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Software Salespeople Are Like Pretty Boy Band Members

The F Factor

I was talking to a colleague who'd recently started a new assignment, and she remarked that while the work was interesting, she felt frustrated that she was surrounded by people who had no software talent. Her metaphor was drawn from the record industry where people either have, or lack, musical talent.

In times of yore, records were made by people who played the instruments, wrote the lyrics, scored the music, and cantillated the songs. They had musical talent and, like all great artists, stood the test of time as they continued to write and perform throughout their entire career. The basic prerequisite to being a good bet for the recording industry was that you were a good multi-talented musician who had mastery of all aspects of the music process starting with a blank sheet of paper and ending up with the finished sound on stage.

In the 1980s though the rules changed, ironically summarized in lyrics from the Buggele's classic song of the era; "Video killed the radio star." Selling a record now meant you needed a front person who looked pretty for the camera and for whom center spread magazine posters could be created for suburban teeny boppers to plaster on bedroom walls. The musicians found themselves performing in the shadows as Mr/Ms cheek bone strutted their stuff around in front of the mic long enough to keep the viewers mesmerized till the next commercial began. Some videos used professional dancers and complex choreography, often distracting the spectators so they wouldn't realize the music actually wasn't that good.

As the genre unfolded, musicians were pushed further and further back so you couldn't even see them and the ratio of dancing to singing ability of the front band members were increased to the point where a band is now simply a collection of cherry picked dancers performing to someone else's song played by unknown musicians.

Once upon a time, software developers wrote code and ruled their kingdoms. Good programs had few bugs and performed their tasks efficiently and with style. The elite programmers went on to become designers who would lead others in their wake, instilling in them good software practices in a master/apprentice relationship. However, someone was needed to sell the code, so software salespeople were hired who, like pretty boy band members, tended to spend their weekends at the mall browsing shelves of hair products rather than intellectually challenging books. Software is a pretty hard thing to sell because, unless your prospect is a brand new startup, one presumes they already have something in place. Your job as a salesman is to convince the customer that their old software is no good and/or that the new one is better. This involves a mixture of FUD for the incumbent and, like the music industry, creating a name for the new software, a new wave, a fashion they need to follow to be hip, and dressing up the software your developers lovingly coded with buzzwords and intrigue, convincing the customer that it'll make them feel better just by owning it. After a while though this charade starts to back up into the software house, which is now told they must follow the latest fad or fashion with their product to remain competitive and, before long, the poor developer, the only one left in the building who can actually write any decent code, finds herself pushed into the shadows and then off stage as the whole direction, strategy, design, and product line is now a slave to the industry's fashion whims.

As my colleague lamented with a sigh, paraphrasing the Buggle's lyrics; "They took the credit for your second subroutine, Rewritten by buzzwords and new technology; and now I understand the problems you can see. Oh-a oh. I met your breakpoints. Oh-a oh" - all together now - "PowerPoint killed the programmer star. La la la, do be, la la laa laa."

More Stories By Joe Winchester

Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

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Most Recent Comments
JulesLt 11/27/07 07:53:03 PM EST

Well, to be pedantic, it's not always been the case that song-writing musicians ruled the roost - in fact, that only really became the norm in the 60s - the era immediately before was dominated by singers marketed on their looks as much as vocal talent (anyone say Elvis?). The market seems to swing between manufactured pop and authenticity.

And lest we forget, the eras when musicians truly ruled the roost (early-to-mid 70s) resulted in a lot of self-indulgence as much as artistic creativity - just as the same had happened within Jazz a decade before. To tie it back to software - a love of abstraction, and a failure to engage with the audience.

Jim Westfall 11/27/07 05:55:33 PM EST

“Software is a pretty hard thing to sell because, unless your prospect is a brand new startup, one presumes they already have something in place.”

What about growth to support new business ventures? (A small bank may be heavily paper based and wants to digitize much of this forms processing with some eforms software.)

What about growth in the number of transactions that you are doing? (We are all familiar with software that does not have the architectural robustness to support significantly more workload.)

“Your job as a salesman is to convince the customer that their old software is no good and/or that the new one is better. This involves a mixture of FUD for the incumbent and, like the music industry, creating a name for the new software, a new wave, a fashion they need to follow to be hip, and dressing up the software your developers lovingly coded with buzzwords and intrigue, convincing the customer that it'll make them feel better just by owning it.”

When two companies merge, the best option might be to buy new software and migrate both companies to the new versus trying to integrate the old. This is not always done because of technology reasons, but maybe because it moves the technology teams out of the “religious war trenches” and into the true teaming to accelerate value from the merger.

Travis Huch 11/26/07 01:22:13 PM EST

Ouch - As a software salesperson person this story hurts. As a musician I find it true, but I digress. In the on-demand world we need to quickly understand the business problem of our prospect and then only sell them if we know we have a fit. If we don't, they won't renew. This does take skill and knowledge of our software and of business process. I agree that we have trouble hiring. I'm not sure if it's because everyone is watching music videos instead of studying math, but watch the sweeping generalizations.

Richard Williams 11/22/07 10:05:22 AM EST

Joe's point is well made, and wholly accurate, but, as often happens, it only addresses half of the issue. Yes, a sales and marketing department can, and often does, drive the technical / creative aspects of a company instead of the other way around. This happens in all industries, not just IT/ Computer science. The obvious question then is, why? The answer is simple, the consumer. Sales and marketing is a reactionary field, it responds to consumer demands and then attempts to magnify and exploit the consumers perceived need or want. This then, leads us to the next question, and the other half of the issue, what happened to the intelligent, informed, technically savvy buyer? Every company buys as well as sells. If you are concerned about how your marketing department overly influences your design process, then have a look at who you have in the purchasing department. This can give some real insight into the overall workings of the development, design, marketing, sales, process. If your purchasing department is made up wholly of accountants, clerks, secretaries, and the like, and or major purchasing decisions are being made by management personnel without the necessary technical knowledge, then you can see how purchasing can be driven by less then technically prudent decisions. If this can happen to your company, then guess what is probably going on within your your customers organization.
The bottom line is that, marketing drives design, resulting in less then efficient, technically inferior products emphasizing flash and fashion, because purchasing is often left to unqualified departments and or individuals and this is what they demand and or are sold.
Want to make a change? Fix your own purchasing methodology, demand quality products based on technical precision, not trends, fashion, and hype. The largest landslide often begins with the shifting of a single stone.

Lou 11/21/07 11:45:58 AM EST

Very well said Joe. Being both a musician and a (former) programmer, I can say with authority that you and your sales colleague nailed the concept on the head. It's no wonder that far fewer U.S. college students are majoring in Computer Science. The whole I.T. culture has become convoluted and distorted, and is disrespected as a result.

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