There is no formula. But there is a path.
As someone who loves to read and write, I love everything to do with the craft of writing. It feels like a peeling back of the veil, a peek into how the sausage is made. For a lot of people, this can sometimes take them away from the magic. Not for me.
Why am I going on about the craft of writing in a blog post about how to become the most amazing sales engineer ever? Because I had the opportunity to host a virtual meetup with some of my (back in the day) SE buddies who are all either sales leaders now, starting something of their own, or rocking their own startups/businesses. As friends who meet up after a long time are wont to do, we found ourselves reflecting on our own, and each other's journeys.
And guess what? Every single one of us has gotten to where we are through trials and tribulations, adventures and aid, stepping outwards and looking inwards is reminiscent of the Hero's Journey. No kidding. Literary critic Joseph Campbell talks about a master narrative - a monomyth called the Hero's Journey which applies to everyone from Thor to Rama, Harry Potter to Tyrion Lannister, and yes, you and me.
The Hero's Journey, simply put, is the way a character evolves. It is our process of starting off on a new adventure, facing and overcoming challenges, and becoming better at what we do (and hopefully, becoming better people) along the way. The friends I mentioned? Every single one of these guys has been on the journey from Demo Resource to Sales Engineering superstardom.
I'm recounting these journeys here, within the framework of the Hero's Journey, so you can draw parallels to your own journey, and push the accelerator a little bit.
In the beginning
So, we all start from the same place - fresh, green young sales engineers who know their product inside out, attend every training under the sun about making the best demo ever, and who have begun to develop a certain level of demo mastery. We get really, really good at making demos.
This is our ordinary world. We are excellent demo resources. We get pulled into demos all the time (scheduled, as well as SOS), we answer technical questions, we go into painful detail with everyone who has a question, and we make custom demo after custom demo after custom demo. We are at home - we are Frodo and Sam in the Shire.
Then, we hear the call for adventure. For some, it looks like burnout. For others, it involves sitting in a demo that blows our minds. For still others, it involves a yearning to do more than just be the guys behind the screens. For some of us really, really lucky ones, it involves feedback from someone who cares, who tells us (gently or otherwise) that there is a lot more we could be doing.
Initially, we refuse it. After all, it took us a while to get good at what we do! Why throw ourselves out into the unknown world of discovery and customer research, analyst reports and account meetings? We'd rather focus on making great demos, no? No. Thankfully, all of us progressed to the next stage.
Meeting the mentor. We all have someone in our working lives who challenges us. Usually, this is an experienced senior member of our teams, who sees our potential before we do. Sometimes, this is a friendly client (or a friend of the family, or a colleague who has left for greener pastures) who offers us an opportunity in their organizations. Whoever this person is, they usually give us both the confidence, and the guidance needed to sharpen our skills, and they show us the way. Harry Potter meets Dumbledore.
Now, this isn't literal (though sometimes it can be). The departure simply signifies a change in the way we think. Suddenly, our world has gotten bigger, and we can see the illuminated path to a better version of ourselves.
We cross the first threshold. We attend a discovery meeting with a fresh new pair of eyes and ears. We see the customer's pain points, and we can see how our tool is a solution. Our thinking shifts away from features and presentations to pain points and solutions. It is uncomfortable, but oh, so rewarding. Frodo packs his bag and begins the long walk out of the Shire.
And so begins the road of trials. Here, we meet failure. We also meet our allies - sales reps who recognise our hunger and match our steps; account executives who see promise and begin including us everywhere; sales leaders who encourage and back us up. The Fellowship of the Ring comes together. We make mistakes and take criticism, and use it to sharpen our tools. We find out who our true allies are. Each step gets us closer to our goal and makes us stronger.
We approach the innermost cave. This is where our egos live, as do our insecurities. This is also where our blindspots live. By this time, we've achieved some level of mastery of our new skills, and early successes have made us a little cocky (okay, maybe that was just me!). But this is where we encounter a real setback. Maybe our startup fails. Maybe our mentor quits. Maybe, we're laid off. Or, as was in my case, we bite off more than we can chew at a brand-new startup.
The innermost cave is where the stakes reassert themselves, and we falter. We lose a little ground here - we question our abilities and our methods, and we lose some of that confidence, some of that cockiness. Harry encounters Voldemort inside his mind.
It may look like a step back when it is happening, but in hindsight, this is what really prepares us for what's coming next.
I know, very dramatic. In real life, however, it often is a series of ordeals. We rarely encounter that one make-or-break deal, or that villainous client who laughs in our face, or that boss who just can't stop underestimating us (okay, maybe sometimes we encounter that guy!). We do, however, go through trials by fire. We find ourselves in positions we're not prepared for, and we often find ourselves in these situations without our usual support system. Harry Potter leaves Hogwarts, to find the Horcruxes.
I strongly believe that this is where the growth mindset separates the wheat from the chaff. Campbell calls this stage Apotheosis - where the hero becomes fully aware of their power, purpose or skill, and this newfound knowledge is the key to the hero's success. In the sales engineer's life, this involves a series of moments, each of which is backed by the will to learn and try again. This is how we grow into the salespeople we want to become. This is how we grow into the people we want to become. We stumble. We pick ourselves up. We learn. We listen better. We pick up a tool that helps. We step forward with more nuance. And we keep going.
And then, one day, the ultimate boon arrives. We all remember this day. It may not be the biggest client or the biggest deal or even the most memorable demo. But we remember the day when in the middle of a demo gone wrong with a pissed-off client, we step up and deliver. We grab hold of the meeting and command everyone's attention and turn it around.
The client calms down and the screen unfreezes… but we don't need the demo anymore. We've got skills. We just talk to the client. We empathize. We listen. We respond, rather than react, with well thought out responses and examples and storytelling. We make the client feel seen and heard and understood. We walk out of that meeting with concrete next steps and a happy client.
More importantly, we walk out of that meeting knowing that we can handle whatever is thrown at us. Not in the cocky, surface, ego-driven way we knew it before, but as a bone-deep assertion that feels true because we've put the work in. Harry has purged Voldemort, once and for all.
It may look like this is where the journey ends, but this is where it starts to get really, really good.
The return with the elixir
I don't know a single person in a leadership position today, who got there 'all alone. It just doesn't happen. There were people who walked the path before us, lighting it for us to follow. And now, we get to do the same. This is where the baton is passed.
Once we get to that place where we have a new mastery, it isn't long before the journey starts anew. None of us can sit still, resting on our laurels. The call to the next adventure is coming. But, that doesn't stop us from playing Dumbledore or Gandalf in other people's journeys. We get to contribute now, to a bigger story; too many, many stories.
Personally, this is where my confidence comes from. I know I am the silly and naive Frodo in my current avatar as a solopreneur. But, as a sales rep, sales engineer, and sales leader, I am Gandalf. Even when I am in the middle of my ordeal as Frodo, I get to step out and play Gandalf to the folks I am lighting the way for. It gives me fuel.
Know this: wherever you are in your journey, someone has walked this path (or one almost like it) before you. Nothing helps push through an ordeal more effectively than people who have your back. Find them. Cultivate them.
Don't surround yourself only with people you agree with, nor with people who 'unconditionally' support you. We all need tension to grow. We need resistance and criticism. Find people who challenge and guide you. Defend yourself for sure, but don't coddle yourself. Lean into the discomfort instead. Prepare. Then throw yourself into the ordeal - you'll have to eventually.
And when you come through the other side with the elixir, please, pay it forward.