Great Sales and Engineering Teams Share the Same DNA — For the Most Part

Last week, I welcomed Adam Aarons and Hector Aguilar to the Okta team and offered some thoughts, culled from my time as an engineer, on what constitutes a great engineering team. It was meant as a bit of advice (for what it was worth), to Hector, our new VP of engineering – because admittedly, I’m an engineer at heart. I ran engineering at before founding Okta, and I approach most problems with an engineering mindset. It’s just how I’m wired.

Product and engineering folks often assume that a great product “sells itself” and that the best product and technology will win. This is not true. Oracle was not the best database, and BetaMax was better than VHS. To win you need great product AND great sales.

As CEO of Okta, I’m obsessed with making sure our sales team is the best in high tech. And as I reflected on last week’s post, I realized that my advice to Hector on what makes a great engineering team applies, in many ways, to sales teams, too. As it turns out, high performing sales teams and engineering teams aren’t all that different.

People Matter

For any department — whether engineering, HR, sales, you name it — talent is the most important puzzle piece. Talented people want to work with other talented people. You need to keep the proverbial bar high.

Great engineers are craftsmen. They care deeply about the creative and engineering process that goes into products. Great salespeople are craftsmen. They see beauty in how a prospect and initiative move from green sales opportunity through the evaluation and selections process to a completed deal.

Great engineers rely on their knowledge of technology and what has worked and failed in the past. Great salespeople rely on their knowledge of people and organizations and what has worked and failed in the past.

Salespeople are great at building relationships. They know how to read people like an engineer can read code. They’ve seen the patterns that say a prospect will buy. They can sense a bad deal like a great engineer can sense bad architecture.

Great engineers need judgment. They need to balance moving fast and getting things built with doing things right and avoiding technical debt. Great salespeople need judgment. They need to balance closing a deal and getting a “logo” with what will make the customer successful and benefit both companies over the long term.


Just like engineering teams should be organized by product areas, sales teams should be organized by geographic region. This allows the sales team to build long term relationships with the same set of customers and prospects. Prospects like to talk to local customers during reference checks. The sales team can get to know regional partners and connect them with the right customers. It allows momentum in the region to build.

The fundamentals of management are the same across sales and engineering. You need to build a culture that expects and rewards excellence. You’ve built the team with talented people, now you need to give them room to perform to their potential. You need openness and transparency so they have the information needed to make the right decisions.

Know Where You’re Headed

Both sales and engineering need to balance both short-term demands (ship this release, close this deal) with longer term planning and roadmap. Great sales teams are thinking three moves ahead of the competition in identifying prospects, building relationships and generally knowing where the market is headed.


In both sales and engineering the process is critical. The best sales processes empower talented salespeople with everything they need to close the deal. They foster transparency and communication so the entire team knows what’s going on with a deal. Great salespeople don’t lose alone, they win as a team. They decide when to commit the deal. The company trusts them and knows that once committed, they’ll do what it takes to bring it in.

A good sales process is like iterative development. They are frequent milestones along the way that are observable proof points that the deal is progressing. “Is there budget for the project?” “Does the selection criteria line up well with our solution?” “Have we clearly communicated how we’re different from the competition and our economic value?” “Have we positioned a smaller purchase on the road to an enterprise rollout.” These prevent you from coming to the end of a long sales cycle and getting a big and costly surprise.


Like you test your products you should test your sales process. Know your win and loss record. Look at your sales cycles and figure out the common characteristics of the long vs. the short. What can you automate? Early in the cycle could you have better collateral to educate the buyer? Talk to the prospects you lose to competitors. Hear it directly from them about why they chose a different solution.

Though salespeople are distinct and may not always see eye-to-eye, the qualities of what makes sales and engineering teams successful at their respective jobs aren’t all that different. Both are predicated on talent. Similar things motivate both. They need to feel empowered and know where the company is headed, that they have a stake in the future of the company. They need to execute, whether they’re building the next big product or trying to close that crucial customer. And they need to be held accountable for results, just as the executives must hold themselves accountable for steering the company in the right direction and for communicating what’s expected to all employees.