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WTF does a Sales Engineer do?

Interview with Sarah Cometa, Sales Engineer



What's your job title? And what do you do?


I work as a Sales Engineer, which is a bit of a silly title, because it's not exactly Sales and it's not exactly Engineering. It’s really a fancy way of saying that you are the technical lead in the software sales process. When you are selling technology, there will always be technical stakeholders, and the sales person can't be expected to know the ins and outs of the product that you're selling. A Sales Engineer makes sure that the technical stakeholders can evaluate the product for what it's meant to achieve.


The core of the job is explaining complicated topics to people in a simple way.


What's your typical day like as a Sales Engineer?


It changes a lot. You have a lot of meetings, there are a lot of presentations, and a lot of time is spent digging into different solutions. Sometimes I'll spend all day digging into a particular need for a client, or looking at competitors. Other times, I’ll be in five meetings in a row, doing demos and presentations.


One thing that I really like about the job is that it’s really very interesting. The biggest part of the role is making sure that the tech does what the client needs it to do, and that you're going to have a good relationship with the client. It doesn't work well for the business long-term if you are pandering to people and selling stuff you shouldn't be.


What do you find to be the most meaningful part of your job?


I derive a lot of self esteem and pride from making sure that I have integrity in the sale, and that I'm not using my technical expertise to manipulate people. I think there are a lot of individuals out there who will say anything to get a deal across the line, especially as a Salesperson who is under enormous pressure to hit a quota. The Sales people may be literally incentivised to just say that the product will do whatever the client says that they need. As a Sales Engineer, you sometimes have to come in conflict with your Sales counterpart in a deal and say “Actually, this isn't what we can do. But we can do these things.” You have to stand up for yourself, and I think that's something I've never been afraid to do. I find having that integrity meaningful.


I derive a lot of self esteem and pride from making sure that I have integrity in the sale, and that I'm not using my technical expertise to manipulate people.

Also, this role is just kind of fun. When I was in school, there were times when we'd be in classes, and a teacher would ask a question a kid might answer a certain way, and the teacher wouldn't understand. I would always be the one to jump in and explain what they meant. I like trying different ways of explaining things to people until there's one way that clicks. Everybody's brain, in my opinion, works differently. I really value those moments when something suddenly makes sense to someone, and I’m a part of making that happen.


How did you get into Sales Engineering?


Actually, I didn't know what I could do for a job as a graduate. I’m really open about having a mental difference now [Sarah was diagnosed with ADHD in her twenties, and has written a great article about neurodiversity], but at the time I wasn’t yet diagnosed. When I was coming out of university, I was really afraid of a nine-to-five job, of not being able to show up on time, of a really rigid structure.


I also knew that when I'm interested in something, I could go for hours, but if I’m not interested, then it's very hard to force myself into a disciplined sort of environment - I really struggled with that in school. For that reason, I was really attracted to journalism. It gives you the option of a job that isn't necessarily so rigid. You're in the field as a journalist, looking at things that are interesting to you. That’s why I majored in Mass Communication.


The year I graduated, 2010, was a really bad time for journalism in the US, the publishers were not hiring and were going bankrupt. I moved to Chicago without a job, and through a friend I heard about an internship available at an Ad Tech (Advertising Technology) startup that was owned by a major publisher. I thought I’ll do whatever they asked me to do and then, hopefully, I can parlay that into a job in journalism.


The cool thing about Ad Tech at the time, was that it was really new to us, and it was changing a lot. For example, when I started, we didn't have a standardised ad size - all the banners were hard coded into the website, if you can believe it. A lot of communicating to the publishers was around what kind of an ad needed to go on the site, and they would hard-code it in one spot for an entire day.


I found I was really, really interested in the tech part of it. So I just ran with it. There was a girl that I worked with who wanted to launch a private Ad Exchange for major publishers - a Buy Side Platform, which, at the time, was really new. I was so interested in it, you could see there were companies trying to buy inventory, we were getting 1000s of API requests the minute we went live. It just fascinated me.


After two years in that job, I did get offered a position at the Chicago Tribune, which at one point would have been my dream, but I just knew that, actually, I found a niche for me and I was going to stick with it.


All I cared about was tech, and I was a really terrible Account Manager.

I ended up really digging into the task, working with the companies that were bidding on the inventory. I was an Account Manager, and I just wanted to know everything there was to know. All I cared about was tech, and I was a really terrible Account Manager. I wasn't good at being organised, which is essential to the job. But all the things I was weak at, I made up for in terms of being able to answer my clients’ questions on the spot. I learned the platform inside and out, and I found solutions for my clients.


After a while, I realised that I love parts of what I did, but the role didn't always play to my strengths. I was fighting a lot of my natural instinct. Then the Head of Partnerships left, and the company needed someone to cover that role - so I was now managing accounts and covering the partnerships. It was too hard. I thought “I'm losing, and I can't do it”.


A colleague advised me to consider changing roles. She recommended thinking about an experience that worked for me. What were the exact things I was doing? Was I presenting or solving a problem? I thought about a pitch I was brought in on where I presented, and then I was answering a whole series of questions from the room. The colleague said “Okay, find a job where you're doing more of that and fewer things you don't like.”


I looked at Sales Engineering jobs specs at the company and outside. I have already been in sales pitches, and yet I didn’t think I could do what Sales Engineers were doing. I spoke to people at the company about the role, and I thought “This is the role I should be doing! This is the thing I’m good at.”


One of the great things about the Sales Engineering role is that I had a quota to hit. For the first time ever, my performance was on paper.

And so I moved to Sales Engineering. One of the great things about this role is that I had a quota to hit. For the first time ever, my performance was on paper. As somebody who presents differently, I had been told a lot that I needed to do things a certain way as an Account Manager. When you are not measured against something tangible, someone always can try to make you change the way you present yourself. When I moved to Sales Engineering, nobody could touch me if my deals were closing - and my deals were closing at a rate that was undeniable. I could perform, and I was performing better than a lot of the Senior Sales Engineers that we had.


When your performance is on paper, people have to accept you for who you are. The thinking that a Senior Technical Leader needs to present a certain way, look a certain way or act a certain way is a bunch of bullshit.


Do you ever feel Impostor Syndrome?


I think everyone, or at least the vast majority of people, feel Impostor Syndrome. If you weren't trying to evaluate your weaknesses, then you probably wouldn't be very good at what you do. Actually, the best people tend to have Impostor Syndrome the most, because they're really critical, they're aware of what they don't know. I think people who will come in and say they know everything about a subject actually tend to know the least. I try to tell myself that when I get really intimidated.


I think people who will come in and say they know everything about a subject actually tend to know the least. I try to tell myself that when I get really intimidated.

I never had a background in computers or software. My dad's an Electrical Engineer, and at one point I dated a guy who used to build computers. They always made me feel like it was very intangible, like it was so complicated. Actually, it's not that hard at all. The thing I really like about my role is that a lot of the time, I'm just teaching people things that other people told them are complex - and they are, sometimes - but it doesn't mean that you can't understand it.


Now I think it's such an insulting thing when something is presented as so “technical”, like “we know this and you don't”. It's a bunch of crap. People will label themselves as “technical” or “non-technical”, and if you asked me in 2010, I would have said “Absolutely not. I'm not technical at all.” Now I know coding is easy. There are, of course, things that are more complicated, but take APIs as an example - you just follow a set of instructions. I'm not a great programmer, I don't write beautiful code, but I write the basics. The roles about understanding technology are a lot more accessible than people realise.


I’ve certainly been in rooms where I felt “Oh god, I can’t code properly, I don’t know this programming language, I don’t belong here!” But then you get into the role and there are always people who help you, and you eventually find that you can do certain things better than other people - everyone has their thing.


When I started as a Sales Engineer, because I helped build the product, I was really really confident about what I knew. Yet when it came time to leave that job, I was really nervous about not knowing what I needed to know. For example, I didn’t know how Google Chrome’s debugging tool works. But you can learn it!



What advice would you give to somebody who wants to get into Sales Engineering?


Don’t do it if you don’t love problem solving. If, when you’re learning, you like to dig into things, to really understand the core of something, then this is a really good role for you.


People seem to think that if you are technical, you can’t be social or outgoing; and if you’re commercial, you can’t be technical. And that’s a load of crap.

As a Sales Engineer, in interviews you are always asked which “side” of Sales Engineering you are on, are you more “Sales” or are you more “Technical”. There's this very weird cultural thing, where people seem to think that if you are technical, you can’t be social or outgoing; and if you’re commercial, you can’t be technical. And that’s a load of crap, because it's just gatekeeping around what technology is - a lot of systems are really simple.


I think anybody can learn to use an API. If you've never used an API, go on Spotify right now and play with their open APIs. Don't be intimidated if you haven't been in a technical role. If you feel like you understand concepts really well and you learn fast. And if you are genuinely interested, you will learn fast.


You need to have genuine interest for communicating and positioning - that’s a big part of the job. You have to be able to position the product in a way that doesn't scare someone off, while staying truthful.


My advice is don't be intimidated by it. And you don't need to define yourself as “Salesy” or “Technical”. If you like problem solving, if you're able to position things and go in there and get someone excited about something, then Sales Engineering could be perfect for you.


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