How to develop your career as a Sales Engineer

How do you plan you career?

Are you taking things one step at a time, or do you have a good idea of what you want to do as part of your career?

I've often discussed with other sales engineers about their career or heard feedback that the career plan for an SE is not easy, or limited. There are times I have felt this way myself, what are we really doing when we say this? Is someone else limiting our options or are we doing it to ourselves?

Sales engineering is an exciting role in its own right.  Most companies have several levels or tiers in the individual contributor role, which allows an SE to develop from an entry level role, and progress upwards throughout their career into Senior, Principal and higher titles within the sales engineer pathway.  Each step up should come with additional responsibility, rewards and reflect the increasing influence of the individual with customers and internally inside the business.  This pathway should be possible without having to take on managerial responsibility, which isn't what everyone wants, and often does mean you take a more technology or sales leadership role.  By leadership here, I mean more of a decision maker in how things are done, but not who has to do them. They might decide strategy for deals, presentation expertise, advise on product direction and could be seen as a industry figure who has influence well beyond the company's direct influence.

For those who do want to progress into management, it becomes more about how you can enable and support your team, and less about your individual performance. If you come from the team, though it is also good to show you maintain a strong understanding of the solutions and how they are sold.  Just don't fall into the trap of doing your team's job for them. The role of the manager is to help everyone achieve their best and improve as they go, and help the business scale up to the next level. If you take the management track, it might open up other management roles as well outside of sales engineering, as long as you demonstrate the ability to make your team successful, and help other parts of the organization succeed.

If you are ambitious, then sales engineering can be a track to take you into other important parts of the business.  Depending on where you see your skills, you could leverage your technical ability, your commercial savviness, or your strategic mind and industry knowledge to a variety of roles. Some of the most successful SEs I've known have progressed into Product Management, Strategy, Sales and Marketing roles, and keep progressing once they get there.  

The key thing to achieving your career goals is to have a plan. A plan is how you map out the journey to where you want to go, and making the incremental steps or changes needed to get you there. If you want to become a manager, you need to start working on helping other people achieve their potential, by mentoring, coaching and showing how you can put them first. To progress directly as an SE, work out the gaps in what your organization sees as necessary skills for Senior & Principal SEs. It should be more than just doing your job for a requisite amount of time, but should show how you deliver more value and demonstrate leadership in your field.
To progress in other areas, you should work closely with them in your available time.  Find those projects that mean you get to advise other departments or work with them closely. Demonstrate to a sales manager that your commercial awareness and ability to win customers is a strength, and find an open role that you are willing to take a risk on.

Ultimately, sales engineering is a field that combines many skills, technical and commercial.  These skills are extremely valuable, and if you find people who want you for those skills in other roles or in a higher capacity, then you will push your career forward.
Find yourself a mentor, have a good chat about your goals, and what the immediate steps you could take and have fun progressing your career.