When I became a Solution Engineer (aka Sales Engineer/PreSales), I wasn’t totally sure what the job entailed. At the time I was already a technology consultant and a Solution Engineer sounded very similar: solve problems.
I enjoyed solving problems as a consultant but wanted to get away from slinging software code, so a Solution Engineer sounded up my alley. My friend who was then a Solution Engineer described the role as one where “you help move the needle” with customers’ major projects.
A day in the life of a Solution Engineer is really varied, but each day you help move the needle. Some days, you move the needle a little bit; other days, you cause earthquakes (in a good way).
As a Solution Engineer at Salesforce, a common day for me starts with me checking various dashboards and reports. How well is the team I support doing? Anything pop up since I last checked that needs attention? I find that checking my reports and dashboards helps me get ready for the day. It helps me know where to focus or what actions I need to take.
Partnering with AEs
From there, I’m usually in a slew of meetings. I like to start my day with one-on-one meetings. Full of knowledge from my refreshed dashboards, I talk with the Account Executives I support about what they did this weekend and then pivot to what’s top of mind for them this week and next. This kind of alignment is critical to our mutual success. I keep running notes with each meeting so when I hop into a customer call later that day I can dig into a topic my account executive and I agreed to earlier.
Working with Customers
Customer meetings constitute the majority of my time. These calls are the lifeblood of being a Solution Engineer. Customer calls vary wildly in objective, but they usually go back to why I’m a Solution Engineer: solve problems.
During a call with a new customer, I’m trying to learn who the customer is, what they are trying to do, and how we can help. The fact that the customers are taking time out of their day to talk to a software vendor, means I need to ensure that this time is a good use of our mutual time. I have to be engaged and ensure that I’m listening effectively. During these calls, I’m furiously capturing notes. Schedules are crazy; I may not get a second call with this customer, so I need to make this count.
Also during calls, I’m listening with an empathetic ear. Some of the customer’s problems are literally painful for them. A Solution Engineer has to be incredibly empathetic to customers. This helps not only build rapport, but when designing a solution it helps you put the customer at the center of everything you’re going to showcase.
On calls with existing customers, I want to learn about how things are going. They’re similar in many ways to calls with new customers, but here I usually have a large volume of notes that I’m intimately familiar with. The difference with these calls is I’m trying to discern if there’s existing features and functions within the software that they can leverage that’ll improve their quality of life and maximize their investment in our solution. Sometimes it might be as simple as sending them a blog I read or letting them know about new product training that they may benefit from.
Another core part of my time is personal development. I frequently wander across the internet trying to find new blogs that help me stay on top of the latest innovations in technology. I have a rainy day reading list where I squirrel away blog posts, and training that I see. Did a meeting cancel? Cool - an hour back in my day, and time for me to read this blog I’ve wanted to read forever.
Personal development for Solution Engineers is incredibly important and is often overlooked in the name of customer-facing time. Solution engineers need to be the sharpest tools in your company’s toolbox. To stay sharp, they need to be ferocious, life-long learners.
Every Solution Engineer I know handles personal development differently; some block time out every Friday morning, others do it ad-hoc (my-style), some do it when it falls in their lap. Make the time and the investment and ensure that you’re up to date. Treat training and personal development like you would your personal investment accounts.
The next part of my day is the time I spend on demo builds in the Salesforce platform. I work best on demo builds when I have a lot of runway, in my case 2 hours or more of uninterrupted time, where I can be heads down, listen to some great music, and knock out the demo build. Sometimes finding two hours is hard, but playing calendar Jenga is one of my many talents.
Demo builds come in many shapes and sizes. I always start my builds trying to address the problem, who the audience is, and how we’ll solve their problem. Once my team is aligned on that, I start building a script. As an English major, and as a SE who is particular about what I’m saying to customers, I strive to have an elegant talk track. To accomplish this, I write my script out word for word. This allows me to ensure that everything I say ties back to value.
Once I have a good draft of the script, then I start knocking out the demo build in earnest. My first demo build took me eight hours to do. I’m more efficient now, but also the use cases are more complex. As you do more demos, you build up muscle memory of both talk track and configuration. This means you spend more time in the demo build doing what you want. You can leave the script bare bones and focus on some killer eye-candy or vice versa. Personally, I try to spend more time on the script and value proposition than less time on the configuration.
When the demo build is complete, I always schedule a few run throughs. I do a run through or two myself before an internal run through with me and the account team. This way I get the jitters out, make sure my transitions are smooth, and address any outstanding items.
During the internal run throughs, I take copious notes. There’s a saying that good writing is rewriting. That applies to your demo. Take the feedback and weave it into your demo. You’ll have a better demo because of it. After that, it’s a few more run-throughs by myself. In these run throughs, I ensure I’m finessing my talk track, memorizing where to click, what to highlight etcetera. This demo presentation may mean the difference in winning or losing the deal - it has to be on point.
The last part of my day is the big one: customer presentations. It's in these calls where all the hard work of the day comes to fruition. Countless discovery calls, internal huddles, and then there’s the nervous pause where I wait and see if my team hit the mark with our customers. It’s simultaneously thrilling and exhausting. And usually when the meeting ends, I collapse in my chair for a breather, and then when done take my dog for a walk to gather myself, only to return in time for the next adventure on my calendar.
This sounds like a lot in a single day, and it is. But each day is different and that’s exciting to me. You may have a lot of customer calls, and no personal development time, but the next day is totally different. The proportions of what I do day to day vary wildly by time of year, the customers I support, and more. Regardless of the type of meeting you’re in, as a Solution Engineer you’re solving problems and that is something that excites me every morning when I get up. I know this day will be different than the one prior and I’m going to move the needle for my customers on their most pressing matters.
Erik Abderhalden is a Lead Solutions Engineer at Salesforce. He was previously a Lead Consultant at Rightpoint and a graduate of Illinois State University. He is also a PreSales Academy Coach!