What have I learnt? A letter to a young pre-sales engineer…

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This blog stemmed from me being asked by a recent graduate what he should take in to pre-sales.  I thought about it and wondered what would I tell a 22-year-old (ten years ago) me turning up for his first job as a pre-sales engineer? Below are my rules to survive pre-sales (Zombie land Style):

  1. “Yes, you are part of a sales team” – Little did I know as I turned up at my first job that the “sales” element in the title “pre-sales technical consultant” was actually real! You are part of a sales team whether you like it or not. I say embrace this, the competition, the pressure, the sheer amount of work. I often hear “sales” tarnished with a bad brush, do not underestimate your sales team, and you will find in any good organization that “pre-sales” are the life blood of an organization. A company leader once instilled in the organization “pre-sales are worth their weight in gold” and be it your undoing if you do not use / trust them, pre-sales have an enormous impact on an organizations success.
  2. “Say YES not NO” – Throughout my career I have always had managers telling me to say NO. While their reasons may have been founded, I have always had a no fear approach and in honesty found myself in some difficult situations, BUT I have also done some amazing things simply by sticking my hand up and saying YES. If you say NO all the time don’t expect to get anywhere or learn anything new. It is an approach I used to get a job once where I went (company shall remain nameless) for an interview and I had to present on a subject I have never even heard about, yet alone the company which I later found out was huge. It was that no fear I will give anything a go approach that got me in honesty my first break in pre-sales and it is an approach I will always abide by.
  3. “Be a Sponge” – Learning is key, if you are not learning chances are you are not doing something right, I am not talking about the traditional learning with death by power point while someone reads a slide to you. Think wider, find likeminded engineers ask them questions, learn how they approach challenges, how they pitch a solution. The term “Sponge” in pre-sales you need to absorb (pun intended) as much as possible, and one track will not suffice, you need to absorb as much as you can from a wide range of sources. Never stop this! Never think you are the best at something, someone always has a different approach – STEAL IT if it is good.
  4. “Understand how you Learn” – See point 3, throughout my education and some of my professional career I was always that person that appeared never to listen, I was always dismantling whatever was in front of me while someone talked to me. It was not until one employer put the entire team and himself in to a “train the trainer” course where the trainer being a savvy man had laid the desks out with a wild range of toys and attention diverters. This was heaven to me for 3 days I had a range of stuff I could fiddle with, much to my boss at the time’s annoyance. In a demonstration of the fact I do listen, the trainer at the end of 3 days asked “What was the memorable date I mentioned on day one?” My boss nearly fell off his chair when without a pause I recalled the date. My point here is find how you learn, I would love to be a person who can digest a 700 page manual and not drift off, watch a video and know all the facts. Truth is I cannot, I learn by doing which is a kinaesthetic learner, get me the product and let me try to break it and I will understand it. Find how you learn and try different approaches, believe me it works.
  5. “You’re not an expert if you read TripAdvisor” – I will relate this to point 4. If you have read a review on TripAdvisor have you experienced that hotel? Or are you at best reading someone else’s opinion which is likely skewed? Apply the same mantra when absorbing competitive information, companies and rightly so will skew their competitive information to make you think and believe your product is the best. While I condone this attitude, I would hazard caution with drinking the cool aid, get your competitors documentation, product / service and form your own opinion. Back to point 1 “competition” in a competitive situation do not under estimate your competitor they could be a Rockstar. Leverage point 11 and if you cannot obtain a view for yourself rely on your network and get some stories. I have been guilty of being blinkered in the past and it will catch you out.
  6. “Freestyling is fun but flawed” – I am guilty of this, freestyling a meeting whatever it may be with no set outcome or agenda will more than likely land you in trouble. As talented and experienced as you may be just put aside 5 minutes for a basic plan or framework with your sales team, you will be surprised on its effectiveness.
  7. “The 24-hour rule” – To the engineering side, it does not matter if you have found / made a solution or fixed a problem. Never rush to show that idea off without sitting on it for 24 hours and coming back and leveraging point 11 to get feedback and ensure your thoughts are correct. We engineer’s are a proud bunch of people and love to hit the mark first with an idea, I speak from experience, if you run and throw that idea at a problem, it may take 1 day it may take 1 year but eventually the lack of full thought through that idea will come back and bite you. Enforce the 24-hour rule which brings me on to point 8.
  8. “Dumbledore’s Thought Pensive” – If you want 9-5 then this just isn’t the job for you, my reason, in this role your brain never really switches off. Which is why I enforce point 7 and the 24-hour rule, your brain works in weird and wonderful ways. Mine personally likes to wake me at stupid O’clock and provide me with an answer…..this is not bad, you need to learn how to work throughout the day, constantly staring at a problem won’t work, but also have the mantra that if an idea does pop in to your head, at the very least record it (anyway you like) and please do not just write one line, empty that thought and all its context to a point where you can come back the next day and challenge that thought.
  9. “Be Creative” – I am personally a fan of coming up with new ideas, I am not a fan of improving process. Creativity in whatever form in your role will give you an edge, in 2 companies I came up with ideas which were implemented globally, remember your employer is not always doing everything correctly and ideas should be welcomed at the very least explored. Also look outside of your role, related to point 3 if something interests you go and learn it, don’t stay in a bubble you will be surprised how often technology crosses use cases. Look for user groups, communities or grab a source of learning on that subject.
  10. “Don’t be a yes person” – if you have read this blog post I do thank you for reading so far, you may be thinking “hang on a minute you said always say yes in point 2?”. There is an exception and this is with your customers, if you say “yes” to questions you are not 100% on it will bite you, back to point 1 and sales. Saying “No” or “I don’t know” is not a crime, in pre-sales we are tasked with understanding such a broad spectrum of technologies and customers are often focussed on a smaller subset which makes them the experts. Have humility when dealing with customers, think how you are perceived and put yourself in the customers shoes and honestly ask yourself “is this the right answer for this use case / scenario?”
  11. “Tanks and Planes” – One eye on the current one eye on the future, this upside-down world of pre-sales is quite small, we are fantastic gossips and your reputation is your key to your next role. Networking I know sounds like an old 90’s business video delivered on a business park in Slough but find people you share interests with, get along with and stay in touch. Back to point 2 you will be surprised how your career can accelerate in that way!

I appreciate this is a long blog post, I still have more weird and wonderful points, I suppose the resounding question would be “Would you do it all again?” and I would say categorically “Yes sign me up Morpheus I will take the blue pill!” If you have thoughts, experiences, comments on this topic please comment below and let me know! Back to point 2! Ha….

morpheus

3 comments

  1. Killer summary of what an A+ SE should be doing. Presales or SE’s are truly the chameleons of the tech industry. Presenting for a prospect on Monday, installing a system on Tuesday, RFP answering on Wednesday, Tradeshow on Thursday and architecting a design on Friday. It takes a broad set of skills but most of all, the desire to win through your passion for tech. Win that RFP, win the hearts and mind of that prospect, fix that issue and win the customer’s confidence. It is that mindset combined with deep knowledge and neverending hunger for information that make the SE essential in any technology sales org. One tip I can add to your great list; Listen more then you talk. Absorb information, never interrupt a customer ask more, ask deeper, understand what keeps them up at night, listen and only stop asking when you really found what it is they are trying to solve. If it is not your product or solution, be honest and tell them. Go spend your time elsewhere, dont be afraid to walk away and just thank them for their time. Integrity goes a very long way in this industry. Especially for a starting SE, you could be doing this job for 25-30 years, meeting a lot of the same people multiple times in various places. Your individual reputation and even the reputation of the company you represent travels a lot further than you might think at first. Never burn bridges, you might need to cross them again in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

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