A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining James Kakais on the Presales Collective podcast to talk about what it means to be a pre-sales engineer in a high-growth startup. We touched on how I see the role of Sales Engineers being a multi-purpose Swiss Army Knife and what recommendations I have for others who want to explore the career path.
First things first – What is presales?
Presales, Solutions Engineering, or Sales Engineering (SE) is the crucial function that supports sales cycles together with salespeople. It is often found in B2B SaaS companies like Adobe, Salesforce, and Zoom. Some people look at sales engineers as the technical salespeople, others think of SEs as the technical backbone of the go-to-market motion. Wherever a complex product has to be sold and assessed to be fit for purpose, chances are likely that you will not just find a salesperson selling to you but also a sales engineer acting as a wing-man/wing-woman.
What role does presales play in a tech company?
The function exists because selling is a lot of effort and often involves a lot of technical selling too. This is done through product demonstrations, security reviews, product capability qualification, and competitive market positioning. The SE in a sales cycle makes sure what is promised will work and ensures to sell the value of the solution, so that the prospect in convinced your solution is best.
In contrast, the salesperson will focus on the sales process overall from the start, finding a qualified lead, and following through including pricing negotiations, organizing all the stakeholders, ensuring contracts are fine.
Many SEs argue that being an SE is the best of both worlds. One world being knowing the product, working at the forefront of the company’s innovation, and being an expert. The other world being that you are always customer-facing, talking to prospects, and not somewhere stuck in a back office all the while you have much less pressure than the sales rep.
Why do I call presales engineers Swiss Army Knives…
You probably can already imagine that supporting the sale of a product will vary hugely depending on the product that you’re selling. This also means that SEs can come from a variety of backgrounds. From my time as a Sales Engineer, I can say I’ve seen successful SEs come from all walks of life like:
…and many more
One thing all Sales Engineers have in common is the unstoppable eagerness to learn new things and be helpful. In that, SEs support their organisations as internal competitive experts, product marketers presenting the demos at roadshows, enablement supporters helping new hires ramp, and many other things. SEs are technical and non-technical. They have a set of skills – beyond being the technical expert – they can do really well. Unlike the jack of all trades who is a master of none.
Personally, as an SE I’ve done a variety of things: presenting at conferences, building better internal processes using tools we had, and doing charity pro-bono projects. It’s rewarding, especially as the role in many organisations is what you make of it.
How did I get into presales? – Career Principles
My career principles are very simple, do more of what you like and always be growing. It’s as simple as that, I enjoyed working with customers while bringing innovation to them as a CRM consultant. Then, I joined a tech company to just do that as a pre-sales engineer. Now, at a startup, I can bring all my previous skills to the table whilst wearing a strategic hat and planning an overall business expansion.
How can you get into presales?
Talk to Sales Engineers. We’re a great bunch. Learn about the role, the various paths in different companies and go from there. A sales engineer at Salesforce selling CRM is very different from a sales engineer at MongoDB who sells a database solution. It gets more technical if you want to be a sales engineer at AWS or Google Cloud where you need a solid understanding of the technology to be able to prove the value. Some SE roles will require you to be more technical, others are a lot less technical and require more creativity or project management skills.
One way to learn more is by visiting the presalescollective.com, a community of pre-sales engineers worldwide.
It’s a diverse, satisfying, and very exciting career path for driven people who like to learn new things and talk to customers every day.
Now you know what a Sales Engineer is and why it’s such an exciting career path open to people from so many backgrounds. If you want to know more about my path and how I see the presales role fitting into a technology company, check out the full podcast below:
This year’s Gartner CIO Symposium featured top experts in IT who shared their points of view. Here I summarise the top 4 CIO priorities for 2020.
Let’s start with some context first. In November, when it’s cold in most places in Europe9000 CIOs flocked to Barcelona to enjoy the sun and learn about the latest trends in the IT market. I joined the conference and had the unique opportunity to talk to so many CIOs, vendors and experts in the field to understand what is shaking up the world of IT.
Read on to learn about what the top 4 priorities for CIOs are that I have observed at this year’s Gartner CIO Symposium.
Having talked to dozens of vendors (including Zoom, Slack, AWS and Google Cloud), CIOs and tech professionals at the conference I’ve identified the top priorities that emerged from all the discussions. Here we go, the top 4 CIO priorities for 2020.
#1 Everything is a Platform
Here’s one that definitely belongs to the buzz word category. Every vendor calls themselves a platform these days. Software doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore. Companies like Zoom and Slack are communication platforms. Then you get data platforms, security platforms, engagement platforms and so on and so forth.
Platforms are the new software it seems. The original definition of the word might help to clarify that many of the platforms today are not platforms but good old fashioned software. But hey, if marketing brands it that way, who am I to judge?
Having said that, I must note that there is obviously some truly great platforms on top of which a customer can build and run things on. This includes vendors like Google Cloud, AWS and MS Azure. These are the modern utility providers of IT infrastructure on top of which many of the vendors at the conference have in turn built their software – apologies – platforms. 😉
#2 No-Code Development
The trends have emerged for two reasons.
How has no-code emerged?
One, there is a massive shortage of talent to develop custom applications that serve the business needs of companies. The old “Software is eating the world” mantra is progressing at a pace that didn’t allow for talent to catchup.
Universities and schools are moving slow to rotate their curricula to the digital world and a massive community of self-educated learners has emerged thanks to YouTube, Coursera and other self-directed learning platforms.
Nonetheless, it is not enough for companies still. The number of people required who understand IT systems simply outstrips the supply.
Gartner published a survey earlier this year about this exact issue posing a big risk for companies. “Organizations face huge challenges from the pace of business change, accelerating privacy regulations and the digitalization of their industries,” said Matt Shinkman, managing vice president and risk practice leader at Gartner.
Second, with the fast-paced evolution of IT tools, it is possible today to build software with a lot less effort. Accessibility is a key criterion, thanks to the ubiquitous cloud, cheap computing power even on our phones and simple programming languages we can create software a lot easier. Developers have started making their own lives easier too by developing software on top of software that works with simple drag-and-drop.
Pre-built templates, standard operations and workflows are used to enable them to automate things. Taking that even to the next level where developers create tools that only use simple building blocks which can create some fantastic software already.
Win-Win with No-Code and Low-Code
That is in essence how the low-code or no-code platforms have emerged and can be used by everyone with a basic understanding of processes and technology. With such capabilities, a company doesn’t need developers as much any more but can put the power of owning and shaping business processes in the hands of businesspeople. IT is only required at this point for governance and low-touch support in that case which creates a win-win situation for the business.
The use of low-code will free up IT capacity to engineer more sophisticated tools that can’t be addressed with low-code and in turn, also provide more interesting work for developers.
#3 Single Platform vs Best of Breed
One key priority that has emerged from talking to many CIOs and vendors at Gartner’s conference this year is the need for a seamless experience. That could be with for customers, employees, partners, suppliers. It doesn’t matter. Business is complex and software tools are prevalent across all parts of the business.
Now, there are two schools of thought that I have observed. There’s the single platform approach with which a company opts for a mega vendor like Microsoft, Salesforce, Google as strategic platforms and would only get another vendor in the mix if they can’t address the need.
On the other hand, a new kind of tools is emerging. These are cloud-native, built with open APIs from the start and integrate seamlessly with other tools. A combination of that might be how seamless it is to use Google Suite, Zoom and Slack. Three vendors with unique value propositions that work in perfect harmony thanks to native APIs or even pre-built connectors.
From a customer’s perspective, CIOs are looking to achieve a seamless experience for their key stakeholders. Today, that can be done with more than just one approach. CIOs choose the single platform or best of breed. In 2020 both deliver great experiences if implemented right.
Additionally, whilst it’s easier for procurement to only get the software from one vendor it’s important to note that one vendor doesn’t mean seamless experience or seamless integration. All of the mega-vendors have gone through large acquisitions sprees to bolster their portfolio and as with all acquisitions, the integration of new products in a portfolio takes time and effort. Not every company manages that successfully.
Examples include the Yammer and Microsoft acquisition or SAP’s acquisition of Qualtrics both great tools on their own but it’s questionable if they provide more value together with their new owners as opposed to integrating with other cloud-native tools.
#4 AI is becoming a commodity
This is for the readers who are way ahead of the curve of many CIOs already. While some discussions centred around cloud vs. on-prem, should I have a CRM or can I trust the encryption of AWS others has gone past that? Many CIOs are looking beyond that to retain a competitive advantage for their companies.
AI (Artificial Intelligence) – I really shouldn’t have to write it out any more – has seen an unprecedented hype cycle. And we’re only now starting to see more clearly what is real value that can be generated and what’s just hype.
Most use cases of AI today revolve around some basic statistical analyses and machine learning i.e. a machine learning from examples and making judgements about new information. It’s simple but effective if you want to look at customers who have churned and predict what you can do to prevent it. It helps you identify employees at risk of leaving based on attrition patterns and much more. These are fantastic use cases and to date, you would have had to get a developer to create data models using algorithms.
But the world is moving on and similarly to the low-code platform trend, I see the commoditization of AI emerging. Many vendors want to put AI in the hands of non-data scientists for the simple reason of massive talent shortage. Also, if you’re lucky to have your data scientist, ML ops engineer and all the rest you will want to make them as productive as possible.
Forrester, another research firm has placed some top vendors in their waves. I guess quadrants were taken by Gartner.
There are different tiers however.
AWS, Google and Microsoft Azure provide platforms with built-in capabilities to develop applications and AI capabilities. That is on the most technical side of things but can greatly enhance developer productivity. They’re all competing heavily to get students and startups sucked in their ecosystem with free credits.
Data Science / ML Productivity
The next set of vendors is tackling the space of point-and-click AI. These tools provide fairly in-depth configuration and setup capabilities which can be intimidatingly scientific which is perfect for a data scientist who is too tired of coding up models in R or Python all day long. Some of these are Dataiku, Tableau, Alteryx, Datarobot and Tenzi which make data scientists and ML engineers a lot more productive.
Lastly, a set of vendors is emerging that truly wants to skip the data scientist and allow every business analyst to use AI thus truly commoditizing AI. This would include tools such as Salesforce Einstein and some of the above that was mentioned provide this type of capability too. It’s a fast-moving space and further movement towards making AI/ML more accessible to the masses is inevitable. That will allow organisations to harness the insights in their data and make better decisions faster.
Ready for 2020
Lastly, before you leave I wanted to share with you what Gartner is saying. The symposium runs annually and the research firm uses it to communicate what they see as the top priorities for CIOs. Here’s Gartner’s point of view.
With that, you have a clear view of what is moving the market for CIOs in IT. If you’re a CIO or tech professional, reach out. I would appreciate hearing your point of view. Find me on Twitter (@realSemir) or on LinkedIn.
Have you sent a message recently using a smart phone? I have. I’m sure you have too. When you use any social network or app chances are that one of the big Silicon Valley giants already thinks they know what you want to send. It’s incredible how the many tools like Gmail, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram become much more than just tools but prescriptive automation machines.
Google and LinkedIn recently updated their messengers to become more suggestive. You see smart replies everywhere. Here are just a few examples.
A few months ago Google took this to the next level by releasing Smart Compose. The Silicon Valley giant now predicts the body of your email step by step. Google says “Compose, a new feature powered by artificial intelligence, to help you draft emails from scratch, faster.”