The learnings from a technical sales guy.
Early enough in my career, I got the opportunity of jumping straight out of college into a hardware sales role. The shiny corporate logo, worldwide brand awareness, and compelling story of how great the products seem to be were enough for me to jump into that wagon. In hindsight, it was the best and worst decision of my career.
Straight out of the gate, I realized the semiconductor industry is tough. The industry is full of know-it-all personalities with tons of experience that rule the game. The technology and the supply chain around silicon are very complex, and your college degree or, even in my case, a Master's in Engineering will scrape the surface of all you need to be an effective salesperson. Even after 6 months on the job, I was still struggling with positioning the messaging of the product, and often you cover a broad set of unrelated verticals from retail to testing equipment customers. By the same token, I was lucky to be surrounded by industry experts that gave me the benefit of the doubt and allowed us, youngsters, to flourish and build our sales skills, and provided enough training to understand the product at a deep level. So why think of another career?
Semiconductor sales or hardware sales, in general, incur long sales cycles. This in itself can be very frustrating. Customers take their sweet time to make decisions, and often you are eye to eye with your competitor. Customers in this industry know the game, often better than you. They have been purchasing products before you were born, and outsmarting them requires excellent sales skills, a fact that, if you ever been in sales, takes time to develop and master. Assuming you are willing to endure the pain, you end up getting really good at managing customers, learning how to handle objections, and developing yourself. The bad news: you are always frustrated, and this generally gets to you and your co-workers. That’s when I started looking at a new career path. I knew in college and grad school that I was fairly good at coding, definitely not the best, but something I truly enjoy doing. I also thought I could have more career options; let’s face it, the Software industry carries all the hype lately. So... Naive me thought: if I could combine my sales experience with coding, I could land a job in a technical sales position at a cool software company. Not so easy, cowboy…
The Art of Reinventing Yourself
I took a hard look at my resume, and it screamed hardware. Interestingly enough, I landed multiple job interviews for software companies, mostly startups. Startups can have a lower barrier of entry, and even if you are not interested in the company, it gives you a great opportunity to learn and prepare yourself for future interviews. In every single interview, all of the interviewers questioned me about my aspiration to transition into software, and often that was the focus of the whole interview.
Every time I would walk into the interview room, I felt I had this gigantic sticker on my forehead: the hardware guy. The natural question comes… How do I become attractive to my future employer?
Start with taking upon all the possible and imaginable projects related to software in your current company. For example, if your company sells hardware to Machine Learning use cases, ask and participate in those discussions, especially when the SMEs come into the account. Even if the account is a total bust, you will learn what companies are using, which frameworks they have in production, and what tools are relevant to that use case. That’s exactly how I started; I even took a customer that ended up going bankrupt, but, at that time, it didn’t matter; all I wanted is to be exposed to those conversations.
You know all those new cool products your competitor is advertising and creating a fuss in your life? That might be a great opportunity for you to volunteer to help with a marketing competitive analysis. You will get insights into why features are being included in that software stack and slowly understand the market and software business.
No pain, no gain
No surprises here; if you don’t put enough hours into learning relevant software stacks, then you don’t have enough knowledge to carry yourself in an interview. The good news is: there are plenty of resources to help you out.
After gathering the market intelligence on my area of interest, a combination of Machine Learning and DevOps, I knew what to look for and begin my studies. I signed myself up for MOOCs, most of them in Udemy, where $12 at a time opened the doors for hours and hours of content. I loved the courses with tons of hands-on labs, and more importantly, set a goal for yourself.
Certifications can go a long way, and it helps to set a hard deadline for you to sit down and work your way through the material. I have myself set up for an AWS Solutions Architect certification and began studying and following tutorials. After 5 weeks of grinding, I passed the exam and could add a verifiable certification to my resume. Keep in mind; most cloud providers have verifiable certifications, and it’s widely accepted in the industry.
Control the Narrative
I can’t emphasize enough: you will get questioned on the deepest reasons for your career change, especially if you already have some years of experience on your shoulders. It feels the Software Police is doing their due diligence whether you would fit into their world. How can I mitigate this?
Be prepared. Get yourself a piece of paper, and create a story. Focus on cohesively answering these questions:
- Why are you considering a change?
- What makes you a good fit for software?
- What do you bring to the table versus a seasoned software person?
- How do your experiences related to the job you are applying for?
In summary, create a storyline that you can easily sell, understand, and it’s verifiable. Remember that your future manager has to justify you for that job. Use your experience in your favor, focus on the experiences you had and how you used your software skills and mindset to solve it. During the interview, use your JEDI sales skills to sell yourself on value, control the room to re-focus on your key strengths, and be ready to handle objections. I had interviewers that completely bombed me, and that’s fine. Keep yourself calm, focus and defuse the conversation.
Enjoy the Journey
This journey is not easy; it requires a lot of energy, focus, toughness, and patience. But don’t panic, and remember the best time to find a new job while still having one. You are a rockstar; take a chance at all the opportunities that come along, fail, adapt and try again. It’s an iterative process; you define your journey and while you are at it: enjoy it.