Software Sales Career Paths
What do the CEO of Oracle, the founder of Sequoia Capital, and Mark Cuban have in common? All started their careers selling technology.
Software sales is an excellent way to jump start your career whether or not you plan on working in tech long term. Here are the primary software sales career paths to know and understand:
- SDR to AE
- SDR to SDR Manager
- AE to Sales Management
In this article we’ll go over traditional and nontraditional career paths that begin with software sales. We’ll detail how much money you can expect to make and give you some tips on how to get where you want.
The Starting Point Is Almost Always The SDR Role
Almost all software salespeople start of as Sales Development Representatives (SDR’s).
If you’re unfamiliar with the term or position, SDR’s don’t actually sell software.
Instead, they help expand the pipeline of Account Executives (AE’s) by cold calling and emailing potential clients. The SDR role prepares a new employee to become an actual salesperson in the following ways:
- SDR’s learn to deal with the pressure of having aggressive sales goals in form of a quota (not for revenue, but for meetings set).
- SDR’s often have to explain details of the software and its use cases to potential clients in order when a potential client is on the fence about taking a meeting with an AE.
- SDR’s have the opportunity to join their AE’s calls (or they should at a good company) and watch the AE complete demos and execute the sales process.
Think of being an SDR as being an apprentice. Depending on the type of company you work at you can expect to be an SDR for 6-24 months before becoming an AE.
How To Get Promoted In Sales
Being an SDR is a grind. The work is monotonous, stressful, and it’s safe to say that you want to get promoted out of this role as quickly as possible.
Here’s how you get promoted:
- Perform well
- Meet and exceed your quota every month
- Do your best to be in the top 20% of your team
- Behave well
- Get along with your teammates and managers
- Come to work ontime and don’t be the first one to leave
- Be positive about working hard and set a good example
SDR to AE
Getting promoted from SDR to AE is very straightforward, and most companies should be able to promote you to this role within a reasonable timeframe. If your priority is to become an AE as fast as possible you should, as mentioned earlier, work for a small or medium sized company that’s growing and that sells to smaller companies. If you don’t mind being patient join a more established company like Oracle, SalesForce or Adobe.
AE’s in the SF Bay Area make anywhere from $80,000 to $500,000 annually. The top 20% of performers at Oracle make between $250,000 and $500,000. Medium sized software companies that service Fortune 1000 companies (NGINX, MuleSoft, LiveRamp) also employ AE’s who earn similar salaries.
Typically people start off as an AE selling to small and medium sized companies. By performing well, you’ll have the chance to sell to large enterprise accounts.
SDR to SDR Manager
Becoming an SDR Manager depends as much on the employee as it does on the company. Oftentimes a company doesn’t need a new SDR manager — if you work for this sort of company you won’t be able to get this position.
At rapidly growing companies there is often need for more SDR managers to supervise ‘groups’ or ‘teams’ of SDR’s within the general SDR organization. If you join a small startup as an early SDR before there is a SDR manager (and you’re reporting to the Head of Sales or CEO), you could evolve into the SDR manager if and when there are enough SDR’s to merit the position.
This is, again, based on how well you perform and how much respect people at the company have for you based on your performance and behavior.
SDR Managers, in the SF Bay Area, typically make between $120,000 and $180,000 annually. This is a position one could hold for life or that could lead to other management and operations roles. That being said it would be hard for an SDR manager to become a Head of Sales if they have no experience closing deals.
AE to Sales Management
Moving from AE into Sales Management within the SaaS world typically happens one of two ways:
- Being internally promoted
- Joining a small startup as the head of sales
In the first scenario, you’re working for a company that is expanding rapidly (doing well) or has some management turnover due to poor performance (struggling). In the initial scenario you’re one of the top performers and you’ve been with the company for a while. The sales team is now being split up by geography or vertical and managers are being appointed for each category. You’re now responsible for a team of AE’s and SDR’s and are officially in ‘sales management’.
In the latter scenario, you’re company isn’t doing so well so your head of sales is fired or leaves. Given that you’re the top performer, perhaps the CEO will make you responsible for the entire team’s success.
Like moving from SDR to SDR Manager or AE, moving into sales management primarily depends on performance (are you good enough to merit a promotion?) and if the company has a need for the new role. That being said it’s much harder to move from sales to sales management that it is moving from pre-sales to sales.
How Long Do You Have To Be An SDR Before Leveling Up?
We’ve found two primary factors that determine how long you’ll be an SDR before you become an AE:
- How large are the companies that your company sells to?
- Enterprise sales are much more complex to execute. If you’re selling to Fortune 1500 companies you’ll likely take more time to be promoted as your managers will want to train you for as long as possible beforehand.
- How large is the company you work for?
- Larger companies typically take longer time to promote, as there is less growth than a startup that is doubling in size. Therefore there are less openings for people to move up to.
Consider MuleSoft and Salesforce. Both companies (who are currently hiring like crazy) are quite large and both companies sell to large companies (Salesforce also sells to small companies). If you browse around on LinkedIn for SDR’s and AE’s at these companies, its clear that it often takes nearly two years of being an SDR before becoming an AE. On the other hand if you work for a small startup that sells to small businesses its much more likely that you’ll move up to a sales role within 6-9 months.
Other Sales Career Paths
Oftentimes sales people move into marketing or customer success roles if they prefer a less ‘intense’ role. We wrote a full breakdown on all the various sales roles you could evolve into as well.
The skills they learned doing sales for a few years (effective communication, problem solving for clients, time management) are very useful for account management. Additionally exposure to people buying software gives salespeople unique insight into ‘what makes people buy’, enabling them to be effective marketers.
Some salespeople succeed at moving beyond the sales floor and into the boardroom. The godfather of Silicon Valley venture capital, founder of Seqoia capital, who’s investments have a market cap of $3 trillion, Don Valentine, started his career as a technology salesman. He wasn’t selling software (this was in the 70’s, to early for that), but selling semi-conductors in that time period is comparable to selling software today.
There’s more examples. As mentioned before Mark Cuban and Mark Hurd (CEO of Oracle) started their careers selling technologies. Dan Fishback, Board member of several silicon valley companies and former CEO of DemandTec (IPO’d in 2008) started his career as a salesman at Unisys.
So there’s no limit to what you can do when starting your career in software sales. We hope this guide has given you a general overview of the various career paths you can take, and what you need to do to get where you want to go.