Had the opportunity to catch up with the sales team at my old company and it was (a) fun, they’re great and (b) weird.

Weird because they understood things about engineering management that I’m just learning.

Weird because there are things I’ve learned from growing into a leadership role that the sales leaders have understood forever – not how to solve problems, but how to identify what problem to solve. The fact that interview skills are critical in your first weeks & months in a new job.

The fight

There’s a voice inside me that has always said ‘sales is strictly less than engineering’, ‘any of us could do that job if we sounded nice on the phone’, but that voice died last night. Regardless of what you think of the 50% of sales that’s talking, the other 50% is listening. Salespeople are uniquely equipped to capture information about who might use your product, what has to change for that to happen, what’s next.

I always thought of sales as the enemy with engineering on the other side and product in the middle negotiating. I still believe that sales & engineering at most companies are sometimes at odds and need to work better together; in particular they operate on different timescales. But I now also believe the relationship can be healthy and should be tended, like a garden or a marriage.

Optimization problem

Take the mind and soul out of our work (just for a moment) and look at it as pure computation:

I believe that most roles are, in their way, exploring a problem space. (I’ve been reading papers about collective intelligence and group productivity – I may not still believe this next week). And that groups are productive when you compromise between experts fully exploring a constrained space vs short-circuiting that exploration to check your assumptions and deliver things.

Now I suspect sales is exploring a richer space than the eng team. Eng spends a lot of time figuring out exactly how to do something that they approximately know how to do. A lot of this is applying learned templates rather than testing hypotheses.

Sales, on the other hand, is having diverse interactions every day and encountering more novelty. Also they operate in the problem space of business needs rather than type safety & statsd.

What’s left

I always thought it was on product to chart the course. If sales is doing the heavy lifting of figuring out where to take the product then what role does product & engineering play?

First, ‘mere’ implementation is harder than most people want to believe and makes for honorable professions, whether we’re talking about art or coding.

Second, systems design – refining the spec so that it’s safe, stable, simple, clear. Pushing back against bad asks and building something that’s maintainable.

Most important, supporting the ideation process. Helping the org as a whole comprehend what is necessary, possible, valuable. Redefining problems until they emit solutions.