Considering a career in Solution Engineering? Carl Dempsey, VP of Solution Engineering shares his journey and sheds some light on what it means to be a Solution Engineer at Salesforce...
My journey at Salesforce started out as a Solution Engineer. Coming from similar roles at other CRM companies, it was a logical move for me.
If I go right back, my Bachelor and Master's degrees had been in marketing, specifically services marketing. When I started my degree I always assumed I would work as a Category Manager in one of the big consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies that hired most of my class.
However, it was an interesting time in Ireland as an indigenous tech industry started to emerge, and I needed to be part of it. I wanted to make a significant impact in a fast moving, high growth business where I would find endless opportunities for growth. So, I ignored the “milk round” university recruiting events and spent my time researching and applying to startups in the IT space.
To be clear, I am not a technologist or a programmer, I have always been more interested in the impact and value of technology than the “ones and the zeros” or “speeds and feeds”. I've always approached IT from the perspective of “how hard can it be” and if you are willing to learn, it's not as daunting as it may initially seem.
It was a happy coincidence that the company that made me a job offer was in the CRM space, so all that academia could be applied to the product I was working on. It's something I place great value on - I understood why the technology was developed and why customers should be interested in it. To this day, I coach anyone I work with to understand and communicate why your proposition is of value to any given audience.
My first job was as a B2B marketeer, specifically to build a re-seller channel for this small Irish start-up, I couldn't shake those marketing roots & I still cringe when I think about the brown 3-piece suit I used to wear - but I was frequently asked to write last-minute responses to RFIs and RFPs.
Being comfortable talking to crowds (I always put my hand up to present group work in university, and enjoyed college debating) I was asked to present or demo the software if we were short-listed in a selection process. Gradually, and with no formal training or development, and without understanding it was a role in it's own right, presales work became the mainstay of my job.
When I think about those early demos, they must have been train-wrecks, but clearly someone saw something in them as I was asked/told to be a presales consultant when a dedicated team was created. I credit my manager at that time with investing in my development with both impactful coaching and training in valuable areas such as:
All of which allowed me to understand the method to madness that is presales and that it's about a lot more than just knowing the product. From there, I was trusted to work on larger deals. I was flown around Europe, the US, and to Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Melbourne to work with customers and partners on CRM evaluation projects in financial services, telecommunications, media, and transportation industries.
Solution Engineering is Salesforce's term for “presales”. Every enterprise software company has this role, they may use different terms and place greater or less emphasis on it, but if you look, you'll find product experts that work with the sales teams to create the solutions for prospective customers and team closely to win the deal.
Solution Engineering is an ideal blend of the commercial and the technical. You must have the underlying product knowledge to be credible in the room, but you have to work within a sales team to ensure any solution you develop is commercially successful. The role is about understanding a prospective customer's business goals, coming up with creative and viable solutions, proving it's validity, and building the trust and relationships that mean that those solutions get mind-share with the right individuals at a prospective customer.
The amazing thing about Solution Engineering is that the role itself has become much more diverse. There is room, indeed it's almost mandatory, for lots of different skills and personality types on a team. People with different focus areas and backgrounds can come together to help deliver and communicate the best solution for a prospect:
There is no longer a “classic” Solution Engineering profile, at least at Salesforce, which means this fantastic career is open to many more types of individuals.
An important aspect of Solution Engineering that is obvious to anyone doing the role, but not necessarily to those coming across it for the first time, is that virtually every engagement with a customer or prospective customer is competitive. A company evaluating an enterprise software solution is probably looking at 3-5 vendors. This means that you have doppelgängers pitching their alternative solution to your prospect.
As a result, it's harder to gain mind-share, and not enough to present as if in a vacuum - you have to learn to differentiate your company and solution, lay traps for the competition, and deal with the landmines they have set for you. Frankly, I really enjoy this hand-to-hand combat aspect of the role. It's a great feeling to knock out the competition and it makes winning a deal all the sweeter.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, Solution Engineering is fun. As if beating the competition to win a deal wasn't fun enough, you get to talk to executives about their business and how it can be improved. You help companies select tools to support their growth and success. You talk to senior executives about their future strategy and explain how your product will help them realise this. You discuss future trends and innovations like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IOT) and help them apply these to their business models, or develop new business models. What's not to love?
Ultimately (and remember my non-tech background) I've found a perfect home at Salesforce where the Customer Success Platform is there to empower Trailblazers to do amazing things with clicks, not code. So it allows me to talk about innovation and value rather than having to focus on infrastructure and code.
Also, Salesforce's products just work. This may seem like a given if you haven't been in a solution engineer role previously, but trust me, this is not the norm across the industry! Setting up a demo is a breeze, the products are stable, you can click anywhere with confidence (if you've done presales before, you're smiling to yourself right now), and there is a wide range of tools and resources available to allow you to roll up your sleeves and build amazing business applications.
Learning Salesforce is fun as well, we use the same Trailhead platform as our wider Ohana to explore, learn, and master Salesforce. Virtually every Solution Engineer in Salesforce is a Trailhead Ranger, myself included. With 3 releases a year and new products regularly announced, there is always something new and exciting to learn at Salesforce.
The types of companies Salesforce works with and the level of access we have is another huge plus for Solution Engineers who want to do interesting work. Being ranked as the most innovative company in the world means that senior executives, up to CEO want to hear and discuss our point of view for their industry and collaborate on a vision for their organisation.
Many enterprise software vendors struggle to get similar levels of “C-Suite” access. A Solution Engineer at Salesforce is likely to meet and present to industry leaders and shapers at companies that range from some of the largest and most recognised brands in the world, down to the start-ups and disruptors that everyone will be talking about in the near future.
Finally, Salesforce's culture makes it possible to do all of this great Solution Engineer work in an amazing environment filled with fantastic people. I joined Salesforce 13 1/2 years ago when it was still a scrappy startup, and while the culture has evolved and developed, I still recognise many of the great things that made Salesforce so attractive to me back then:
These ensure that it's never just about the 'day job', it's about being part of something much bigger. This is rewarding on many levels. It's the non-profits you volunteer with in your community - last year I was teaching 6 year olds science and 12 year olds to code, and helping set up Salesforce for an organising supporting refugees in Ireland. It's all about the amazing customers and partners you get to work with. It's the people you see develop and grow around you and go on to have amazing careers.
Ohana is Hawaiian word for family, and it really does feel like one.