Anyone working in the DC tech ecosystem who has not been in a sales engineering or a systems engineering role has most likely worked or interacted with someone from one or both disciplines. To many, these roles initially appear to be unrelated – most likely because the two are aligned with completely different business types (the sales engineer being common within commercial software companies and the systems engineer being common within the system
integrator/government contracting community). As we see it, these roles are strongly correlated – so much so that we believe they are interchangeable. As such, we aim to expose why sales engineering and systems engineering are two sides of the same coin. Our reasoning is as-follows:
The reciprocal and recursive nature of software products and information systems carries over to their technical stakeholder counterparts: In a previous post, we referenced the recursive, Russian-doll like nature of technology – starting with an individual product or component and continuing all the way through to the full-blown information systems in which the product(s) reside. If a product and system are mirrored views of one another, we argue that their respective sales engineering and systems engineering stakeholders also mirror one another, only in roles and responsibilities instead of design specifications and functionality.
Both roles require a base in hard skills with added - and equally important - soft skills: Sales and systems engineers are a unique – perhaps even atypical – type of engineer. In order to carry out both jobs, not only is knowledge of the engineering domain required, but various ‘soft skills’ are also a must, including oral and written communication, creativity, and business acumen. While the specific types of stakeholders a sales engineer works with slightly differ from those that a systems engineer does, both are required to regularly interact with the same class and spectrum of personnel – from technical subject matter experts, to business owners, to end-users. Effectively managing the relationships between such a range of different professionals is no simple undertaking, but something that a skilled sales engineer or systems engineer excels at doing.
In the same vein as #1 and #2 above, the skills required to effectively perform one role require borrowing skills from the other: We argue that to be an effective sales engineer, a decent understanding of systems is required. Conversely, to be an effective systems engineer, knowledge of technical products and the tech industry at-large is a must. In other words, a sales engineer cannot effectively help an enterprise adopt a product without general systems knowledge, and a systems engineer cannot design or engineer an information system without product knowledge and the ongoing state/trends occurring within the larger technology market.
Who can benefit from the above observations and insights? For one, we routinely receive rather urgent requests from colleagues for sales engineering referrals. The pool for such candidates is so small (particularly cleared ones), yet their demand is incredibly high. Instead of the tech sector continuously and exhaustively searching from such a sparse well, why not look within the larger pool of systems engineers, given all of the government contracting companies that, at any given time, have multiple internal hires working in such roles?
Second, for those who have worked for a prolonged period of time in either a sales or a systems engineering role and are in need of a ‘change-up’, why not consider the alternate role as a way of achieving professional growth and development? Such a transition would enable a long-time systems engineer to more comprehensively understand the same business processes and engineering efforts that went into the design and delivery of the very products they worked with in their respective systems – all while applying their systems-oriented knowledge to optimally deliver such products into customer information systems. Conversely, a long-time sales engineer could re-apply their product-oriented knowledge to help enterprises build powerful systems while no longer being tied to a particular brand.
In closing, we believe and hope we have made the following compelling case:
product: information system :: sales engineer: systems engineer