Sales may not be an obvious career path for engineering students – unless, that is, they’re part of the Society of Sales Engineers, a student organization at the University of Central Florida with more than 30 members.
UCF’s SSE members recently showed off their talent for blending business acumen with technical expertise by taking the top two spots at the 2019 National Sales Engineering Competition. Fifteen teams from the three universities that organized the virtual event participated, including seven from UCF, six from Iowa State, and two from California Polytechnic.
The winning team, Tanner Drake, a junior studying mechanical engineering, and Elisabeth Cai-Pippen, a senior studying marketing, edged out the second-place team, fellow UCF students Andrew Saab, a junior studying mechanical engineering, and Savannah Irwin, a junior studying electrical engineering.
The competition tests the unique professional skills that sales engineers must possess – a thorough understanding of complex technology and engineering concepts combined with soft skills such as interpersonal communication and powerful presentation style – required to meet with and persuade industry decision-makers.
At this year’s challenge, competitors were given two hours to familiarize themselves with the offerings of their company, Slack Technologies, and the needs of a fictional company, manufacturing solutions provider Autricks. Teams were provided background information for both companies, as well as the sales scenario, and then had two 30-minute meetings to close the deal and impress the judges – industry professionals from Microsoft, VMware, Timken, Trane, IBM, Veritas, CED, and others.
The competition provides a valuable platform for students to demonstrate their skills, receive feedback from professionals, build industry connections, and prepare them for lucrative careers.
Employers pay top salaries for sales engineers, who typically earn $75,000 to $100,000+ a year and work in a wide variety of industries, including high-growth fields like computer systems design.
At UCF, SSE members meet weekly to learn about and practice sales engineering skills – such as reading body language, overcoming objections, persuasive techniques, and building value – which can give them an advantage in interviews and on the job.
Drake serves as the organization’s president and competed on last year’s fifth-place team. He said the experience he’s gained in SSE has been invaluable to him, and that his prior competition experience helped him achieve his national title.
“An extra year of learning this trade made a big difference in how comfortable I felt,” he said. “It was a little stressful, but also a lot of fun to have to perform under pressure knowing that the other competitors were preparing just as hard as we were, and that the people judging our performance were experts in it with years of experience.”
Cai-Pippin, originally an engineering major, said she missed the technical piece of her education and future career when she began studying marketing; however, SSE introduced her to a perfect fit in technical sales.
“By joining SSE, I was able to reconnect with engineering students, grow my public speaking skills, and be with like-minded people who wanted to be involved with more than engineering or business in isolation,” she said.
Mark Calabrese, associate instructor, Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems, has served as SSE’s faculty advisor for the past four years. He says his group is a multi-disciplinary team of self-starters and professionals.
“They motivate each other and prepare like no other team I’ve ever been associated with,” he said. “I’m proud to watch them work and succeed.”