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The days (and nights) of an ‘always on’ sales engineer

Being an IT sales engineer isn’t as glamorous as it seems—but the satisfaction of solving customer problems and performing well under pressure is unmatched.

The sales engineer life: Always on, day or night
When it comes to most jobs, there’s the reputation, and then there’s the reality. Which is true of sales engineers in IT as well, according to Al Bessey.

Bessey, who has been a sales engineer for the past 11 years—first for Coverity and now, since its 2014 acquisition, for Synopsys—says the reputation tends to emphasize glamour: powerful laptop, millions of frequent flyer miles, sales bonuses, and luxurious nights in luxurious hotels.

A sliver of that is true, he said in a company presentation earlier this month. He admits to having stayed occasionally in some very nice hotels. He has never (yet) ended up sleeping in an airport. And he has earned more than one sales bonus.

But that doesn’t make it all easy or glamorous. The reality, he said, is that “sales never sleeps.” It’s a world of “never-ending tasks—you have to step up to the challenge at all hours.”

Sometimes sales engineers get to stay in luxury hotels—but not usually.

Performing well under pressure

For starters, “you have to be kind of a dual personality—a techie who can handle human interaction,” he said.

That’s because closing a deal is not just about the technology, as superior as it might be. It’s also a matter of showing how the technology specifically satisfies the customer’s demands. “You have to get the customer excited about it,” he said. “You need to be able to answer questions like, ‘Why do I need it? Why do I care?’ And then there’s how to show it. If I can’t show it, it’s not as impactful—I can’t sell it.”

The pressure doesn’t stop either, in the hypercompetitive and ever-changing landscape of software security.

“It’s performance under pressure,” he said. “Did you close a deal? Good—now do it 10 more times.” But there is also the reward of being able to think on your feet.

Expecting the unexpected

There is the reality that to do the job, you have to like multitasking, or at least be good at it. Sales engineer duties include preparing and giving demos, preparing and executing trials and proofs of concept (PoC), helping customers with support cases, responding to requests for proposals (RFP), and performing customer health checks.

The sales engineer job requires multitasking and always expecting the unexpected.

Which means the job is rarely boring and almost always interesting—but it can sometimes throw you for a loop. The reality is that you have to expect the unexpected.

That could mean the operating environment of a prospect or customer is unknown. “They might have Linux, but it might be out-of-date, or there might be insufficient privileges,” he said.

It could mean having to work with someone on the build team when what you really need is access to the person who wrote the code, who happens to be “busy right now.”

The possibilities are almost endless: The code isn’t what you thought it was. Something in the customer’s code is “unsupported.” The customer needs a feature you don’t have. Sometimes the technology just fails to work.

“When that happens, it can kill a deal,” he said.

Staying connected on the road

There are the demands of always being connected. “It’s 100-plus emails a day and Slack,” he said. “But that’s our lifeline.”

Then there is the travel, which does occasionally lead to luxury accommodations. “I’ve been to some nice hotels. It’s cool to do that once in a while, but that’s rare.”

What is constant is that “we get to go where the customers are.” Sometimes it’s an easy sell—think Miami in April, or Minneapolis in August. But there’s a big difference between Minneapolis in August and Minneapolis in February.

IT sales engineers have to go where the customers are, whenever the customers need them.

“We’re road warriors,” he said. “Think of your desk and monitor, always set up in the same place. We’re in airports or on-site. Think about your pillow, blanket, and comfy bed. We’re in rest stops and hotels.”

And after all that, there are several hours spent filling out expense sheets for all the travel details—flights, hotels, cars, meals, and more.

What it takes to be a sales engineer—and why it’s worth it

So yes, it takes a personality type—perhaps a bit like being an adrenaline junkie. “What drives me?” he said. “I hate to lose. That will drive you to compete.”

It goes beyond that, though. His background in applied mathematics trained him to be a problem solver, he said, and he takes pride and satisfaction from being able to solve customer problems.

There is the fulfillment that comes from being capable of doing a job well. “I am very good at what I do,” he said. “I got lots of bonuses and recognition over the years and have a significant amount of respect from executive teams, so those things feed my sense of self-worth.”

There is doing something that matters. “I want to be able to make a difference and have an impact,” he said. Figuring out how a new feature can directly address a customer’s concern has a definite impact on both Synopsys and the customer.

And, oh yes, the money is pretty good. It is not his main motivator, but he appreciates it, having two children in college and one in high school. “That ain’t cheap,” he said.

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