Roughly four years ago, the Sochi winter Olympics inspired us to write a blog post on the parallels between figure skating and sales engineering. In that (now archived) post, it was observed that both professions are commonly perceived by outsiders as being second-class when compared with their winter sporting or engineering alternatives. In other words, just as figure skating is critiqued by some as not truly being a sport, there is also a perception that sales engineering isn’t engineering in the truest sense.
As we reflect on this past post and the more recent 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, we conclude there is a larger topic to be presented on the sales engineering front: technical leadership. Most in the technology sector would probably agree that a junior to mid-level sales engineer with a rare hybrid set of technical and presentation skills is likely set-up on a nice glide path for success, but how can this small and well-regarded professional sector take their game up a notch once they reach the mid to senior levels of their organizations to become true technical leaders? How can any engineering professional, for that matter, progress to become a technical leader, should they so desire?
To help answer these questions, we thought about some of the best technical leaders we’ve ever personally known or worked with and found they shared a core set of characteristics. (Note: by technical leader, we mean someone who either studied or started out in the engineering ranks and later went on to become successful managers, CTOs, CEOs, etc.) These characteristics include:
The ability to extract themselves from the weeds: Given the depth and complexity of various engineering and technical topics, it’s (understandably) extremely difficult for technical professionals to get ‘out of the weeds’ and comprehend or communicate at the strategic levels of their organizations and with the clients they may be tasked to support. The best technical leaders we know have somehow figured out how to break away from the minutiae.
No time for nonsense: Engineers are known for being literal, methodical, and precise – the science and math upon which their field has been constructed wouldn’t have otherwise. This combination of traits often carries over into the collaborative and team-building aspects of their work, which means you can rely on engineers to be straightforward, honest, and well-calculated in their interactions and responses with others they work with. Once an engineer begins to soar at the level of a technical leader, they obtain an innate ability to blend their engineering ways with complementary skills in the creativity and business acumen arenas, making them a highly sought-after resource within their respective organizations.
Engineering integrity: Unfortunately, the complexity and ambiguity behind technology easily lend themselves to being improperly sold to customers – we’ve witnessed this occur more times than we wish was the case. Rest assured, when a client or business leader is in the hands of a strong technical leader, you can almost guarantee their engineering integrity is in-tact, meaning they’re never going to promise to deliver or do something that they know isn’t physically possible.
A sense of wit and humor: Perhaps surprising to those who haven’t known or worked with technical leaders, we’ve found they often come with a strong sense of wit and humor. When thinking more about why this is, we concluded it must be due to the rigors and stressors of the engineering field that push them to needing to have a lighter side elsewhere. Or, on the wit front, the engineer’s ability to quickly calculate and analyze readily must somehow translate into their ability to spontaneously bring humor to a workplace engagement, when appropriate.
In summary, wherever a solid organization exists, you’ll most likely find a sound technical leader has been pivotal to the overarching success of that organization. Not all engineers go on to become technical leaders, but those that do are truly “hidden” gems.