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Sales vs Engineering: Who Makes More Money and Why?

Sales and engineering are two of the most popular and lucrative career paths in the modern world. Both fields offer opportunities for creativity, problem-solving, and innovation. But which one pays better? And what are the trade-offs involved in choosing one over the other?
We will use the terms account executive (AE) and sales engineer (SE) to refer to the typical sales and engineering roles in the enterprise software space. These are the people who sell and demonstrate complex software solutions to large organizations. Of course, there are many other types of sales and engineering jobs, but we will focus on this specific niche for the sake of simplicity and clarity.

How Much Do Sales and Engineering Professionals Make?

According to Glassdoor, the average base salary for an AE in the US is $60,260, while the average base salary for an SE is $101,015. However, these numbers do not tell the whole story. AEs usually have a variable compensation plan, which means they earn a percentage of the revenue they generate for the company. This can range from 10% to 50% or more, depending on the industry, product, and deal size. SEs, on the other hand, typically have a fixed compensation plan, which means they earn a steady salary regardless of the sales outcome.
Therefore, to get a more accurate picture of the earnings potential of sales and engineering professionals, we need to look at their on-target earnings (OTE), which is the total amount they can expect to make if they achieve their sales quota or performance goals. According to ZipRecruiter, the average OTE for an AE in the US is $116,902, while the average OTE for an SE is $117,886. This means that, on average, sales and engineering professionals make about the same amount of money when they perform well.
However, these averages can vary widely depending on the individual, the company, and the market. Some AEs can make much more than SEs, especially if they work in high-demand industries, sell high-value products, or close large deals. Conversely, some SEs can make more than AEs, especially if they have specialized skills, work in niche markets, or support multiple sales teams. Therefore, it is hard to say definitively who makes more money between sales and engineering professionals, as it depends on many factors.

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What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Sales and Engineering Roles?

Besides the income potential, there are other aspects of sales and engineering roles that can affect the job satisfaction and career progression of the professionals who choose them. Here are some of the pros and cons of each role:

# Sales Pros

  • Autonomy and flexibility: AEs have a lot of control over their schedule, their territory, and their sales strategy. They can decide how to allocate their time, whom to target, and how to approach prospects. They can also work remotely, travel frequently, and enjoy a variety of experiences.
  • Recognition and reward: AEs are often the stars of the company, as they bring in the revenue that fuels the growth and success of the business. They receive praise, appreciation, and incentives from their managers, peers, and customers. They can also earn commissions, bonuses, and prizes for exceeding their quota or closing big deals.
  • Challenge and growth: AEs face constant challenges and opportunities to learn and improve. They have to deal with competition, rejection, negotiation, and closing. They have to adapt to changing market conditions, customer needs, and product features. They have to master the art and science of selling, communication, and persuasion.

    # Sales Cons

  • Stress and pressure: AEs are always under the gun to produce results. They have to meet or exceed their quota, which is often set by their managers or the company. They have to deal with demanding customers, aggressive competitors, and complex sales cycles. They have to cope with uncertainty, volatility, and risk.

  • Instability and turnover: AEs are often on a 6-month rolling contract, which means they can be fired or replaced at any time if they do not perform well. They also have to deal with frequent changes in the company, the product, and the market. They have to constantly look for new opportunities, prospects, and referrals. They have to build and maintain relationships with multiple stakeholders, both internal and external.
  • Grind and burnout: AEs have to work long hours, often on nights and weekends, to meet their sales goals. They have to make cold calls, send emails, attend meetings, give presentations, and follow up with prospects. They have to juggle multiple tasks, priorities, and deadlines. They have to deal with rejection, frustration, and disappointment.

    # Engineering Pros

  • Stability and security: SEs have a more stable and secure job than AEs. They have a fixed salary, which is usually higher than the base salary of AEs. They also have a longer tenure, as they are less likely to be fired or replaced. They have a more predictable and consistent workload, as they are not dependent on the sales cycle or the market fluctuations.

  • Creativity and innovation: SEs have a lot of opportunities to use their creativity and innovation skills. They have to design, develop, and demonstrate complex software solutions that solve real-world problems. They have to use their technical knowledge, analytical thinking, and problem-solving abilities. They have to keep up with the latest trends, technologies, and best practices in their field.
  • Collaboration and support: SEs work closely with other engineers, product managers, and developers to create and improve the software products. They also work with AEs, customers, and partners to understand and address their needs and expectations. They have a strong team spirit and a supportive culture.

    # Engineering Cons

  • Boredom and monotony: SEs may face boredom and monotony in their job, as they have to deal with the same or similar software products, features, and issues. They may have to repeat the same or similar demonstrations, explanations, and troubleshooting. They may have to work on projects that are not aligned with their interests, passions, or goals.

  • Isolation and detachment: SEs may feel isolated and detached from the rest of the company, as they are often behind the scenes or in the background. They may not receive as much recognition, appreciation, or feedback as AEs. They may not have as much interaction, communication, or rapport with customers, prospects, or peers.
  • Complacency and stagnation: SEs may become complacent and stagnant in their career, as they have less incentive to improve their skills, performance, or income. They may have less opportunity to advance their career, as they have fewer options, paths, or roles to choose from. They may have less motivation to challenge themselves, as they have less risk, reward, or excitement in their job.

    How Can Sales and Engineering Professionals Increase Their Income and Satisfaction?

Regardless of whether they choose sales or engineering as their career path, there are some ways that professionals can increase their income and satisfaction in their job. Here are some tips and suggestions:
Leverage your strengths and passions: Find out what you are good at and what you enjoy doing, and focus on those aspects of your job. For example, if you are good at communication and relationship-building, you may excel as an AE. If you are good at technical and analytical skills, you may excel as an SE. If you enjoy learning and exploring new things, you may enjoy working in a dynamic and innovative industry. If you enjoy solving and creating new things, you may enjoy working on a challenging and complex product.
Develop your skills and knowledge: Keep learning and improving your skills and knowledge, both in your field and in related fields. For example, if you are an AE, you may want to learn more about the product, the market, the customer, and the sales process. If you are an SE, you may want to learn more about the technology, the engineering, the development, and the demonstration. You may also want to learn some complementary skills, such as business, marketing, or design.
Seek feedback and mentorship: Seek feedback and mentorship from your managers, peers, customers, and partners. For example, if you are an AE, you may want to ask for feedback on your sales performance, strategy, and skills. You may also want to find a mentor who can guide you, coach you, and inspire you. If you are an SE, you may want to ask for feedback on your engineering performance, quality, and skills. You may also want to find a mentor who can teach you, support you, and challenge you.
Expand your network and opportunities: Expand your network and opportunities by connecting with more people, both inside and outside your company. For example, if you are an AE, you may want to network with more prospects, customers, partners, and influencers. You may also want to look for more opportunities to sell, upsell, cross-sell, and refer. If you are an SE, you may want to network with more engineers, product managers, developers, and users. You may also want to look for more opportunities to design, develop, improve, and showcase your product.
Balance your work and life: Balance your work and life by finding a healthy and sustainable rhythm, routine, and lifestyle. For example, if you are an AE, you may want to set realistic and achievable sales goals, plan your time and activities, and
Balance your work and life: Balance your work and life by finding a healthy and sustainable rhythm, routine, and lifestyle. For example, if you are an AE, you may want to set realistic and achievable sales goals, plan your time and activities, and delegate or outsource some tasks. You may also want to take breaks, relax, and recharge. If you are an SE, you may want to set clear and reasonable expectations, communicate your progress and challenges, and ask for help or feedback. You may also want to pursue your hobbies, interests, and passions.

How to Choose Between Sales and Engineering as Your Career Path?

Ultimately, the choice between sales and engineering as your career path depends on your personality, preferences, and goals. There is no right or wrong answer, as both roles have their pros and cons, and both roles can lead to a fulfilling and rewarding career.
However, here are some questions that may help you decide which role suits you better:
Do you prefer working with people or working with technology? Sales is a people-oriented role, while engineering is a technology-oriented role. If you enjoy interacting, communicating, and building relationships with people, you may prefer sales. If you enjoy creating, developing, and improving technology, you may prefer engineering.
Do you prefer working independently or working collaboratively? Sales is a more independent role, while engineering is a more collaborative role. If you like having autonomy, flexibility, and control over your work, you may prefer sales. If you like working as part of a team, sharing ideas, and supporting each other, you may prefer engineering.
Do you prefer working on projects or working on processes? Sales is a more project-based role, while engineering is a more process-based role. If you like working on different and diverse tasks, challenges, and opportunities, you may prefer sales. If you like working on consistent and structured tasks, systems, and solutions, you may prefer engineering.
Do you prefer working in a dynamic or stable environment? Sales is a more dynamic role, while engineering is a more stable role. If you like working in a fast-paced, changing, and uncertain environment, you may prefer sales. If you like working in a steady, predictable, and secure environment, you may prefer engineering.
Do you prefer working for results or working for quality? Sales is a more results-oriented role, while engineering is a more quality-oriented role. If you like working for tangible and measurable outcomes, such as revenue, profit, or market share, you may prefer sales. If you like working for intangible and subjective outcomes, such as functionality, usability, or aesthetics, you may prefer engineering.

Conclusion

Sales and engineering are both rewarding and challenging career paths that offer different benefits and drawbacks. The choice between them depends on your personal and professional goals, as well as your skills, interests, and passions. However, regardless of which path you choose, you can always increase your income and satisfaction by leveraging your strengths, developing your skills, seeking feedback and mentorship, expanding your network and opportunities, and balancing your work and life.
I hope you found this article helpful and informative. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, please feel free to share them with me. Thank you for reading!
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