Learning sales as an engineer

I know most engineers stay as far away from sales as possible.

But you, you're here, reading this blog post.

I'm guessing that you're working on a problem that's really important to you. How do I know that? You finally decided to learn sales.

Sales helps you avoid the "build it and they will come" trap of creating startups.

Let's get into it.

What type of sales are we talking about?

I'm not going to talk about "shady used car sales". We're not in the business of selling clunkers to people that can't afford them at really high interest rates.

That's not selling, that's predatory.

We're talking about helping customers find a product that fixes their problems, gives them value, and makes their lives easier. In exchange, we're going to charge them a small fee. The small fee should be about 10% of the value we're creating.

That doesn't sound evil, right? Merely giving someone what they want?

Why learn sales?

If you're an engineer that wants to be a founder (Same here, nice to meet you ✋), learning sales is a great way to learn the other critical parts of business.

Most of the time, the tech is not the risk. We're engineers. We know how to build things. Even really complicated things.

So what's the real risk? That you can't find customers, at least if we're working on SaaS. This post does not apply to startups focusing on fusion or the like.

Sales will help you see what's wrong with your product, what's right with it, and ultimately — what people are willing to pay for.

Sales is a process that can help you find product-market-fit.

Sales teaches you how to identify customer pain, your engineering brain will help you turn it into a solution.

Sales helps you avoid the traps of narrative and rose colored glasses. Instead, sales forces you to look at the world as it is using the objective measure of "did the customer pay us or not".

What's the best way to learn sales as an engineer?

So now I've convinced you it's worth learning sales — how do we go about learning it? I'm guessing your day job as an engineer is pretty far removed from customer interactions.

The game of sales is best learned in the field, interacting with real customers — not studied in an academic sense.

As an engineer, there are two efficient ways to learn sales:

  1. founding a new startup
  2. joining an existing sales team

The deep end

Start your startup, quit your job, and hope you can figure out how to close deals.

You'll learn how to sell or go broke trying.

There's definitely risk here, but some people need a fire under them to learn.

If your goal is to start a company, there's something to be said for taking the most direct route. There's no need to spend countless years wandering in the forrest if there's a path directly to your destination.

The main downside here is risk. Some of us are not able to take on the risk that comes along with going out on your own.

At the end of the day, this is a personal choice. I can't make it for you and neither should anyone else.

So what if you're not willing or ready to take the leap?

In a company

The less risky path to learning sales is by joining a company that has sales as part of its DNA. You'll be even better off if you can join the go-to-market (GTM) team in some way. This includes sales, marketing, customer success, and any other teams that directly support revenue growth by interacting with customers.

The best role for engineers to learn sales? Sales engineer.

What's a sales engineer?

I'm a bit biased. I made the transition from a full stack senior software engineer to sales engineer.

Let's talk about what a sales engineer is, my experience at Vercel as an SE, and how to pick the right company.

Transitioning to sales engineering at Vercel


Jira tickets — the bane of a software engineer's existence.

I was thrilled to find out that my Jira tickets had been substituted for conversations, my backlog was switched for potential customers, and closed epics translated to dollars of recurring revenue in the bank account.

I've always been driven by two things:

  • helping people
  • making the business (and myself) money

Engineering is a phenomenal way to do this, but the feedback from making a new feature to it actually bringing in money can be a long time.

When I was at my last two companies, I had actually worked on two separate initiatives that took several months and made very little revenue.

I've surely closed more ARR at Vercel than the two prior DTC initiatives made in their entirety. Kind of wild to think about.

If you are people motivated and care about bringing in revenue that directly impacts your company's finances, sales engineering might be a great home for you.

A day in the life:

Without talking about specific customers, let's talk about what I do at Vercel on a day-to-day basis.

I start out the day by checking Slack for any cool announcements or posts. I get the privilege of seeing the future of the web being built inside of the company.

After browsing Slack, I'll hop on a customer facing call to help them do one of a few things:

  1. architect their migration to Vercel
  2. assist in debugging technical issues with Next, Vercel, etc.
  3. calculate the ROI of adopting Vercel
  4. demo new features and give enterprise customers a sneak peak

There are quite a few other topics, but these four cover a bulk of the conversations.

Outside of the call, I'll:

  1. collaborate with an Account Executive (AE) to figure out pricing
  2. take detailed notes and advocate for product changes
  3. work with customer success to ensure a great onboarding experience

There are plenty of other things I work on that aren't specific to a certain customer, like:

  1. building internal tooling (I built a Chrome extension the entire GTM team uses)
  2. publishing blog posts (like this one)
  3. working with engineering and product on our roadmap
  4. writing internal/external documentation
  5. dogfooding Vercel products before they go live
  6. create open source examples and guides (reusable content)

All of these require a passion for helping customers, a love for solving problems, and an itch to constantly learn.

The entire goal of a sales engineer is to help decide if your product is a good technical fit for your prospect and to build trust while doing it.

I'm much happier helping bring customers into a product that I believe makes their life better on a daily basis.

Vercel has been the tool that has enabled me to ship countless products as an individual developer. It's put the power in my hands to build and ship internet-scale projects without being a DevOps expert.

Sharing my experience and bringing new developers along for that journey is what I do on a daily basis and it's very rewarding.

Picking a company

Okay engineer — you've decided you're interested in sales engineering. How do you find a good company?

Past experience

To start, I'd consider companies that have a more technical product. Your engineering skills are more likely to be useful the more technical of a product that you're selling.

Because it's such a technical product, the sales engineer will play a critical role. At Vercel, the account executive and sales engineer partner on every part of the deal.

You'll want to find a company where your existing engineering experience is a huge unfair advantage.

At Vercel, I can talk to customers about deploying their Next.js applications to Kubernetes clusters in GCP and AWS because I've done it. I know the pains of Vault not injecting secrets into your pod at startup, the network policy not being properly configured, or some random pod going into crash loop backoff for the millionth time.

Find a company where your past experience will help you relate to the customer you're selling to.

Company stage

If you're trying to learn sales, the best way is to work at a company that has some element of product-market-fit, but that is still figuring out their go-to-market motion.

In my experience, this might be somewhere between the B-D rounds. You don't want to be the first sales engineer, but you also don't want to be the 100th.

You'll want to be at a place where you're not just a cog in the machine, but are instead critical to helping the company find a durable and scalable way to repeat a winning sales process.

You'll also be extra useful to companies in this stage if your past role is the somewhere near the ideal customer profile (ICP). If you're familiar with the market, you'll be able to give valuable insights and feedback to the marketing and sales team as they try to hone their message.

Ultimately, you'll want to be at a company where you use and believe in the product. If you believe in what you're selling, sales starts to feel a lot more like telling a friend about something cool you found online, and not like buying a used car.

Interested? I'm hiring!

Any of this sound interesting? I'm hiring on the sales engineering team in the US (remote friendly).

Even if you're not sure, if you're an engineer who wants to learn more about the business side of companies, I'd love to talk with you.

DM me on Twitter and let's chat. No, we don't have to "hop on a call" ;)

P.S. — there's an option three: actually focus on marketing and sales for your side project.. but that's for another blog post.

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