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 and programmers 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 without doing necessary redesign of existing features to keep them resilient and performing well. Being bogged down by the avalanche of customer support that follows releasing such a product. And all the while, sales 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 ourselves 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, first-year Lincoln Mark VIII. It was a stunning car in a pearly white. I believe Lincoln called it “white opalescent,” and it was the first time I ever noticed a white like that on a car. Such a deep white, 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 filled with anger and jealousy. Here was this guy blithely, happily making engineering lives miserable and making a metric crap ton of dough while doing it. I wasn’t going to make that kind of money anytime soon as an engineer. Now, my money was good enough to pay the rent and put me into a brand new Chevy, so I knew better than to plead financial injustice. No, this was about not having to suffer the consequences of his actions and living a lifestyle that reinforced his bad behavior. Such bullshit.
That was 23 years ago. 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 simply had a lot to learn about successful product marketing and sales. The sales team was left to fend entirely for itself, with no coherent story to tell about our product line and nothing that generated qualified leads for them to follow. Every sale they made, they earned from the ground up – cold calls, relationship building, and then doing what they had to do, even making stuff up, to get a yes so they could meet their quotas. It had to be brutal. So no wonder this guy was so giddy every time he closed a sale. He worked his butt off to make it happen. And so now I don’t sweat him his Lincoln.
Seeing this one in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel recently in sort of sad condition reminded me of that fellow. I looked him up on LinkedIn. He’s still selling in that industry, for a company we all derided then as being a bottom feeder, the last place in our industry for which you’d ever 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 feel a little sorry for him.