Recently I had a chance to revisit my path from the design bench to the world of sales. Our sales organization was in the process of adding some field applications engineers (FAE), and I found myself advising prospects about how life would be different if they were to become FAEs. While I am currently a regional sales manager, my first job off the bench was as an applications engineer for Tektronix. Since this is a choice many design engineers may consider at some point, I thought it would be good blog fodder. Before you trade in your soldering iron for a minivan (mine on the left, Tektronix FAE Alan Wolke’s on the right), it’s important to consider all aspects of the FAE role.
Applications engineer can mean different things depending on who you ask. There are applications engineers based in the factory, such as those in the Tektronix Technical Support Center, who support customers from a distance, via the telephone, Web, or even Twitter. There are also applications engineers who work in marketing, functioning as the interface from engineering to sales and sometimes to the customer as well. Then there are applications engineers who support the sales force directly, many who perform additional engineering work to support the sale. It is in this latter category that we find the FAE.
In most cases, FAE’s seek to take a commercial off the shelf (COTS) product and explain how it fits into a particular user application. They are in front of the customer on a daily basis, doing both pre-sale work to explain the functionality of a new piece of equipment and post-sale work to train once the equipment is acquired. For example, an oscilloscope can do many things, but the FAE is the person who explains how it can be used in any given particular application.
The FAE is rewarding in that the job is almost always on-site at the customer location. He or she is the technical expert in the sales organization and spends most of the time on the road. This job could be at a test and measurement company, an FPGA or semiconductor company, or working as a product specialist for a technical distributor. Nearly every technology company has a need for FAEs in one capacity or another.
A People Person
The first question often is, “Did you miss designing things?” The answer, of course, is that I did miss the work on the bench. It’s exciting to bring up a design from scratch, test it, debug it, and have total ownership.
But life in sales for me has been far more fulfilling. It may sound cliché, but I enjoy working with people as much as I enjoy working with technology. As a teen, I taught the basics of electronics and PC assembly (and “popular games” which was a class, believe it or not) to children in a computer camp outside of Boston. During college and my career, I’ve had a knack for explaining things and have always enjoyed presenting new ideas in front of a room.
Given my natural ability to converse with people, I felt that something was missing from my career. I had learned how to be an engineer on the bench, but felt I could do something different with my skillset. As an FAE, my job was to help blur the line between people and technology, making the complex easily understood. I actually experienced the same joy I had as a teenager teaching computer camp when I sat down with engineers and taught new ways to make measurements.
While you can become an FAE right out of school, it helps to have real-life experience. There is nothing than can replace the hands-on experience one can get working in the industry in design or manufacturing. The best college programs are no replacement for real-world experience. Real practical engineering must be learned by doing. Even if you grew up as a maker or hobbyist, the corporate environment is quite different from your basement lab.
Real-world experience helps the FAE better understand problems and needs from the customer’s perspective. It not only provides technical acuity to the FAE, but also sensitivity to a design engineer’s concerns when embarking on a new measurement challenge. Often an FAE must help an engineer explain to his own management why a piece of test equipment is needed for a new design. Understanding corporate structure and the approval process is essential to connecting to your customer.
Another exciting part about being an FAE is the absolutely huge breadth of technologies you are able to see. As a design engineer, you can easily get pigeon-holed into a single technology. The technology exposure of an FAE runs the gamut. My customers have been involved in DDR, PCI-Express, SuperSpeed USB, FPGA design, radar, satellite communications, satellite design, power supply design, high-energy physics, physical chemistry, spectrum monitoring, radio communications, rocket payload assembly, optical communications, and other applications I have yet to discover. One day I could be learning about what goes into a custom computer design for high-frequency stock trading and the next it is radiated emission spectra analysis of an unknown chemical sample.
I once heard Tektronix FAE Alan Wolke comment that when you are a design engineer, you will work on a single project for a long time, whereas being an FAE means “lots of little victories.” The life of an FAE tends to be centered on short-term deadlines, often consisting of a demo in a few weeks that you must prepare to present or a short program you write to customize a measurement. It is rare to have a project or task that extends beyond a month in duration. For those who like to always be working on something new, it is a great job to have.
Here’s another perk: you get the latest fun toys before anybody else does. When the Tektronix MDO4104-6 mixed-domain oscilloscope was introduced, it was on my desk before any customer ever had one. When the new real-time spectrum analyzer real-time upgrade was unveiled, my demo unit was upgraded immediately. When you are a design engineer, you often see these fun new tools on industry webcasts, but have trouble convincing your boss to invest in something new. As an FAE, it’s your job to play with new technology so you can teach others about it. Where else can you be paid to play with the latest and greatest test equipment?
Hit the Road
Now let’s look at the tradeoffs of moving from the bench to the field. One is travel. Most FAEs spend a lot of time traveling. The amount depends on the company and how territories are structured. Some FAEs, such as those in high-density areas like Silicon Valley, likely don’t travel much. Others spend considerable amount of time in airplanes and hotels. A video applications engineer I know covers the entire area from Maryland to Florida and is constantly on the road. Since an FAE can in some cases put over 30,000 miles a year on an automobile, companies supply them with a company car.
Some engineers fear the idea of constant travel, especially if they have a spouse and kids. As with any career decision, consult your spouse before embarking on such a change! Airline points and platinum upgrades in hotels are nice, but nothing beats being home with the family. It’s a major consideration that prevents many from taking the job. And it’s not just air travel. There are times I have packed up my minivan with instruments and cables, driven four hours for a one hour appointment, and then driven four hours back home. I love driving but it’s not for everyone.
Others are excited by the idea of travel and seeing new places. When I first started with Tektronix more than six years ago, I was at the factory in Oregon for three weeks of training. I took the opportunity over the weekends to see some cool Oregon sites, like Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Air Museum in McMinnville, OR and Haystack Rock (famous from the Goonies) in Cannon Beach, OR.
Other cool sites I have seen through my travels include the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, IN, the Wright-Patterson Air Museum in Dayton, OH, the LaBrea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, CA, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD and the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, VA. Supporting my customers has taken me to cool places like aboard a ship to investigate RF interference and even down into an underground coal mine.
I was once driving to Rochester, NY for a customer demonstration and saw a sign that said Hammondsport, NY. I got off at the exit, wondering if the hometown of Glen Curtiss would happen to have an air museum (yes I know my technology history a little too well). Luck was on my side: I got there 30 minutes before closing and they let me see some cool things including an original Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny.”
I’ve even had a brush with celebrity…I once waited in line to get my luggage scanned at Reagan National Airport behind the Stanley Cup!
Apart from the fun parts of travel, it’s also important to realize that most companies no longer have field sales offices, so working as an FAE often involves working from home and requires above average time management skills (and certainly more than 40 hours a week of work). You will typically support several different sales people, so communication and scheduling are important skills to master. A disorganized person cannot last long as an FAE. There is no water-cooler to chat over, so you must make time to stay in touch with your coworkers over the phone to maintain the office camaraderie that is critical for success. Many companies have annual sales training events, and that week is typically the only time you see all of your coworkers in one place.
Another consideration is that you must always have sales on your mind. While you don’t have to maintain a sales funnel and forecast revenue, you work in that world and need to be comfortable with reporting and revenue monitoring requirements. Depending on the company, the FAE may have 10-20 percent of his or her salary variable, based on commission.
Is it for YOU?
If you are technically astute, like working with people, enjoy broad technology exposure, have a knack for explaining technical topics, and don’t mind some travel, applications engineering might be a perfect fit for you. It is certainly not what most people have in mind while they are in engineering school. I found myself enjoying the business side of being an FAE so much that I pursued a business career with Tektronix, and am currently a regional sales manager. However, while my responsibilities have changed, I can say unequivocally that being an FAE was the most fun job I have had and I certainly am glad to have had my career with Tektronix.