The Struggle of a Product-Driven Engineer in Sales-First Companies

As someone who has transitioned to a product-driven mindset, I’ve found it increasingly challenging to operate within sales-driven organizations. Unfortunately, many companies fall into this category, presenting unique obstacles for software engineers with this mindset, who prioritize product excellence and customer satisfaction.

In these companies, decisions aren’t only focused on ensuring product quality or satisfying customers. Instead, there’s often a strong emphasis on rapid growth, driven by either founders' aspirations or investor backing. This focus on short-term gains can easily overshadow the original vision or mission of the company, leading to a culture where short-term profit is prioritized over long-term sustainability.

As a result, the culture within these organizations often centers on sales and marketing strategies, prioritizing actions that please investors, secure deals, and increase revenue, sometimes at the expense of product integrity or user value. This shift can negatively impact company culture, leaving individual contributors feeling disconnected from the original problems the company set out to solve.

It's important to acknowledge that statistics show that 9 out of 10 startups fail, often due to reasons beyond the control of a software engineer. Many great tech products fail not because of the technology itself, but rather due to issues such as lack of product-market fit, marketing challenges, financial difficulties, and more.

From my own experience, it's frustrating to try to influence decision-making within such environments. As an individual contributor, it can feel powerless to push against subjective preferences and poorly informed decisions. However, despite this chaos, there is an escape: as a software engineer, you can simply build, even in the face of uncertainty and high risks.

Yes, even when the risks are extremely high and the way ahead seems uncertain. In these sales-driven organizations, where success metrics are often vague or nonexistent, the act of building becomes a means of survival. It's a paradoxical scenario where the lack of clear success criteria strangely frees you to move forward.

But how does one navigate this unclear terrain without losing their sanity? For me, it boils down to asking the right questions. When presented with a new project or feature request, I've learned to delve deeper. How will we measure success? What impact are we aiming to achieve? These simple yet profound questions act as a test, revealing the true nature of the request.

If the answers remain vague or ambiguous, it's a sign that we're entering opinion-driven territory, where decisions are made based on subjective preferences rather than objective criteria. In such cases, rather than resisting futilely, I've chosen to accept the challenge. Choosing to build becomes a strategic decision, acknowledging the wisdom in selecting battles and recognizing that some challenges are better navigated through adaptation rather than direct opposition, even if your underlying intention is to help.

As an individual contributor, it's about choosing battles wisely and focusing energy where it matters most. Recognizing the entrenched cultures and interests, sometimes the most radical act is to play along.

In summary, while the struggle within sales-driven organizations may appear overwhelming, there is strength in adapting and collaborating strategically. By embracing the paradox, asking the right questions, and selecting battles wisely, we can overcome these obstacles while maintaining our sanity.