Product Management Success Part I - Sales Engineers

System Engineers (or technical sales engineers) make good feedstock for product managers. Their tech skills, and customer savvy are good foundations

The past couple of blog postings have been focusing on less than optimal choices for where to look for qualified “new” product managers when you are searching. I have taken to task Sales and Engineering as less than stellar sources for talent (not saying that it was impossible to bridge those chasms, but that it was difficult or rare). Today I will post the first of two blogs on where to cast your hook for strong product manager stock.

Sales Engineering

To begin, I feel that I must define the term. I know that there are a few common interpretations of the title “Sales Engineer” (or SE). I choose to use the Cisco definition, and thus an SE is a highly technical person, paired with one or more Account Managers (AM’s) who is more of the classical definition of a sales person. This SE is called upon to meet with customers either with the AM or alone, to define the problem that the customer is trying to solve, and to assemble a solution to that problem. They must know the industry, the technology, be savvy enough to talk to multiple levels of the customer (from the implementers up to the purchasing team), and to be able to articulate the value of the solution being offered, and to handle objections.

They may or may not be compensated by the revenue that the AM + SE pair bring in, but in cases where they are not on a quota, the AM often shares their commission with the SE.

An SE is primarily a “Pre-Sales” role, focused on activities that drive the sales opportunity from prospect, to lead, to opportunity, and finally to an order.

Being an SE is a tough job. High pressure, high output, and potentially a significant amount of travel are associated with it. Hence there is a fairly high burn out factor in the field. Some go on to become AM’s and the path to a larger split of the commission. Some make great product managers. Here is why:

SE’s speak technology

They are in the trenches. They spend lots of time on the market problem of the customers. Very senior SE’s can pretty much match some of the developers of your product for foundational knowledge, and it is certain that they have deployed, or configured the product in ways that were outside of the original design goals. Thus they are super credible in their communications with the engineering team. They have lived it. They have been armpit deep in technical requirements, and pre-deployment surveys.

SE’s Speak Customer’s Language

Since they are not focused (at least outwardly visible) on closing the order, they are accustomed to open and frank discussions with multiple layers of people at customers. From end users, through implementers, to the decision makers, every step of their engagement is focused on creating trust, and confidence in the sales process. If the SE’s do their job, it is dead simple for AM’s to work the opportunity to successful closure.

SE’s have Market Authority

This, they really can’t help but to get with their experience. They may not be aware of their growing authority, but if you watch how people approach SE’s as their career progresses, more and more often as they mature, they are being consulted by the marketing group and the product management group. While they may not be able to write a treatise on their market(s), the knowledge is in their heads.

SE’s are Monsters of Multitasking

Their days are made up of quick task changes between opportunities, and other distractions. They early on figure out an innate prioritization mechanism to ensure that the most productive tasks quickly bubble up to the top, and the jetsam hits the bottom. Furthermore, SE’s can still block out sufficient chunks of time to get progress on their main deliverables, proposals and technical briefs to help move the sales process forward.

Adding it all up

SE’s have the building blocks that make a strong foundation for product managers. They are highly technical. They are driven to remain current on their technology. They are adept communicators, both written and verbal. They have Market Authority (whether they think they do or not). And lastly they have the kernel of multitasking and prioritization that is a distinguishing trait for successful product managers.

At one company, I was part of the field education organization (a sidestep to say the least) and I got to interact with literally hundreds of sales engineers and they were all top notch folks. Most of them could walk into a product management role and with minimal climbing of the learning curve, become a highly successful product manager, should they desire that change.

Next time, I will talk about my path into Product Management. I came from the post sales side, Applications Engineering, another breeding ground for top quality product managers.

The picture is a panorama of the back of Mont Blanc, from the téléphérique in Chamonix, France, taken by the Dude on a vacation.

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