial rewards to being an SE. While I’ve never given any compensation back and don’t plan to in the future, I can honestly say I don’t find the financial rewards to be the primary motivator in this role.
If you have success as an SE, you find yourself being recruited by other teams in your organization. If you serve your customers well, you can really drive an impact in their business and see your champions accelerate their careers. If you build your reputation and take care of your teammates, you may find yourself with an opportunity to advance and/or relocate. And finally, if you’re lucky enough to work with leaders you respect/admire and then you deliver in your role, you find yourself minimizing the amount of times you interview for jobs in the future. The job is tough, the hours can be grueling, and you don’t always win. But if you stick with it, the amount of opportunities available to you and the number of people you can positively impact are some of the greatest rewards you can get.
This is purely my opinion, but one mentality that I think really helps in the PreSales role is what I call “Big S, little e”. Basically it goes like this: If you can’t be the perfect unicorn balance of Sales and Engineer, then be competent at both but be better at Sales (Big S) than you are at engineer (little e).
Next week I will share "How Great SEs Go About Their Business".
For 15 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.