Checking back on old articles, and I figured this topic could do with a revisit! Here's the original from back in 2011.
Instead of just being demo dollies, SEs or Sales Engineers come in all sorts of different presales roles. Some sales organisations need many of the same kind, while other organisations need or have a variety of different roles. For many SEs, these descriptions may overlap or be interchanged, however in other organisations there is a strict demarcation of the roles.Subject Matter Expert (SME) or Specialist
The SME is somebody who has a large body of experience in a narrow field - narrower than the full set of solutions. This SE will be brought in for particular deals when it requires domain knowledge or a specialist's touch. To become an SME, the SE needs to grow their knowledge in a particular area, so that deals that fit the mold will be brought to them. Sales reps will value their knowledge in the particular field and they will be first choice. Some SMEs are in very high demand and command higher salaries due to their special domain knowledge.
SMEs also are typically rewarded based on the success of their key product area. However a smaller focus could also be a way in as a junior to a team that have many areas of focus.
A generalist is the opposite of the SME. Their job is to be able to go to any meeting and be able to add value across a large variety of different product offerings. In some cases they will be able to suggest a solution directly, and in other cases they will bring in an SME. Some Generalists also are able to fill the role of an SME in several fields, and therefore can also be very highly paid. Also Generalists can also progress to a variety of different roles in an organisation. A good generalist needs to keep all of their areas of knowledge to an acceptable level. The first SE into a new region or vertical is often a generalist.
A Solution architect is an SE who is much closer to the customer, in understanding a particular industry or enterprise's business problems, and be able to suggest solutions that would help solve them. They tend to be much more customer focused, and may run the risk of going native. A good Solution Architect knows how to combine different products and services to solve particular business problems and knows how they fit into the customer's environments. A Solution Architect is much less concerned of the normal use of the product, and much more in tune with what problem the customer is trying to solve.
A Systems engineer is more focused on the technical angle. For some industries it is very important to have highly detailed, technical specifications of products, parts and services. A Systems engineer has a strong understanding of all of the elements of a solution, both the parts belonging to their company and other vendors involved. This role can act as a supporting role within a presales team, helping boost the technical Proof of Value, or maintaining demo infrastructure.
A product evangelist is the marketing boundary of Sales engineering. They work with marketing at attending conferences, public demonstrations or webinars and may assist on the direct sales side at times. Many Product Evangelists stay within the presales team, but have a bigger responsibility on public facing speaking opportunities and demand generation.
Technical Channel Manager or Alliances Solution Consultant
Technical channel managers are the SEs who go out and skill up a channel of resellers and partners to sell the products. They require many of the above SE skillsets but also a capability to teach and train. A TCM however will usually get less time directly in front of customers and therefore need to support the partners in order to win business. The variant on this of supporting alliances partners, is to ensure strong enablement of partners and helping them build the technology offerings into their go to market motions.
Technical Account Manager
A Technical Account Manager works with existing accounts, trying to find new business problems to solve, or find ways of selling more product or services into the existing projects. Often TAMs work in the support organisation or the services organisations, but their role is important at selling more product. This role is often seen as a customer success role, however some organizations support those teams from presales as well.