What “Sales Engineers” Do

“Sales engineer” (sometimes known as “systems engineer”, or “SE” for short) is one of those unique professions made possible by specialization of labor in an advanced post-industrial economy. Simply put, SEs apply their technical expertise in support of the sale of complex technological products, typically computer hardware, software, and/or services.

Note that even though many companies use the term “systems engineer” to describe this function (and I myself used the term in earlier versions of this text), what I’m describing here has very little to do with the formal discipline of systems engineering that arose after World War II out of the Bell System and large Cold War military/industrial projects like SAGE and Atlas. (For more on this see the book Rescuing Prometheus by Thomas P. Hughes.)

I haven’t done any detailed research on this, but I suspect that the use of the term “systems engineer” to describe a sales support position originated with IBM, probably within the sales teams devoted to serving large military and aerospace customers. With the advent of computers to replace and supplement products like card sorters (the original “business machines” in IBM’s corporate name) the products being sold became so complex that the typical salesperson was unable to fully understand and explain them. (As the old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a computer salesman and a used-car salesman? Answer: The used-car salesman knows when he’s lying.”)

Hence the need arose for sales teams to include technically knowledgeable people who could assist the actual salespeople, particularly in complex tasks like creating proposed system configurations to meet particular customer requirements. I suspect that the term “systems engineer” was adopted for such individuals both because this work was done within the context of engineering the complete systems of which the computers formed a major part, and also because calling them “engineers” was seen as giving them greater prestige and credibility in the customers’ eyes.

If the use of “systems engineer” in a sales context did in fact originate at IBM, I’m guessing that it then spread from IBM to other computer hardware and software companies. (Many sales VPs at high-tech companies got their start as IBM sales reps.) At some companies the SE function was renamed to something else — “marketing support analyst”, “sales technical support consultant”, “sales support analyst”, “sales engineer”, and so on — but the nature of the position itself remained essentially the same.

SEs perform the following activities in support of the sales process:

  • soliciting technical requirements from customers
  • giving presentations on and demonstrations of products
  • providing informal advice on what products might fufill the customer’s needs
  • writing more formal documents such as proposals and targetted white papers
  • serving as a point of contact for non-routine technical issues at major accounts
  • assisting salespeople with the creation and execution of an overall sales strategy for an account

Some of the things that systems engineers do not typically do (except when there’s no one else to do them!) include

  • selling products
  • providing routine post-sales product support
  • developing products
  • providing consulting services for system design and integration

These functions are performed by other people and groups, namely sales representatives, technical support people, engineers/developers, and professional services consultants respectively.

The principal qualifications for being a systems engineer are technical knowledge in the appropriate domain(s), verbal and written communications skills, and the ability and desire to work closely with salespeople. Having these qualities combined in a balanced way in a single person is relatively rare; in particular, most people with technical knowledge prefer to be engineers and developers, and most people interested in sales prefer to be sales representatives. This leaves people like me to soldier on as best we can.


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