Making the Transition to Sales Engineer Part 2: What to Expect in Your First Two Months

Welcome to Part 2 of my 2-part series, Making the Transition to Sales Engineer.

In Part 1, I described how I became an SE. Here, now that I am just north of 2 months in, I talk about my experiences so far and what I’ve learned.

A Brief Aside: I am Very Well Aware of Where I Am

I anticipate that there will be some more seasoned SE’s who may cringe at this post. Two months in, I am very well aware that I might be wrong on some of these thoughts. In fact, I will probably re-read this post a year from now and say to myself, “Jesus, who wrote this?”

But this is a “Journey Blog” (whatever that means), and “daring to be wrong” comes with the territory. I didn’t use the play on words, “thinking out loud” for the title of this blog for nothing. Therefore, this post has a bit more than my usual dose of humbleness. I don’t claim that I am right here, just that I am journaling where I am right now.

Furthermore, if can you remind me this time next year to write a, “One Year Later” post to hold me accountable, that would be great. Thanks!

An SE Coming From the “The Customer Side” as an Advantage? Too Early to Tell

I came from the “Customer Side,” as opposed to the “Dark Side” “Sales Side” to become an SE. This is, so I’ve been told, highly sought-after and valuable in my new line of work. It makes sense that an SE having real world experience would add credibility to the sale. I do believe people when they say this to my face.

But I’ll be honest it still makes me a little uncomfortable, only because it doesn’t feel like an advantage yet. I imagine once I can impart real advice or get head nods or make a sale as a result of my customer knowledge, then I will jump on this train. I just think it’s too early to tell and I am a, “show me the evidence” person.

In the meantime, I will continue to be uncomfortable and take their word for it; it’s still nice to hear . . .

Speaking of the “Customer Side,” No “Wanting to Go Back” So Far

I had a fellow SE tell me about how some SE’s from the customer side go back to being a Field Engineer because they feel the draw back to being more, “hands on keyboard”.

So . . . do I feel this inexplicable draw back to the halcyon days of being an Infrastructure Automation Engineer?

Nope. Not. At. All. Not one single bit.

Speaking of “Hands On Keyboard,” Emails and PowerPoint Are a Thing

When I got my laptop on Day 1 (a brand new Macbook Pro M1, thank you very much), I installed everything I would install as an Infrastructure Automation Engineer:

“Let’s get git installed. I am sure I am totally going to use that.”

“Oh, and let’s not forget Visual Studio Code and Oh My Zsh, because, well, I know I am going to use those.”

“Oh yeah! And I definitely need Postman, because I am sure my customers will be making API calls that I will need to help them with. That’s a thing, right?”

. . . Aaaaaaaaaaand, I haven’t used any of them.

Not even once.

Instead, it’s been Chrome, Outlook, Teams, Zoom, OneNote, SnagIt, and PowerPoint, and maybe a little Miro.

And lots of listening and talking.

Further Indications That I am Comfortable In My New Career: “I am in Sales”

On Day 3, I was asked by a coworker I’d just met, “What do you do here?” And for the first time in my entire life I said the phrase, “I’m in Sales.”

It just like, came out. Naturally. It didn’t get stuck in my throat. I didn’t throw up a little. But as a person who has not officially been “in Sales” it was a little strange. Not in a bad way, but after spending an entire career as a customer, saying it out loud, at the risk of sounding lofty, felt good and became a further indication that I was in the right place and in the right state of mind.

There is a Big Difference Between “Technical Knowledge” and “Product Knowledge”

Where I work now there is such a wide range of products that it’s not possible for me to be the expert on all of the products we sell. However, I do need to know the product line as deep and as broad as I can. This takes time.

Technical knowledge does help tremendously. For example, if you already know what RAID levels are, it’s really easy to wrap your brain around distributed RAID levels. But product knowledge is sometimes a bigger stretch. I have technical knowledge of Kubenetes, but tackling the product knowledge of Tanzu and its nuances takes time.

I kind of knew this going in, but it really has taught me that I didn’t know VMware products as well as I thought I did, but that’s getting better by the day.

Confirmed: The SE “Trusted Advisor” Model Is a Thing

There are a lot of SE approaches in one’s toolbox. Account Executives and Customers vary in their expectations of you. Maneuvering the waters of each requires setting aside your ego and meeting the needs, ultimately, of what benefits all players.

But my favorite type of approach is what is called the “Trusted Advisor” Model of Solution Engineering. I am a long game person. It’s part of my Brand. I thoroughly enjoy being the point of contact who can help solve a customer’s problems. I am a Solution Engineer after all. It’s what I do. And I have seen this start to work. I have received some unprompted questions about “what to do,” but it’s been slow-going.

Rapid Fire: Things You Should Know In No Particular Order

  1. I suspect that some of my acquaintances have ghosted me. I try to contact them and they don’t answer. I assume it’s because I am in sales now and they think I am trying to sell them something (and for the record, I am not). Or maybe I am just a complete dick and they never liked me in the first place?
  2. Meetings: You will have lots of them. At my previous job, in the age of COVID, everyone had a healthy aversion to meetings. That’s not really a thing as an SE. You are either strategizing about customers or talking to customers. That’s what you do now.
  3. As a result of meetings, get used to doing things in between said meetings. I used to be a “block of time” person. I used to be like, “I am going to opt out of all meetings for the rest of the day and code!” Picking and choosing meetings is important and I am still figuring this out. But, the more time you spend with a customer, the higher the chance the customer will buy, so I prioritize that. Rarely do I have a block of 3-4 hours (unless, I block it out on my calendar ahead of time – pro tip!). I have to sneak in a haircut during lunch, for example. That’s the hustle now.
  4. Size of customers can be an adjustment. I came from Enterprise-level organizations. But, my current role deals with more medium-sized businesses. There are a whole range of differences according to size. For example, I have been a specialist in automating all the things for about 8 years now, but I don’t find my customers having automation as a big priority. It’s been an adjustment for me.

    I have had customers with panicked voice describe an issue I used to resolve in 9 minutes while eating a sandwich, all the way on down to having concerns I’d never thought about, but that’s the fun part for me.
  5. Build your brand. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
  6. The “Trusted Advisor” Paradox. I have no idea if anyone’s coined this, so maybe you get to hear it here first: I have experienced what I am calling the, “Trusted Advisor Paradox,” which is that I am at the same time discouraged from advising the customer, while also encouraged to be a Trusted Advisor to the customer. I get it: I am in pre-sales, not consulting. However, many Customers look to you for help. It’s a long game play and I have learned that you have to choose wisely when and how to provide advice; otherwise you can get overwhelmed and burn out.
  1. Get used to people calling you an “expert” and complimenting you to your face. Most Infrastructure Engineers keep a low profile. They stand behind the curtain and pull levers, to use a Wizard of Oz analogy (you’re welcome for that link, Zoomers). And they relish in knowing that as long as the Wizard stays up and running, everyone will leave them alone. They don’t like attention and they especially don’t like it when people praise them in public; otherwise they will be given more responsibilities, or even worse, be blamed when things go wrong. I am not like that because I am an attention whore, but that’s just me.

    In my admittedly short time as an SE, I have been praised in public (and praise others) and are referred to quite frequently as a person, “in the know” about technology. Accepting this has been my biggest challenge, due to my 12-year stint in the Infra Engineer culture. I think I may have even done the whole, “Aw shucks!” act at first, but now I have come to terms with it: I can show my humbleness and gain my credibility in other ways.

    In fact, I think it’s a good thing. It is generally a more positive atmosphere, but I am sure it’s not without its darkness. I am assuming things get pretty dark if it’s a slow Sales Quarter. But I’ll cross that bridge if the time comes.
  2. (Live) Whiteboarding is going to be a challenge. I have noticed some of the better Sales Pros have figured out how to do live whiteboarding through Zoom (or whatever). I am still trying to figure this out, but I also can’t wait to do it old-school style.
  3. Be good at diplomacy and build your internal network of people. Make sure you know the right people and are nice to them, and at the very least, do not piss off the wrong person. Build rapport and friendships.
  4. It still feels like I am going through the motions. On calls I say things and it doesn’t feel natural yet, particularly when it comes to more “salesy” conversations, like the benefits of our products, etc. I think this one will just come with time.
  5. Brace yourself for Imposter syndrome. I am going to peel back the veneer a little and bare my soul a bit on this one (mixed metaphor reference!):

    You may have read this post, about how I have remained successful after being in this game for 23 years. You can read it if you want, but the TL;DR is that I attempt, at all times, to set myself apart from my peers: I either try to do everything better, or I try to do things they don’t (or can’t). If you’ve ever started a new job, and within the first five minutes of the first team meeting you can point and say, “Ah! That person knows what they are doing and does not fuck around.” . . . That is who I aspire to be.

    I am not saying I am that person; I am saying that I always try to be that person.

    Think of me as a Brent (Phoenix Project reference!), who documents and shares information willingly and has none of the flaws described in that (highly recommended!) book. In every job I have had, I try to be that.

    But I am starting a new career. Sure, there’s a Venn Diagram match between what I did before and what I do now. But it’s new enough that in many ways I am starting over. I for one, tend to drift over into Imposter syndrome when faced with something new like this. It’s an uncomfortable position for me that gives me more anxiety than I am used to.

    On the other hand, aren’t all new Jobs/Careers more stressful at first?

All in all, things are going as I expected. And on that note, I can’t help but mention that building your network of fellow SE’s is important. I spent a lot of time on the phone with other SE’s that I knew before I signed on as SE myself, drilling them with questions about what I should expect, so I had a pretty good idea going in.

Or you could just read this blog. See you next time.

Hit me up on twitter @RussianLitGuy or email me at I would love to hear from you!

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