Why We Fight – Sales vs Engineering

I am one of probably a relatively rare breed. I started my career as a software engineer, then moved over to the “dark-side” for a few years but more recently have come full-circle back to running a development organization. I’ve been a CEO, GM, CMO, CTO, VP Corp Dev and VP Bus Dev.

Honestly, I’ve never felt 100% at home on either “side” and I’ve come to accept that this part of the value that I can provide. I am a hybrid that can “translate” between engineers and sales people. Sometimes this causes me an enormous amount of “cognitive dissonance” but mostly it proves useful.

Fighting

Now and again people come to me asking me to help resolve disputes or to explain why engineers don’t respect sales people or sales people don’t respect engineers. Often, the person in question is hopping mad and simply cannot understand the other side’s behavior. This is a quintessential problem for any technology company and I’ve seen it in every company I’ve been involved in. It’s the basis of many a Dilbert strip.

The first step to resolving any dispute is for each side to understand the other. So, this post tries to explain what makes engineers and sales people tick, looking at the differences and similarities.

I have realistic expectations and you should too. I don’t think the “sales versus engineering” dispute will ever be completely resolved in any organization but I do think both sides can cut each other some slack as a result of better understanding.

We are all weirdos

So, at the risk of offending both sides at the outset, the first thing we have to accept is that both sales people and engineers are weirdos.

Sales people are weirdos because their job essentially involves talking to people who don’t want to talk to them, getting rejected again and again and repeating that process day after day. If they weren’t sales people, they’d probably be diagnosed as having a personality disorder. Most “normal” people would quickly become discouraged and demotivated and, once that happens, you can’t sell anymore.

Software engineers are weirdos because they have to talk to computers all day and get them to do what they want them to do. Computers aren’t like people. Computers have no common sense. Computers have no manners. Computers are unforgiving, humorless and pedantic to the extreme. Computers don’t get ambiguity and shades of grey. It’s either precisely right or it’s wrong and it won’t work.

This is partly selection bias – i.e. being a software engineer or sales person attracts a certain kind of person with certain characteristics to start with – but it’s also partly what the job does to you. When I’ve spent long periods writing software, I’ve found myself becoming more like the stereotype of a software engineer – more introverted, more cynical, more negative. If you talk to computers all day, and people much less, you start to think and communicate in a certain way. Likewise, when I’ve been on the front lines talking to customers and trying to close deals, I’ve become more like the sales stereotype – more outgoing, more predisposed to bend the truth.

Stereotypes

As a disclaimer, a lot of what I have to say here involves stereotyping. Stereotypes are useful but there are always exceptions to them.  There are extrovert, positive engineers that I’ve met. Honestly, I’ve never met a negative, introverted and cynical sales person but there’s always a first time…

Motivations

When it comes to motivations, let’s start by seeking some common ground:

I believe that both sales people and engineers are, like almost anyone, motivated by the respect of their peers.  They want to be respected by people they respect.

However, beyond that, engineers and sales people have fundamentally different motivations and different cultures. That’s where a big part of the conflict originates.

Engineers are generally motivated by learning new thingsunderstanding abstract ideas and doing smart things. In the eyes of their peers, they want to be regarded as being clever.

An important thing to realize here (and one of the perennial problems with managing development teams) is that being clever has nothing directly to do with getting things done. Software is never “done” and there are many extraordinarily clever software engineers  who are very bad at delivery and will happily tinker with any software indefinitely, if left to their own devices.

In terms of an engineer’s motivations, the means are often more interesting, and therefore more important, than the ends.

In contrast, sales people are generally motivated by building relationshipsachieving objectives and winning.  In the eyes of their peers, they want to be regarded as being successful.

For a sales person, the means only exist to serve the end – getting the deal done.  This leads to the perennial problem of sales people over-promising to get a deal done.

Personality Type

Engineers are generally introverts, sales people are generally extroverts.

The distinction between extrovert and introvert is commonly misunderstood and oversimplified as being simply whether you are socially outgoing or reserved. That is true to some extent but misses more fundamental differences between the way the two types think and interact with others.

Extroverts think out-loud. They find interaction with other people energizing. They solve problems and get things done by externalizing them – talking about them with others. To an extrovert, having a meeting to talk about something is getting the job done.

Introverts think internally. They find interaction with other people draining. They like to get their thoughts straight before they externalize them.  They solve problems by working on their own until they have a solution they’re happy with. To an introvert, having a meeting to talk about something gets in the way of getting the job done.

Beyond the simple introvert versus extrovert distinction, there are other common distinctions. For example, if you’re into Myers-Briggs personality types, the stereotype engineer is an INTP (Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinker, Perceiver). A fuller discussion of this topic is an attractive rat-hole but I will resist the temptation.

A typical day

A sales person’s typical day is very different to an engineer’s.

The sales person’s day is generally driven by a series of scheduled calls and meetings, each with a determined start and end time and, hopefully, clear objectives. A sales person’s typical day is largely focused on a lot of communication with other human beings. Outside of scheduled meetings, it is also commonly “interrupt driven” – e.g. a potential customer calls and you pick up the phone and talk to them.

The engineer’s day is generally driven by long periods (sometimes extremely long) of concentrated, heads-down thinking around solving a particular problem.

You can only be effective in this mode if you can be truly focused and able to get into a state of flow (also referred to as “being in the zone”). On any given day, it takes time to establish focus and it is very easily broken. Unfortunately, once its broken you can write off the rest of the hour, and sometimes the day. Different people have differing abilities to get themselves into the zone quickly and at will but it’s definitely a big issue – it’s not just a question of time lost but you’re also much more likely to introduce defects into software if your train of thought is interrupted.

I’ve referenced in previous posts Paul Graham’s excellent Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule which discusses this topic in more detail.

We’ve all seen this

This is where another very common source of conflict comes in.  You’ve probably witnessed something like this firsthand yourself:  the sales person gets a call from a potential customer that is close to signing a deal. The customer has one remaining technical question that the sales person cannot answer directly. Being an extrovert and being motivated to please the customer and get the deal closed, the sales person doesn’t send an email but rather calls or walks over to the engineer with the customer on the phone still to ask the question…

The engineer emerges from what seems like a dream like state and stares blankly at the sales person. The engineer is pissy and, if the sales person is lucky, answers the question, albeit in an extremely terse way.

The sales person doesn’t understand why the engineer is being so difficult and unpleasant, especially given that this is a question from a customer that is about to sign a big deal. On the other hand, the engineer is annoyed because the sales person has just interrupted their flow and they know they’ll find it hard to get back into what they were working on.

Furthermore, the engineer doesn’t understand why the sales person couldn’t answer the problem for himself. After all, the engineer’s motivation is to understand things and seem clever so they don’t get why the sales person wasn’t as interested as they would have been to work out the answer themselves on their own, rather than appearing dumb by having to ask someone else.

In contrast, the sales person doesn’t understand why the engineer doesn’t care about winning the deal.

However, once you understand the difference in motivations and cultures, it makes sense.

Culture

Along with the differences in personality type and motivation, come some big differences in culture.

If high school is a microcosm of “real life”, think of it this way:  sales people are the jocks and the engineers are the nerds that got pushed into their lockers in the hall every day by the jocks.

Digging a bit deeper, let’s look at what it takes for a sales person to be successful:

Sales is about building and finessing a story that sells. Contrary to what the other side may think, it’s not generally about telling out-and-out lies but it is about managing perception and, for the sales person, perception is reality.

That story and that perception is fragile and needs to be carefully massaged and continuously buoyed-up.

Likewise, because the sales person faces continual rejection, day after day, the sales people themselves need careful and continual massage. This makes sales people generally very sensitive to people who come along and burst their bubble by asking hard questions or being negative.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what engineers tend to do. Engineers are extremely suspicious, and often downright hostile, to the “story” that sales people are selling – they see it as artifice, fakery, puffery.

Is this simply because engineers are cynical, negative people? Sort of – but, the problem is confusing cause with effect.  Engineers are cynical and negative because it’s essential to doing their job well. Remember that, when you’re dealing with a computer, there is no perception, there are no shades of grey – it’s either exactly right or it’s wrong.

Therefore, engineering culture is deliberately extremely suspicious of, and aggressively hunts down and eliminates, artifice and “perception management” because it hides the truth and the right answer. It is kryptonite to the engineering process.

People who try to manage perception don’t survive very long as engineers because they have to tell computers what to do and computers aren’t having any of it. In contrast, managing perception is what sales people do for a living.

This all results in two very different cultures.  Sales culture requires being buoyed up on a cushion of positivity, whereas engineering culture requires negativity and challenging everything.

Religious Arguments

A side effect of the engineering culture is to spend many hours engaging in what are referred to as “religious arguments” – Python versus Ruby, Mac versus PC, etc, etc, etc.

Because engineers and engineering culture is wired to seek and find the one correct answer, engineers have trouble dealing with the concept of differences in opinion and equally valid choices.

Opinion simply doesn’t compute.

Agree, disagree? Please leave a comment.

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24 thoughts on “Why We Fight – Sales vs Engineering

  1. This is a great article. You captured the essence of why salespeople and engineers fight. Now if we could just come up with ways of creating more common ground! Understanding is the first step… Thanks for the article.

    1. As I said in my intro, I think it’s firstly important to be realistic. I don’t think that the sales vs engineering problem can ever be “resolved”. The best one can hope for is an “uneasy peace” and to make use of some trusted intermediaries to run interference between the two groups.

      To this latter point, this really illustrates the vital role that Product Management plays. Product Management, if done well, provides the translation role between sales and engineering. To do this, Product Managers need to earn the trust of both sides.

      Engineers are more likely to trust a Product Manager because they don’t see them as people who will do anything to get a particular deal. Rather, a Product Manager identifies customer/market needs in aggregate. Plus, very importantly, Product Managers come armed with data rather than opinion. Product Managers also tend to be technology enthusiasts too and share that with engineers.

      Sales people are more likely to trust Product Managers because, unlike engineers, they are interested in customers and are the voice of the user. Good Product Managers listen to and talk with customers to understand their needs.

  2. Very interesting article. It reminded me of a book I read on the difference between communication styles of men and women titled You Just Don’t Understand.

  3. Awesome article and a great read. HIt the nail on the head with your points above.

    It’s funny how much less drastic the differences are until you are caught in the middle, or work in an environment with both types.

  4. Well said Jeremy. Enlightening to one who struggles to understand why EVERYONE doesn’t get excited about the Sales hunt! Love the reference that Sales are the jocks and engineering are the nerds 😉 …Seriously, thinking out-loud, my question is — as Dave said above, how can we build on this understanding and create common ground? I’m willing and anxious to figure this out. Unfortunately, externally driven as I am in solving problems, I’ll be watching for your next post that provides guidance on this question… awareness is the first step.

  5. True and concise. I’ve found as a sales person a few helpful ways to promote a successful working relationship with engineers: 1) approach engineers quietly. It’s challenging for the extrovert but gets things started on the right foot, 2) give engineers the opportunity to share cool and “clever”, as you say, ideas for product features. They’re usually told what has to be and left to figure it out. Listening to their input makes them feel like they are part of the process, 3) overtly respect their engineering prowess. It is truly amazing that their minds can solve anything – a bug or a way to design a never-before done feature, and finally 4) bring cookies. A sales guy who feeds engineers often becomes their friend from the dark side.

    Thanks for the great article. Anxious to share it with many who will benefit and identify…

  6. I was going to leave a long comment about how this is spot on, but it made me wonder if this paradigm hasn’t been changing and there are more engineers and salespeople with a clue out there now. Maybe they aren’t as visible because they have jobs.

  7. Both jobs solve problems. Both are subproblems of a shared problem: build something people want. Engineers solve the problem: build something that works. Salespeople solve the problem: convince people they want what the company is building. Usually problems are either that what the engineers have built (so far) isn’t what people want or that the salespeople are selling what doesn’t (yet)/can’t work. The best-case scenario is that engineers are ruthless about only building for the customer and not getting attached to work that didn’t sell and that salespeople understand the constraints of what can and can’t be built.

  8. Here’s my long answer to the question of how to break down the barriers between sales and engineers.

    I’ve been a sales support engineer for 15 years now and you’re very spot on and your article jives with my own personal experieinces and observations. As you said, there are always exceptions to the rule; for instance I’m an ENTJ but have done really well as an engineer. I do agree with with Fred though that the paradigm is starting to change a bit. My observation is that the sales people who tend to get a little bit more knowledgeable and technical on the capabilities of X tend to be more successful because they level set customers appropriately up front and get a good deal of referal business. On the engineer side, it is my observation that the SE’s that get out in front of customers more are also more successful in driving revenues because they do a good job maintaing the demand that things work but that they also learn to “talk” better to the customer about how things work (it’s a long training process).

    So the blindligly flash of the obvious solution in my words: Encourage sales to learn to be a little bit more technical and get the engineers out in front of the customers more and that team mentality really takes root. My personal opinion, start by getting sales more technically savy first and the Engineers will go along with them.

  9. First of all, nice article. I think this is a n outstanding way to write down the problems.

    I work for a company who was, and still is, growing and the problems between the 2 departments where growing with it. The CEO decided to invest in Product Management and hired me to do the job.

    Because of the problems the company has it was difficult to start with the job, so I suggested to focus on this problem first. I designed a new structure for the engineering department based on the strength between the engineers themselves.

    The Idea was to bring engineers more in the thinking and the designing phase of a proposal, not yet a product but an idea to propose to the customer.

    Now we have 2 “Project engineers (PE)” who follow a project from the beginning with sales. This way the customers get e fast reply on their questions and the proposal are realistic to produce.

    On the other side, the PE’s will talk with one or more “Design Engineers (DE)” to make the idea into a product. Because of the direct cooperation between Sales and PE, most of the problems that could of occur have been countered.

    The engineering department runs with engineers only so it becomes a very good thinking cell of the company.

    We are applying this new structure for several months now and the results are great.

    – Customers are happy with fast reply of our sales department,
    – Sales is happy because delivery dates and prizes are great within the market so they make more sales than before.
    – Engineering is happy because they can get up to expectations they get from sales and they come up with the most genius designs and solutions.

    In the end, I’m happy because it works and I can start doing the rest of my job 😉

    Friendly regards

    Pieter

  10. Let think positively about Engineers. Engineers are looking for good resources to job done excellent and fast. Sales people are looking for customer who is in need to buy so will be ready to buy. Financially, Engineers are looking to get easy good quality components and Sales people are promoting to customers 0% – 2.9% finance (here referring to FORD car sales). Myself I am Engineer.

  11. Sales people need to understand customer requirements better and deliver these requirements to their engineers. These requirements need to be defined with the customer as specific, tangible, complete and quantitative / binary. Honestly, I believe the best sales person is a proactive business analyst. I say proactive because they need to actively identify who they are most likely to be able to help, and pursue them instead of wait for customers. It also helps if they can navigate their client’s emotional triggers and barriers, bringing the client back into the logical realm when necessary.

    Engineering needs to optimize their designs to the specific requirements outlined above. Just as you mentioned, engineers far too often get caught designing what they think would be cool, or clever, without taking into account profitability or end-goal effectiveness. I can’t even begin to calculate how much this actually costs companies. In my opinion, all engineers who waste valuable time designing off-spec to non-profitable criteria should be fired.

    Overall, a better understanding of end-goals should redefine the purpose of each role. Because it falls down to the sales agent to gather better requirements from more variable customers, I consider his/her role to be most critical in the design process.

  12. Howdy! This article couldn’t be written any better!
    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept talking about this. I will send this article to him.
    Fairly certain he’ll have a very good read. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I really enjoyed this article. For me, I’m at odds with our software programmer. I’m in sales, very type A. Sadly this programmer is very rude, hangs up on me, send me icky texts, “wow your a class act”. lol His behavior is bizarre. He’s been with our company for one month. He’s asked to borrow money from people including me; which I did. He was tasked with helping me with a work problem. He didn’t show up for work so I ended up having to go home (internet down and we’re a tiny office). He said he’d help me but I’d have to pick him up from home!!!!! I said no and then came the, “your gonna get me fired if you leave”. I said I have deadlines and need to work. I cannot be offline for two hours because you chose to stay home this morning”. In my life I’ve never witnessed such inappropriate behavior. The text was the final straw for me. In the office his behavior is just off to say the least. Like he’s coming from a place of fear, anxiety and kind of nutty. We’ve come to know he has no car, bank account, financially unstable. I feel he’s a big red flag to say the least. I know this is not the norm but I was seeking understanding of his behavior. Our SVP stated developers are a bit corky.

  14. Terry – your programmer sounds like a bit of a nut. Perhaps he is trying to stabilise a bad financial situation and needs a little more time?

    As an engineer (now unemployed) – I tend to work in the “non-person” zone. It is just me and the problem, cups of tea and a long lunchtime walk. There are no people involved, obviously, as the problem is a machine, a system, a task that a machine or component needs to do. Even with other engineers involved, there are still no people. The other engineers roll the problem through their brains, In our imaginations, the machine attempts the task again and again and again with slight design variations while we watch. Perhaps one of us might talk to another. A salesman might see us stare at the wall or out of the window, fiddling with our pens. In short, we are deep into the laws of physics, dynamics, thermodynamics or whatever, and none of these laws respond in any way to blandishments, meetings or threats. I even dribble (it’s OK – I’m also a musician) and after a bit more silence and dribbling the problem is solved and the drawings are done, ready for the factory.

    We had some rather specialised salesmen who didn’t need to hassle the customers, but did need buckets of technical knowledge. I did have to provide tech support for another organisation who sold our stuff, and I used to get cheesed off at their apparent inability to read the catalogue.

    So, sales people, read the catalogue and think about the product, and remember that the engineers don’t really want to deal with people, and are there to experience the sublime pleasure of thinking about machinery, coding, problem solving or whatever. Much more fun than a real job.

    P B

  15. I have worked on both positions. It was very stressful being a sales person, but it helped me a lot to develop leadership and management skills as sales engineer.
    I definitely believe my job is on engineering!!!

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