An Engineer Trying To Be A Sales Guy

As you remember, in February I left my position as Estonian Government CIO.

It was an extremely interesting challenge, but enough is enough. Four years in the public sector is more than a military service, and I have served my time.

When setting up new goals, I really wanted to finish my PhD studies, but in parallel to try out something completely new. I have been an engineer, CTO, CEO, CIO, but never in sales and marketing. Why not to try! So, I accepted a challenge to be the VP of Sales in a company called Plumbr.

I knew the guys well, as we had previously worked together for more than 10 years, building the largest software development house in our region, before they started to do their start-up and I joined the government. 95% of the company are engineers, so like most Estonian start-ups, they have world class products and technology, but are crap when it comes to sales and marketing.

“Looking on the bright side — as I don’t have those S&M skills either, how much more damage could I do?”

Knowing Estonians, who anxiously await customers to call in, this cartoon is not funny at all:

credit: Jerry King

What is Plumbr?

Many years ago, they started as a company whose software helped discover memory leaks. That’s where the name Plumbr comes from. But their product had a problem — customers bought it, but didn’t want to renew the licence. The root-causes for memory leaks are hard to discover, but you need help from Plumbr type companies only when the problem occurs.

They moved on and started measuring every user interaction in both the browser and server side from a performance perspective. So, Plumbr gives you a real-time dashboard of how your software is being used. Even better, if there are errors or something is slow, bad performance is instantly connected with the exact line in the code, making finding and fixing the problem way easier:

Sounds like a perfect tool for any product owner? Yes. If you want to know how many users you had yesterday and which of them had the worse experience with your software or which services underperform — Plumbr is your thing!

But, but, … wait, I have seen this before. It can’t be that simple.

Zeroturnaround

In 2007, two great Estonian engineers — Jevgeni Kabanov and Toomas Römer — founded a company called Zeroturnaround.com. Their first product — jRebel — was a killer, as it helped programmers develop faster in Java. At least we thought it will be super-easy to sell it. But it was not.

It appears that not all programmers want to work more efficiently (think about lawyers, who are not eager to work faster), or they don’t control the budget and their pointy haired boss can’t understand the value, or they just don’t know something fancy like JRebel exists. By the way, if you are a Java developer, this is a must have tool along with all their other products.

Anyway, for many years we struggled to break even without any huge breakthrough, until Bain Capital stepped in and helped to build the marketing and sales channels and turned Zeroturnaround to a success-story.

First month conclusion

Plumbr has a similar story to Zeroturnaround. Great products — but is the market mature enough for this? A decade ago, HR was a boring part of every organization, nothing fancy, and even when we said that we care about our people, in many cases it was just empty words. Until Google, Netflix and some other role models reinvented it — and suddenly we started to care, as it was the only way to stay alive in the talent hiring war.

credit: Scott Adams
“Caring about your online customers seems to be in the same position as HR was 10 years ago. In most cases, we still measure server uptime instead of measuring end-user experience.”

We let customers fill out forms to give us feedback, even though much of this information could be collected automatically. How can you plan your development sprints, if you don’t know the exact impact of your software problems in production?

Anyway — the next months will be interesting and I will keep you posted about how an engineer tries to be a sales guy! Meantime, check out Plumbr.io

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Taavi Kotka, 38, is a software engineer and tech entrepreneur who, as government CIO, has played a key role in helping Estonia develop as an advanced digital society. He has been awarded the title of best CIO in Europe, he is number 12th in Nordic Brightest Business Minds, and the father of the Estonian e-Residency program, No-Legacy Policy and other innovative initiatives.