Career path: From programming to … sales?

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Your technical skills might be just what it takes to land a plum job in sales.

Constant change, challenge and unrivalled compensation opportunities make sales a particularly attractive career option.

But if you’re a software developer, engineer or other technical professional, sales may seem unfamiliar or even intimidating. Fortunately, this career path is well traveled.

Learn from those who have gone before to familiarize yourself with the job and decide if you want to pursue it. You may find that the most important step is realizing that you already have what it takes.

Leveraging your assets

Developers and engineers tend to view the world through the lens of systems and processes. At first glance, that outlook may appear incompatible with the interpersonal nature of selling, but it’s one that is “helpful in sales,” explains Adam Emsley, Head of Partnerships and Integrations at Gengo, a company that provides translation services. “Engineers know how to take a product or process, break it down into steps and then make improvements,” says Emsley.

This ability to understand and answer technical questions from customers is a particular strength that technologists bring to sales. “Customers are smart and will challenge you. Knowing my products from the inside and really understanding the technology was a great way to earn the respect of my technical buyers,” says Neil Lustig, CEO of marketing communication technology company Sailthru.

Rapid learning is another valuable skill that technologists develop over time and one that helps them grow and maintain their credibility. “In order to stay productive, engineers know the importance of staying up to date with the latest technologies. That ability to quickly learn and adjust translates to sales,” Emsley says.

“From my previous roles, I understand how decisions are made at companies like General Electric. That insight helps me to understand what executives want and how to present solutions to them,” says Justin Arbuckle, vice president worldwide transformation & chief enterprise architect at Chef Software, a provider of enterprise software products to improve automation and reliability.

Navigating the transition

The road to technical sales success does require a willingness to learn new skills and attitudes. “Customers buy from people they trust and like. Just being right doesn’t win the sale. That was a key insight I learned in my first year in sales,” says Lustig. “You need a thick skin to sell, as well as perseverance,” he adds. The ability to build and develop trusting relationships over time is also important.

Startup companies offer interesting opportunities for technologists interested in sales. “In a startup, everyone is involved in sales,” says Arbuckle. “It all starts with deeply understanding what our users and customers want. I find that technical people are often focused on the details of the product or software. When selling to managers and executives, that’s the wrong level of detail. With Chef, our customers’ main concerns revolved around compliance and automation issues,” Arbuckle explained.

Unexpected benefits

Sales and application development offer different rewards. “As an engineer, you create products and features but you may not see how that impacts the end user. In sales, you get to see how the product helps users,” says Emsley. Personally witnessing customer satisfaction is an important form of feedback and psychological income. These direct insights from customers also make sales staff influential within the firm because their views are informed by the end customer.

Working in sales also encourages a broader perspective on the business world. “In order to prospect successfully, I look for companies that are growing rapidly and who have a significant amount of content in need of translation,” explains Emsley. That strategic skill — identifying growing companies — is a valuable skill for professionals keen on growing into management roles.

Technical professionals also have a powerful role to play in supporting sales representatives and customers. “Reflecting on my career journey, I found that my role in solutions engineering suits me. Prior to joining GitHub, I used the product. That user experience helps me to work with our customers,” says Sarah Barnekow, Inside Solutions Engineer (Corporate Sales) at GitHub. “In this role, I’m working with different customers every day including periodic visits to our customers,” she added. The solution engineering role varies company to company. Presentation skills, working well with sales staff and the ability to problem-solve on the fly are valuable in this role.

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