1996 was a memorable year. It was the first year of the MLS in the United States, the Nintendo 64 was brand new, Windows NT 4.0 was released, I graduated high school, and some friends and I started a local Internet Service Provider. It was the year my passion for technology transformed into a career. In the decades since then, I’ve picked up many skills to bolster my toolkit ranging from networking, Oracle databases, Unix administration, programming, and storage architect. Learning new technology and keeping your skills current is something everyone in IT, from operations to development, understands the importance of. While learning new tech is always a great idea, too many people often overlook two important skills: speaking and selling. Since I recently spoke on speaking, I wanted to spend some time talking about selling – and I don’t mean a person trying to sell their wares to a customer.
Selling, in this context, is taking an idea and pitching it to the powers that be at your organization. By default, many engineers are terrible at selling an idea. I know I used to fall into that category, but with lots of practice and time I’ve improved. I think this is one of the most important skills for everyone to have, so I want to share some tips I’ve learned over the years.
Bring the business value
Most of us have had an idea that we thought was brilliant only to have management shoot the idea down because it doesn’t have any business value. When you pitch an idea, you need to spell out how it would help the company either save money and make money. If you’re a Linux admin, you might be thinking to yourself “nothing I do have anything to do with the business!”. You’re wrong. Everything we all do is about the value to the business. That server you maintain is a key member of the internals of the business. Making it faster or more reliably has a direct impact on the business. Spell it out.
Think it’s a great idea to bring containers into your environment? You may be right, but if you can’t articulate how it has a positive impact, you’re unlikely to get it off the ground. Build a strong business case and be ready to articulate it.
Keep it short and simple
Everyone understands you spent a lot of time on your process. You started with an idea, did some research, found a solution, and made a powerpoint. Don’t walk your audience through your process. Quickly set the context, state the problem, and describe your solution. People have short attention spans and have many distractions. If you’re presenting to senior management, changes are they’ve been in meetings all day long. You don’t need to explain every point, but instead state you point and let them question if they need to.
Options aren’t optional
You’ve made a solid business case, answered some questions, and presented your solution. That makes sense to you because your solution is brilliant. You’ve looked at other options, and none are as good as yours. That is a lot of work you have done, and you need to show management some options. Part of any good sales pitch is reviewing other viable alternatives. Don’t overwhelm them with dozens of options, down-select to the best solutions – including yours.
Who are you talking to?
An important part of a sales pitch is to understand your audience. Are you talking to technical leaders, the Chief Financial Officer, or technical experts? Don’t spend time doing a technical deep dive to the CFO, instead, focus on what she cares about. You’re trying to sell your idea, and the only way to do that is to tell your solution in a way that makes sense to your audience. Don’t overcomplicate your sales pitch by talking about the things they audience doesn’t care about.
Call to arms
After you’ve presented your solution, you may think you’re done, but you’re not. The audience engaged you, they share your conclusion and are excited. Next is the call to action. Don’t forget to tell your audience what you need. Is it money, signature, more people, or something else? Without a call to arms, nothing is likely to happen.
The key to any sales pitch is to tell your audience the value in terms they understand, give them choices, and don’t forget your ask. The ability to convince people from technical leaders, peers, and executives is crucial to your career. If you work on your business value, known your audience, and make your pitch you’ll be sure to get a decision. It may not always be the answer you want, but it will be an answer. Keep working on your skills, and not just technical ones.