The route by which I got into sales is pretty unusual.
I majored in Electrical Engineering, with a focus on device materials and solid state physics. I spent my summer internships working in circuit design at Cisco and Broadcom. I got the chance to work with a professor on an incredible project: designing the logic for a Bluetooth-enabled blood pressure monitor.
My brain is wired for engineering. And yet I was very unhappy at these jobs, toiling away at my computer by myself. I briefly considered going to culinary school so I wouldn’t have to choose between creating things and getting to be around other people. I worked for a restaurant for three months and discovered it was an incredibly difficult industry to work in.
Then, I found sales.
Now, I get to interact with people all day and also put aspects of my engineering training to use. If there are any extrovert-engineers out there who are unhappy at their jobs, I thought I’d share my story in case it would inspire them to try their hand at sales. As it turns out, a background in engineering is very helpful for my job at Amplitude, where I sell an analytics platform to largely technical customers.
By the time I graduated college, I knew I didn’t want a career in electrical engineering — but I had no idea what else to do. So, I did what most confused new graduates do: I went to graduate school. I enrolled in a Master’s program at Santa Clara University in Alternative Energy Engineering, which in retrospect is baffling because I already knew I didn’t want to become an engineer.
During my first quarter in graduate school, an opportunity fell in my lap.
A friend of mine who worked at LinkedIn told me that they were looking for contractors to do part-time work. I didn’t know what team, or what kind of work, but I figured I might as well do some contracting work to make some money while taking classes.
The first day going in, I still had no idea what kind of work I would be doing, or which team I’d be working with. I showed up and found out that I would be contracting for the sales team, and thought: “Holy crap! This is my way out of engineering!” I made it my mission to turn this contracting position into a full-time job in sales.
From Day 1, I networked as much as possible. I was proactive about meeting with regional sales managers and directors in the sales org to make sure that everyone knew who I was, and I soaked up as much knowledge about the sales process as I could. After 4 weeks in the contractor position, I interviewed and landed a full-time role in sales development. I left my grad program and took the job.
At LinkedIn, I learned about the sales process and found that sales wasn’t really what I expected it was going to be. Before, I had thought that sales was like reading a script, like a telemarketer. But that’s not it at all — sales is all about how I approach a person and connect with them.
Joining a Startup
After almost a year at LinkedIn, I decided to join a startup so I could work with a smaller team and have the opportunity to make an observable difference to the bottom line of a company.
I went from LinkedIn to Kontagent (now Upsight) as about their 90th employee. Next, I worked at Revinate (a software company for the hospitality industry) where I became a more senior sales person who was responsible for closing deals on my own. A mentor of mine knew I still wanted to work at a true startup with less than ten people, and suggested I talk to Amplitude.
I was initially really skeptical of joining another mobile analytics company after Kontagent; I thought the mobile analytics space was too noisy and crowded already. But, I agreed to a half-hour meeting with Amplitude’s co-founder and CEO, Spenser. That half-hour meeting turned into more like two hours — and in that time Spenser really sold me. He convinced me that the problem of mobile analytics wasn’t yet solved, and that there was still so much room for innovation.
I met with the rest of the team a few days later, and that’s what really clinched it for me. At the time, the team was only five people (the team is now 20 and growing). It was (and still is) clearly a very engineering-driven company, and that gave me more confidence in the company. It was obvious that everyone was incredibly smart and really excited about building the company. The product was solid, with much more on the roadmap. Despite my initial misgivings about mobile analytics, I figured I’d rather take a leap of faith with this team and see if we could make it.
How my engineering training helps me in sales
I’ve been in sales now for five years, and the training I received studying electrical engineering has actually been really helpful. To other engineers out there that crave a job with more interaction with other people, you should know that sales is a viable option for you.
Here’s how I use my training in engineering every day and why I think it makes me a better salesperson.
1. Approach every sales call like is a problem that can be solved.
Although it may not seem like it on the surface, my engineering training actually has a lot of relevance to my current role in business development at Amplitude. Engineering is all about problem-solving, and I approach every sales call like a problem I need to solve. First I figure out what the potential customer’s pain or need is, and then think about how Amplitude can help to solve their pain. I think of it like a logic problem almost: there are so many avenues to approach it, and it’s all about figuring out which avenue to take to help the prospect solve their problem.
2. Having a technical background helps. A lot.
My background has also helped me have a better understanding of our product, which is fairly technical. We provide a full-service analytics platform for mobile and web apps, spanning both the front-end (dashboards) and back-end (data collection, cleaning, and data warehousing in Amazon Redshift). There are a lot of intricacies around how we collect data and how data is displayed on our dashboards, and my past training helped me grasp these concepts. On calls, I often have to think on the spot how Amplitude can help a prospect solve a particular use case, and it helps to have that deeper technical understanding of our product.
3. Increasingly, we are selling to engineers.
I talk to a lot of software engineers and CTOs on sales calls. On those calls, it helps so much that we have the ‘same brain’ — since I was originally trained as an engineer, I feel like I get how they think. It doesn’t help that we’re both stubborn — cause engineers (including myself) are sometimes extremely stubborn — but I can relate with them and be on the same wavelength.
4. It’s helpful for communicating feedback to our product team here at Amplitude.
Of course relating to potential customers is great, but possibly the biggest upside of my engineering background is how it helps me to relate to our engineering team here at Amplitude. Since we’re relatively early stage, we’re still constantly refining and improving the product and thinking about how to make it more useful. A big part of that is feedback that we get from potential customers. Sometimes I’ll talk to a potentially large customer who likes us, but also really wants x feature that we don’t provide.
My understanding of the product helps me have a pretty good sense of whether the request is not worth pursuing, or whether it’s something that could actually improve our product and provide value to all of our customers. I’ll relay the request back to the engineering team, and work with someone from engineering to schedule follow-up calls, and spec out how we might build that feature into our product. In these cases, I end up working pretty closely with the engineering team, getting updates on the progress and scheduling follow-up calls and demos of the feature with the prospect.
Now that I’ve been in sales for about five years, it’s interesting to look back and see how different my life is from what I first expected, back in college. There were some unexpectedly lucky breaks, like that initial mystery contracting job at LinkedIn, that helped me make the leap from engineering to sales.
Sales is definitely a much better fit for my personality — I get to spend my days talking to prospects and interacting with other members of the Amplitude team. On the other hand, working in the data and analytics space means that I get to keep in touch with my technical side and use the old analytical and problem-solving skills, even if not to the same extent as before.
In that sense, working in technical sales is pretty much the best of both worlds for me.