In our Advice to Our Younger Selves series, Redis Labs women tech staffers share insights they wish they knew when they were starting their careers.
Like many kids, young Jane Paek dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Once she started high school—and learned astronauts can’t wear glasses in space—she considered a career in medicine before eventually choosing to pursue electrical engineering.
Fast forward more than 20 years, and Jane is currently Director of Regional Solution Architects at Redis Labs, managing a team of 11 Solution Architects, or SAs. So how did an electrical engineering major from Canada make her way to the technical sales department of a database startup in Silicon Valley? In this Q&A, Jane explains what a solution architect is, the perks of being a technical person in sales, and how she overcame imposter syndrome.
Redis Labs: Let’s start from the beginning: how did you move from engineering to sales?
Jane Paek: Through many co-op opportunities, I realized by the time I graduated university that I was not destined to be an electrical/hardware engineer. So the first company I joined post-graduation was Oracle, where its intern program rotated young graduates through different departments. I started with customer support, then went into pre-sales engineering, and finally technical education. Oracle provided hands-on, customer-centric training that I didn’t get in university and I’ve been in customer-centric roles ever since, mostly around pre-sales engineering.
Redis Labs: What is a solution architect?
Jane Paek: Solution architects at Redis Labs help customers design and deploy high-speed applications leveraging Redis in the most optimal way. We are technologists, but being customer-facing, we get to observe how technology impacts business and individuals, and how technology is leveraged to achieve business goals. At Redis Labs, solution architects are pre-sales, but the role can mean other things in other industries or organizations.
Redis Labs: How did you make your way to Redis Labs?
Jane Paek: In 2008, I decided to take a break from work to focus on raising a family. Seven years and two children later, I re-entered the workforce through re-engaging with my network. It was emotionally challenging but by reaching out to a number of people I had previously worked with, I was able to land a job offer in a short period of time. After working remotely as an SA for two years, I wanted to find a company more local and that’s when I saw a Redis Labs job posting on Glassdoor.
Redis Labs: Can you name three skills, technical or soft, that people need to make a career in technical sales?
Jane Paek: First is the ability to listen. SAs connect the problems customers have to potential solutions we can provide. Our job is to make sure we fully comprehend the problem set to make sure the solution we propose provides the most benefit to the customer. If we don’t listen well, then we are going to waste a lot of everyone’s time.
Second is a sense of urgency. The mantra that constantly runs in the back of my mind: “time kills deals.” Time is your most valuable resource. In a sales organization, you’re typically bounded by a window of time—we’re given a year and you need to achieve a certain revenue target. The ability to gauge time, manage time, and multitask is an absolutely critical skill to almost anything we do in sales.
The third one is just a desire to learn and improve. Being curious and asking, “Why do you want to do this?” forces you to follow up and clarify things, but it also leads you to say, “You know what, maybe there’s a different path.”
Redis Labs: What are the key things about the tech industry they don’t teach you in school?
Jane Paek: Oh, there’s so much that they don’t tell you, like networking for one. You do occasionally hear how important networking is, but you don’t appreciate it until you get into the workforce. For example, in recruiting the weight applied to someone who comes in through a referral versus a resume that came in out of the blue—it’s night and day. Make the effort to really get to know your coworkers and their strengths, likes, and what they are like to work with. Your paths could potentially converge again.
Another lesson learned is salary anchoring. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but women have a tendency of setting for, or anchoring, lower salaries than men when negotiating a job offer. Many women are uncomfortable asking for more, and by not asking, we settle for less. My advice to women and underrepresented minorities is to get over the imposter syndrome. Take a look at the market and anchor high. If the market can afford it, and there’s other people with your experience—or even less experience—getting that type of salary, ask for it. The worst you’ll get is no.
Redis Labs: You mentioned the imposter syndrome—how have you learned to get over that feeling of “I’m not good enough”?
Jane Paek: I think both men and women experience imposter syndrome. We all have roles where we’re not sure whether we’re qualified. But you cannot be perfect and you can’t possibly know everything. Be comfortable acknowledging you can grow, and think, “It’s OK, I will learn.”
Redis Labs: When you were younger, were you comfortable with things like presenting and helping people solve their problems over the phone or video?
Jane Paek: My first support call at Oracle? I thought, “Oh my… they want me to pick up the phone and answer a question where I just had three months of training. I don’t know enough to answer their questions!” Fortunately, my first caller just wanted to know where the documentation was, and I was like, “Oh, that’s an easy one!” It takes practice. Over time, you slowly build up your knowledge and confidence.
I also hated presenting when I first started—and presentation skills weren’t taught in school. As you get into customer-centric roles, you start developing the skills, and you become more comfortable being uncomfortable. Every time you go up on stage you will be uncomfortable. Every time you get on a call with a customer, you will be uncomfortable. The reality is, if you’re comfortable, there’s a problem. It means you’re overly confident or too cocky. Being nervous can help you step up your game.
In practical terms, I joined Toastmasters and took improv classes. They’re both risk-free ways of getting over the discomfort and improving your presentation skills.
Redis Labs: Let’s talk more about working in customer-facing tech roles. What are some other things you didn’t know?
JP: I wish I had been exposed to alternative career paths in tech. How often have you heard people mention technical marketing as part of an engineering-career presentation? Or pre-sales engineering, technical account management, or sales engineers, solutions architects or professional services? These are all customer-centric roles that require technical expertise.
Learning the pros and cons of different roles would have been great, especially as it pertained to travel. Some of these jobs have great travel opportunities. During my first year as a technical instructor at Oracle, I traveled almost 3 weeks out of the month. I visited 9 out of the 10 provinces in Canada and loved seeing the country. When you’re young, if you have the opportunity to travel and you have a job that’s willing to pay your expenses—take advantage of it.
Especially for sales engineering, there are a lot of perks if you are successful. For example, club trips are all inclusive awards trips for sales teams who attain their annual quota. Through these trips, I’ve had a blast visiting Sydney, Australia; the Cayman Islands; Turks and Caicos; Cancun.
Redis Labs: My perception of technical roles was that you were stuck in the lab or the office all day, but that doesn’t seem to necessarily be the case.
Jane Paek: You are right, that’s the general perception of engineers. The reality is, there are a lot more choices to what kind of environments we can work in. I had to learn about these career paths meandering through life as there was no menu out there. So I encourage people to be curious and ask people, “What do you do?”