To find three sales engineers worth hiring last summer, Max Schireson, president of start-up 10gen, interviewed over 100 applicants. He says he would like to hire 20 more next year, but probably will find only 10 that fit the bill at the 80-person database software company.
Until the company hires enough sales engineers, 10gen executives will have to pick up the slack because they're the only ones with the communication skills and deep understanding of the company's software who can close a sale, says Schireson.
Engineering talent across the board is scarce in Silicon Valley, but "the hiring process is even more difficult" for sales engineers, Schireson says. Not having enough of them is "one of the key limiters to our ability to grow."
Behind every glamorous new software start-up are the legions of folks who sell the company's products and services. Combining technical expertise and sharp people skills, sales engineers have become the unsung heroes of the tech boom, driving the revenue that allows firms to thrive or die. They can earn between $75,000 and $200,000 a year, with 10% to 40% of their salary based in bonuses tied to sales quotas. Some can even rise to the executive suite.
The ranks of sales engineers are projected to grow to 84,900 by 2018, up from 66,060 last year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections. Sales engineers are employed in a variety of industries, from software companies to architectural services firms to wholesale manufacturing companies. Positions in the computer industry are expected to grow from 13.4% of the total number of sales engineer jobs to 18.7% between 2008 and 2018. Meanwhile, jobs within the manufacturing sector will decline by 2.4%, going from 18.5% of all sales engineering jobs to 16.4% in 2018. These jobs are also sometimes referred to as systems engineer or solutions architect positions.
A degree in engineering or computer science is usually required to get a sales engineer job, though sometimes people who are self-taught can make the transition. The highest concentration of such positions are in California, followed by Texas and New York, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Sales engineers are important, and difficult to hire, because they sell expensive, largely unfamiliar business software to established companies like Viacom, the media conglomerate. 10gen, for instance, sells a commercial version of MongoDB, an open-source database technology that more efficiently searches vast reams of data. The company is targeting Fortune 500 customers that are often reluctant to abandon established vendors such as Microsoft, IBM and Oracle.
That's where Kevin Hanson (pictured above), one of the three sales engineers 10gen hired last summer, comes in. Hanson's assignment is to conv ince a potential customer's technical staff that 10gen's product is good for their business. It's an audience which can be skeptical of new technologies that could put them out of a job. "You have to have softer skills, and be able to say, 'You're not going to lose your job if you switch to this new database technology," Hanson says. "There's a trust thing there, as a sales engineer you have to be able to talk to engineers as a fellow engineer."
Hanson, who earned a bachelor's of science in electrical engineering from the University of California, San Diego in 2006, found his way into the role in a roundabout way. While many engineering students are introverts, Hanson, 28, was president of his fraternity and a vice president in the school's student government. He loved programming, but also loved to interact with people. He became a technology consultant with Clarkston Consulting, based in Durham, N. C., but the work wasn't technically stimulating enough for him.
On a business flight for the firm, he sat next to an employee from MarkLogic, a Silicon Valley-based unstructured data company, who told him he should consider sales engineering. MarkLogic hired him shortly after.
He loved it. He was in constant contact with engineering and product teams to learn about his company's technology. He was also writing code to show customers custom solutions in product demonstrations. Working with a sales representative, he was responsible for bringing in millions in revenue. He was also the company's ear to the ground. Hanson had to become intimately familiar with the sales pitches of his competitors, like Oracle, and gauge what customers liked and disliked about his company's product -- invaluable information to executives and managers.
S ince the beginning of 2011, Hanson has received a call or email from a recruiter at least once a week. He would like to pursue a leadership role in the future, he says, and often feels like he's "being trained for an executive-type role." His boss, Schireson, says that "the best sales engineers have spectacular career opportunities and often, after two or three years, get pulled into a number of different paths in executive management."
Hanson's old company, MarkLogic employs about 20 sales engineers, and hiring more high quality ones is difficult because the right candidates have to be both technically deft and able to read an audience and adapt to its mood, says Chief Technology Officer of Financial Services Kelly Stirman,
"The role of a sales engineer is a performing art," says Stirman, himself a former sales engineer. "You have to improvise and be able to read your audience and see who's influencing or impacting the others. You have to sort those things out in the meeting."
But you can't floor your audience with a stellar performance before you hear what they're looking for. Enterprise software solutions are not one-size-fits-all, Stirman says, and MarkLogic has to customize its software for each individual client's problem. "Most companies and people are a closed book," Stirman says. "There's not a simple Web page or periodical you can read to know what matters most to your customer. You have to give them an an opportunity to communicate what's most important to them."
For EMC Corp. Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Jeremy Burton, the path to becoming an executive of a $47.45 billion company began with his job as a sales engineer at Oracle in 1995. He was assigned to help then-Oracle executive Marc Benioff demo a new product, Power Objects, at an Oracle product launch. The 26-year-old stood on stage with Benioff, now the chief executive of Salesforce.com, and held his own. His performance caught Oracle honcho Larry Ellison's eye and Burton quickly rose through Oracle's ranks.
Burton says the job taught him how to deliver regardless of circumstance. "I'd show up for meetings and what the sales rep told me and what the customer wants are two different things," he recalls. "But, 'No, I can't do it,' is not an acceptable answer. You get out your Oracle database administrator handbook, you get up there and do the demo."
One thing Burton didn't love about the job was that the sales representatives he worked with received more money and accolades than sales engineers when a big deal closed. Indeed, it's a common complaint. "You don't get the huge commission checks the sales rep gets and you're not the hero if the deal closes," says Hanson. "Sometimes I wish I had been the person to close the deal."
If feeling underappreciated once in a while comes with the territory of being a sales engineer, Hanson tries not to complain too much. He's having fun, he says, and thinks he's on his way to following in the footsteps of former sales engineers like Burton into the executive suite.
"I love meeting with customers. I love being on the road and I love competition," he says. "If you love all of those things and happen to be a geek, then being a sales engineer is the right job for you."
Write to Joseph Walker at Joseph.Walker@dowjones.com