By Jim Grey (about)
He was a salesman at the company where I had gone to work after graduating from engineering school. And he routinely made my life, and the lives of the other engineers with which I worked, crazy difficult as he made wild promises during the sales cycle that we then had to fulfill in our product on impossible deadlines.
It was the classic tension between sales and engineering. There should have been a class on it when I was in school. I might have called it “Sales Douchebaggery 101” but perhaps the topic would better have been wrapped into a larger course on life as a working engineer. Cost constraints out the wazoo. Adding features to a product under pressure without doing necessary redesign of existing features so they scale and perform. Being bogged down by the avalanche of customer support that follows releasing the resultant buggy product. And all the while, salespeople promising crazy stuff to prospects to get them to sign on the line. Sales happily wrote checks, if you will, that engineers then had to figure out how to cash.
This particular salesman was the king of signing us up to build stuff on impossible deadlines. He seemed to take special glee at doing it. Cynically, we all grumbled to each other that it was about making his commission check as fat as possible. One of the engineers delivered this classic line: “He’s in sales. That means he’s coin operated.” I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that one.
And then one day he showed up at work in a brand new Lincoln Mark VIII. It was a stunning car in a pearly white. Lincoln called it “white opalescent,” and it was impossibly deep, almost liquid. I expected that if I touched the car, my fingers would ooze into the body and come back wet. It was mesmerizing.
Yet I was angry and jealous. Here was this guy blithely, happily making engineer lives miserable while piling up a crap ton of dough. I wasn’t going to make that kind of money anytime soon; no new Lincolns were in my future. But this wasn’t really about financial injustice. No, this was about him never suffering any consequences of his actions while living a lifestyle that reinforced his bad behavior. Such bullshit.
That was in the early 1990s. Since then I’ve worked for many other companies, successful and not, and have learned a few key things about sales. First and foremost: celebrate every sale, because they keep your paychecks from bouncing. I’ve lived through that and never want to again.
But second, that company had a lot to learn about product marketing and sales. The sales team was left to fend entirely for itself, with only a vaguely identified target market, no coherent story to tell about the product line, and nothing that generated qualified leads for them to pursue. They earned every closed deal from the ground up: cold calls, relationship building, and then doing what they had to do — including making stuff up — to get a yes so they could meet their quotas. It had to be brutal for them. So no wonder this guy was so giddy every time he closed a sale. He worked his butt off for it.
And third, and most importantly, back then I was content to grumble and that didn’t help my company at all. Learning how to estimate, negotiate scope, determine minimum viable product, set and manage expectations, and manage projects has been much more effective for me and for the places where I’ve worked. It’s helped sales teams know that Engineering is in their corner helping them succeed — and helped them better understand what Engineering is capable of delivering so they make fewer bad promises.
Today I don’t sweat that fellow his Lincoln. Seeing this one in a restaurant parking lot recently in sort of sad condition reminded me of him. I looked him up on LinkedIn. He’s still selling in that industry, for a company we all derided then as being the last place you’d want to work. Looks like his career had a similar trajectory to this Lincoln: still going, but not looking all that great. Fortunately, I’ve grown up enough to have empathy for him.
I regularly take photos of old parked cars and write about them for Curbside Classic, a site that tells these old cars’ stories. This post is heavily based on a post I wrote there a couple years ago; read it here.