In a new Technical Sales course, students practice the skill set of selling technology to businesses
For over thirty years, Eli Neumann (BSE Computer Engineering) has been leading worldwide technical sales engineering teams. In his current role as Senior Vice President of Worldwide Sales Engineers at Tenable Inc. – a cybersecurity company known for creating the vulnerability scanning software, Nessus – he oversees a team of 250 security engineers who act in partnership with the company sales team in client interactions. Now, with a new Technical Sales class he co-designed at Michigan, he’s hoping to use his expertise to inspire and train the next generation of technical sales engineers.
“In the vendor world, we struggle to find people, because you need to have three, four years of experience presenting to people,” Neumann said. “If you’re in college, how do you get that? So that’s where my focus came in to say, why don’t we have a minor in colleges? Some schools have one, but this semester was my attempt to bring that into Michigan and open that world up.”
Neumann connected with Kurt Skifstad, the Dixon and Carol Doll Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Adjunct Lecturer at the College of Engineering. Together, they developed the new course “Technical Sales” (ENTR 390.055/ 599.055). In this one credit mini-course, students study sales organization and processes, and they practice selling technology to businesses.
“Sales is such an important topic to understand, independent of someone’s career path,” Skifstad said. “If you have a better understanding of how products are sold, you have a better understanding of how the world (and your company, business partners, suppliers, etc) works. Sales is also a very compelling career path for Engineers – a newly-graduated engineer with Technical Sales experience makes approximately 35 percent more than their peers.”
Sales is such an important topic to understand, independent of someone’s career path.
Kurt Skifstad, the Dixon and Carol Doll Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship
For the final project, students were split up into teams where they each represented a real company selling a real product to a customer. Neumann, Skifstad, and a few other volunteers acted as the customers. Students had to assess and adapt to each of the personality profiles of the customers, while accurately representing the company’s product and its differentiating ability to address the customer’s technical and business needs.
“They did amazingly well,” Neumann said. “One of the teams was actually representing my real company, Tenable. They had to figure out my company, and they did an awesome job.”
Skifstad provided much of the academic materials and lectures, and Neumann would often present on real-world experiences and examples from his own career.
“One of the things that’s great about the University of Michigan is the enthusiasm and passion our alumni have for the Maize and Blue and their eagerness to help out,” Skifstad said. “Eli is the personification of this mindset – he’s a true professional, a successful senior executive who leads a large international team, but he still found the time, not only to help out, but to take the initiative to reach out and help make this course happen.”
Neumann and Skifstad plan to create additional courses, building on the material introduced in this class. They hope to have enough courses to eventually qualify for a minor degree program.
“If you can put a minor in sales engineering on your CV or your resume, it is invaluable in the market, for sure,” Neumann said.
One specific topic Neumann would like to see turned into a course is a focus on tailoring the technology message to the potential customer’s specific goals and needs.
“Everybody can figure out the product technically, such as how to use it,” Neumann said. “The tricky part is, how do you take the technical acumen and adjust it to the business acumen of that customer?”
The choice to develop this course at U-M was simple for Neumann: Michigan is a family legacy. Ever since Neumann’s father, an electrical engineer, spent a sabbatical at Michigan, nine members of the family have earned degrees from U-M. The most recent to do so was Neumann’s daughter, who graduated from the School of Information in 2021.
“It was a lot of hard work, but I also have a lot of good memories at Michigan,” Neumann said. “As soon as you walk onto that campus, you fall in love with it.”
It was a lot of hard work, but I also have a lot of good memories at Michigan. As soon as you walk onto that campus, you fall in love with it.
Eli Neumann, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Sales Engineers at Tenable Inc.
One of Neumann’s favorite places to socialize was The Pretzel Bell. He also enjoyed how compact the campus was – Engineering was still located on Central Campus, so he could easily walk from playing video games with his friends at Pinball Pete’s on South University to a study session in the UgLi (undergraduate library). Above all, he appreciated getting to meet and work with people from all over the world.
“I grew up in Israel, and there were a lot of engineering students that were of Palestinian descent, and one could have predicted some tension here and there,” Neumann said. “But instead we all worked together and helped each other make it all the way through. That was really very cool for me.”
Prior to Tenable, Neumann worked at Computer Associates, webMethods/Software AG, and NetSuite in Vice President and Senior Vice President positions. He went on to serve as the Vice President of Global Security Engineers at Sourcefire, where he supported the customer base and sales efforts related to the Sourcefire Solution. He then joined Cisco as the Vice President for Worldwide Security Engineers. Today, he holds an Advisory Board position at the PreSales Leadership Collective, a company focused on Technical Sales Engineers and Sales Engineering Leadership development.