When I was in college at Bucknell University and finally chose electrical engineering, I thought it would narrow down what type of job I would be doing for the rest of my working career. I soon came to realize that electrical engineering could be a gateway into almost any field, and I found that overwhelming. And I found that getting an engineering degree doesn't provide you with all the answers -- but it trains you how to find them.
I really enjoyed connecting circuits and blowing up resistors -- the smell lingers with me still. However, I realized that R&D is not my passion. It took me a while to find a job in which my electrical engineering degree was critical and yet didn't involve R&D work. (I was never told there are jobs that require engineering degrees that don’t involve working in R&D. During my undergraduate career, it was unheard of.) Having an electrical engineering degree and not working in R&D was almost sacrilegious, yet many of those jobs are just as critical to the success of projects and technical companies.
One of those jobs is technical marketing, and that is where I found my first job out of college. It was a perfect fit for my inner geek (after all you can’t spell geek without “EE”) and outgoing social nature.
I soon realized that without marketing, the products R&D engineers create will stay on the shelves or become expensive doorstops. If no one knows what products we have or how cool they are, no one will want them, and, without sales, companies die. In fact, my personal view is that this is where most startup companies fail (feel free to post a comment and disagree). Many startups have a great idea, spend the majority of their funding on R&D, and skimp on the marketing. When no one knows about their products, they don’t make enough sales, and then their companies fail.
But startups are another conversation. Today I want to talk more about technical marketing and the challenges of creating messages that resonate with R&D engineers.
First, as a technical marketing engineer (TME) or product marketing engineer (PME), you have to work with your R&D team to fully understand the products your company is creating. More often than not, PMEs are involved in creating the requirements for the products based on customer demand and future technical trends. As R&D is working tirelessly on new designs and features, the PMEs work to ensure that the web pages, advertising, promotions, literature, articles, and press are ready when the product launches. However, many times they can’t do this alone, especially if their company is creating products for other engineers. As a test-and-measurement vendor, the company I work for, Agilent Technologies, understands this all too well.
Marketing products to the general public usually involves alcohol, sex, or animals (hopefully, not all three). The next time you watch TV, see how many commercials employ one of these tactics. Very rarely do these same tactics work when you are promoting the next spectrum analyzer or oscilloscope to R&D engineers -- although the images that come to mind if we were to try this make me chuckle.
When I’m working on creating the next new product video or literature to be shown to our end customers, I need to tap into the deep knowledge at our company to promote the “wow” features of our products compared to our competition. Trying to capture the interest of highly technical and very busy engineers who are experts in their respective fields can be challenging to say the least. This becomes especially challenging when they need to be aligned around a common outbound marketing message.
As a TME, my unofficial title is “Cat Herder.” Each of the technical experts I rely on has knowledge in a particular field or aspect of a solution that our customers need to understand. Our customers love when our technical experts and R&D engineers visit them to talk about their area of expertise. My job is to extract that knowledge in the factory and put it in a condensed format for our customers.
Each of these experts has "cat" tendencies. They are independent, hard to get a hold of, love new toys, and want me to make their life as easy as possible. If I ask them to review a 15-page technical overview, it will most likely never get done. However, if I can tell them the two or three key places I want them to review and send it in email, I’ll get a response in 15 minutes. Then again, each one of my technical experts has his or her own quirks and preferences -- like any good cat.
In order to mine the information that I really need from them, I need to take into account their personal preferences. One of my colleagues only responds to text messages, another prefers voicemail, and yet another email. It frustrates some PMEs to no end that they have to coax, plead, and bribe people to glean the information they need. I personally think they aren’t cut out to be cat herders, as I am. It’s a rough job trying to keep track of, and work with, technical cats, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A colleague of mine shared this video with me about herding cats, and I laugh because it feels like my daily routine. You might have already seen it, but if you have two minutes to spare, it is worth seeing again. Enjoy!