It was a little over a year ago, that I sat back in my theoretical chair at my cushy enterprise job and started thinking about what was next. There was a good amount of change and velocity in the role that kept me satisfied for the past six years, but there was also a growing sense that I needed to take the next step if I was to progress in my career and keep learning at a rapid pace. I considered the standard track of moving towards management, but the fit didn’t seem right at my current job. Next, I thought about pivoting away from specializing in networking and taking on more of a generalist role in a cloud infrastructure team. While that would have been a great learning experience and would have surely allowed me to win at buzz word bingo on my resume, networking was still my passion and I was not ready to fully walk away from it. Lastly, I started looking at pre-sales engineer opportunities at vendors. Traditionally, I saw these roles as more of a fit for engineers who were once hands-on, but have since shifted more of their focus towards the sales process. So while I was interested in learning more about sales and getting in front of customers, I feared this would take me away from the keyboard and ultimately make me less technical and marketable. Fast forward a few months and I chose a pre-sales role that seemed to address most of my general concerns. I absolutely knew that this transition would be a work in progress, so throughout my first year I kept notes with the intention of writing about this move and giving engineers who are considering a career change a view into the process.
While realizing that it was time to move on, one thing I knew for certain is that it couldn’t just be a change for the sake of change. In my mind, starting a new engineering role in another enterprise, putting in the hours and work of proving myself just for the sake of learning new technologies, didn’t seem to be enough of a benefit in my situation. The change needed to be towards something different, which would ultimately open up new doors and allow me to advance.
The thought of going into vendor pre-sales did cross my mind at times during the last few years. I spoke to a couple of different engineers in those same positions and they generally seemed happy and well-rested. While I shared stories about my latest maintenance window battle scars, they spoke about what they did in their free time and how great it was to work from home. Granted, the average engineer in my field views the existence of vendor sales reps as solely for the purpose of free steak dinners, over time the stigma of working in sales slowly diminished for me.
Even though I was fortunate enough to be part of a team that got a chance to work on the latest and greatest toys for many years, eventually my interests shifted. Operating within the confines of an enterprise for an extended period of time, you’re bound to hit the limit of new and exciting technologies to work on. In addition, the ability to make recommendations and offer long term vision of both how your environment and team should be operated, slightly decreases every year. For each year you’ve been managing the same enterprise environment, is another year that you haven’t seen any other environment up close and personal. That last part stuck with me, as my willingness to get exposure to other environments started to outweigh my fear of moving slightly further away from daily operations and my precious keyboard. I desperately needed to get out there and start seeing the way the industry as a whole was building their infrastructure. Pre-sales seemed to provide that bridge.
A few years ago, I spoke at a conference for the first time. The preparation took months and the experience was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. Afterwards I was hooked, but at the same not oblivious to the fact that this was a skill that needed honing. One thing that stood out from the event, was how easy it was to identify which of the presenters spoke for a living and which were regular engineers like myself. Going forward, I started taking on more speaking opportunities, and while I noticed some improvement, the overall delivery was far from perfect and nowhere close to feeling natural. This was also a skill that was applicable in so many other areas of career development, that investing time in it was a no brainer. Instead of chalking it up to just being a weakness, I knew that with constant practice I could make up some ground in this area. What better way to improve, than by speaking to customers daily and doing this full-time (ie, sales)?
Its safe to say that the on-ramp for vendor sales was nothing like what I’ve experienced in the enterprise world. In the past, on-boarding at a new job meant waiting on account access and going over “current” network diagrams. Day one, the objective in pre-sales was clear (even if it wasn’t stated as directly). Absorb as much product information as possible, in the quickest way possible, to ultimately be able to speak about the product at an expert level. I started sitting in on meetings, scouring docs, looking at presentations, watching old videos, all while barely keeping up with the lingo my new coworkers were using and trying to absorb it ALL. To label this as drinking from a firehose would probably not do it justice. In all fairness, more seasoned pre-sales engineers would have probably tempered their expectations and paced themselves. I however, felt that I needed to fill every gap I stumbled upon right away and quickly get to the level of my peers, a lot of whom have been there for years. As a byproduct of this exercise, I remember realizing that I’ve absorbed more new information in the first month than I did in the last year at my old position.
All of this was ultimately leading towards me giving a thumbs-up and leading the tech side of a client meeting on my own. There was no explicit deadline or outside pressure to do this, as my manager told me to take my time and just let him know when I was ready. When the day came, things went about how you would expect them to. I brought the wrong video adapter to the meeting. My account executive came to the rescue with doing the presentation from his laptop, albeit armed with a year old powerpoint deck that I’ve never seen before. Overall the meeting went fine and I was able to see that not every single word out of my mouth needed to be carefully curated. It was also perfectly fine to say “let me find out and get back to you”, as long as that wasn’t the only thing coming out of your mouth.
After the meeting, I remember thinking that this felt familiar. It was initially terrifying, but ultimately exhilarating. I had a ways to go, but with practice this would become more natural. On top of that, I noticed that every customer meeting became a mini conference presentation, where I could constantly practice and get better at public speaking.
While this list grows and shifts almost daily, I’ll start chronologically with what was almost the first major theme I observed. Where were the nights and weekends of maintenance work? Where were the on-call rotations that forced you to stay by your phone and computer at all times during a given week? These aspects of my previous role didn’t bother me too much, as they were usually spaced apart. I also grew tolerant of them as they were the status quo for any network engineering position in my career. While I knew ahead of time that this would be a perk of pre-sales, being able to enjoy weekends without any interruptions was eye-opening. Even though I personally experienced burnout only once or twice in my last role, the theme of burnout in the tech industry has become a lot more public over the last few years. “With that mind, you mean to tell me that off-hours maintenance work isn’t a necessary evil and there’s another way?” Sure, it would be unfair not to mention the travel aspects of sales roles, which in many cases get out of hand. While that isn’t the case in my role, I know plenty of pre-sales engineers that live on planes. Nevertheless, I started evangelizing the pre-sales role to any of my engineer friends who were willing to listen. “Did you know that there is this other career path that allows you to work from home full-time, not work nights/weekends and pays competitively?”
The amount of freedom in the role was another aspect I wasn’t used to. Instead of a never ending list of enterprise projects which you’re constantly juggling and prioritizing, pre-sales work is directly tied to the sales cycle. If you’re jumping from one customer POC to another, times are busy. However, if your calendar is light certain days or weeks, you have to carve out work for yourself. I was personally looking forward to this aspect of the job, as I have a never ending list of technologies and new toys I want to dive into. While doing this on company time at my previous role sometimes felt awkward, it is almost necessary in pre-sales. Evangelizing the product and the various sub-topics it touches is part of the job, so the more of an authority you become on various customer facing topics, the better you are at your job (win-win). That’s not to say that staying disciplined to doing self-paced projects while working from home is easy. Self imposed deadlines and specific to-do lists are some of my personal solutions to avoid wandering around the house looking for snacks and staying productive.
Going into the job, I was honestly afraid of what a shift away from the keyboard and daily ops would look like. I’ve always learned by being hands-on and in lots of situations only fully grasp problems after seeing them in action myself. I treasured my perspective of operating in a live and complex environment, seeing what type of scaling issues existed in the real world. With all that in mind, the reality of pre-sales has been very open ended. Even though you generally end up sitting in more meetings as a whole, the freedom is there to be as hands-on as you want to be the rest of the time. I’ve noticed that this flexibility allows pre-sales engineers to operate to their strengths. Some will end up focusing on their communication and sales skills in their free time, exercising the span of their rolodex, because they honestly enjoy it. Others like myself, will target the technical part and hack away at various pieces of the technology. None of this is to say that one way is better than the other, as I think engineers end up finding their comfort zone and working to their strengths. Finally, if you’re wondering whether my hands-on skills have indeed degraded over the past year, I’ve actually observed the opposite. The need to quickly mock up customer environments, situations and configs on the spot has been a crucial need for the role. In the past, I’ve dreaded the tediousness of interconnecting and IP’ing devices, just to get to the point of eventually testing what I wanted to test. Forcing myself to get better at this skill and being able to mock up topologies in quick and efficient ways has forced me to step my game up. Thinking back, this would have been a very useful skill to have and use in my previous roles. It has really shifted my thinking in terms of how much focus needs to be on testing as a whole, and I plan to only get better at it going forward.