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What are good interview questions to ask a candidate for a sales engineer position? We're an enterprise software company and the candidate we hire needs to be able to (and I think this holds for any company hiring to this position). I write "customer (programmer)" because the customer is almost always a programmer.

  1. Give clear answers to customer (programmer) questions.
  2. Focus on how we address the customer (programmer) needs, not list out features.
  3. Sound enthusiastic when talking/demonstrating to the customer (programmer).
  4. When demonstrating a feature, explain why it is of value to the customer (programmer).
  5. Care a great deal about providing quality support to customers (programmers).

So, any suggested questions, things to watch for, etc? (Even though a sales engineer is a programmer, what we need is quite different because programming skills can be average but communication skills are very important.)

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I'm not sure this question is on-topic here. Why are you asking programmers how to hire a sales guy? –  Anna Lear Sep 6 '11 at 15:46
    
Sales engineer. So they have to be a competent programmer and have to communicate effectively with programmers. –  David Thielen Sep 6 '11 at 15:47
    
Still, testing a candidate's communication skills seems like a general HR concern, not specific to software development. –  Anna Lear Sep 6 '11 at 15:48
    
I work at a software start-up. We require creativity for every position we hire. But I still think discussing how to gauge the creativity of a programmer applying for a job is legit to discuss here, even though you could say that also is a general HR concern. –  David Thielen Sep 6 '11 at 15:51
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My first question as a candidate would be "what the crap is a 'Sales Engineer'?" –  Ed S. Sep 6 '11 at 21:07

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

From reading your question, it looks to me like one of the key requirements that's underlying your questions is the ability to understand and empathise with your customer and their needs. Unfortunately, an interview is a phenomenally poor forum to try and test understanding or empathy.

I think the way you're going to get the most out of this is to attempt to use some sort of case study. Give them some information about a customer (real or imaginary, but real is going to give you better results (anonymised, of course)). The candidate has to try and pitch to the customer, but you're not really interested in the pitch. What you're interested in are the questions that the candidate asks you in order to prepare for the pitch - it is here that the candidate will demonstrate their ability to analyse and understand a customer.

I should point out at this point that I'd probably hate to do this kind of interview, because it involves being put entirely on the spot. For maximum effectiveness and minimum candidate stress, send them the case study a few days before the interview, so they have some time to look it over.

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I would take a look at this list of 100 Interview Questions for Software Developers. They cover a lot of ground, and only rarely have I been asked questions from the breadth of this list, even though I feel that I can answer most of them in sufficient detail for an interview. I'm not exactly sure what the work of a sales engineer entails, but it sounds like it has a customer focus, so I would emphasize questions from that list on requirements, testing, configuration management, and project management - these seem to be the technical areas that would be most applicable.

Situational interview questions might also be appropriate. Ask the candidate to give a presentation, pitch a product, or provide support to a user.

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That's a pretty crappy list. "When would I use a Singleton? Never." "When would I use an abstract class versus an interface? My language doesn't make such a worthless distinction." –  DeadMG Sep 6 '11 at 21:19
    
@DeadMG There are times when it's appropriate to use a Singleton. Often, it's related to interfacing with hardware when multiple instances breaks the concept of the system. Also, if your team/project was using a language that had both, it would matter. Overall, that is one of the most comprehensive list of software engineering questions with an emphasis on OO implementation techniques out there. –  Thomas Owens Sep 6 '11 at 21:37

Instead of asking questions, I would test him in real conditions:

  • Pick a random product online, similar to yours (for programmers). It much be unknown to him.
  • Give the candidate 15 minutes to review the product website. He can take notes and he is left alone in the room.
  • Once prepared, ask him to convince you to buy his product in less than 10 minutes.
  • If you can, repeat the last step with 2 other colleagues.

This can be done by phone too.

I had to do such exercices in the past (for management not sales), and it's the only way I felt I demonstrate my capabilities.

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No way anyone can learn anything useful from 15 minutes browsing a website. If you use this criterion you will end up hiring a bull*****er rather than an effective communicator. –  DJClayworth Sep 6 '11 at 18:49
    
I just passed this to our sales VP. And it doesn't mean they're making it all up, it means that in 15 minutes they can find key benefits to a product. The key to effective presentations is to focus on the problem a customer faces, not spew out a list of detailed features. –  David Thielen Sep 6 '11 at 20:57
    
Sounds like the "Sell this pencil." test. –  JeffO Sep 6 '11 at 21:46
    
Jeff O: the problem with the pencil is that it's a well known test. Another major problem is that things to say about it are limited. Therefore the candidate is tempted to lie. –  user2567 Sep 7 '11 at 5:07

You could ask the person for their passions and try to persuade you about them in terms of explaining why something is so good and important to them. Look at how well do they paraphrase and clarify their answers and break things down over and over again.

The key isn't so much in the words themselves but in the how are those words presented. What kinds of emotions are behind them? Does the person seem to run out of patience quickly? How many times can they take someone asking, "Why?" before breaking? Do they answer the question or just seem to do a lot of hand waving?

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