How to sell products to nerds

Duct tape on Apollo 17 lunar roverI came across a good post today about things non-technical people need to know to work productively with programmers. One point in particular jumped out at me:

Rule #5: Stop selling so hard.

In business, we talk a lot in the language of persuasion. We’re constantly selling. We’re constantly advocating for our ideas and claiming their potential to change the world. There’s a time and place for that kind of chest thumping. But it’s generally not with developers.

Most good developers are pessimists. They expect stuff to break. And they get suspicious when stuff doesn’t. So, naturally, they tend to be allergic to optimistic, hyperbolic sales speak.

When you’re working with developers, speak the truth plainly. Point out the benefits of what you are doing/proposing, but also share the warts and problems you’re seeing. When you don’t know something, say so and ask questions. You’ll get much further with your developer this way.

This is absolutely, one hundred percent true, and it’s something that I’ve seen sales and marketing types fail to understand pretty consistently, so I wanted to call it out.

I’d even go a step further and say that programmers aren’t just pessimists. We are fatalists. We believe that the only reason the world runs at all is because of frequent applications of bubble gum and baling wire in places we can’t see.

We think that way because our work requires us to spend our days climbing around in the innards of things, and innards, generally speaking, are not pretty. They’re actually pretty gross. Even things that look beautiful on the outside are usually made of pretty grody guts — they work not because they are reliable, but because layers and layers of duct tape keep the parts from flying off in a million different directions.

Why is this? Partly it’s because systems are built by humans, and humans are flawed creatures; a perfect system would require a perfect builder, and perfect we ain’t. But it’s also because even well-designed systems are frequently based on assumptions that turn out to be less true in the real world than they seemed on the drafting table.

See that picture of the moon rover up there, for instance? That vehicle was one of the most obsessively engineered machines ever created by man. But when it actually got to the moon, the fenders over the tires broke twice — once during the Apollo 16 mission, and again during Apollo 17 — resulting in the rover kicking up big “rooster tail” plumes of moon dust that got all over the astronauts and their gear. When it happened on Apollo 17, astronaut Eugene Cernan jury-rigged a new fender — with (you guessed it) duct tape.

In other words, geeks expect things to break because we see them break all the time — even things that are supposed to be unbreakable, or that have been engineered by geniuses with unlimited resources.

This is where most sales pitches to programmers go wrong: they try to convince us that the thing they’re selling has no flaws. That’s just sales talk, of course, and to normal people, this is probably reassuring; but to geeks, it sounds more like a confession. We covered up the flaws in this thing so well that nobody can see them! Ha ha!

Talk like that sets off an alarm in our heads. We know what you’re selling has problems, because everything has problems; the only question is why the salesperson is trying to hide them from us. Which makes us suspicious that the reason is because the problems are so bad that we’d run away screaming if we knew about them. Which turns us off.

The solution — the way to sell to nerds — is to embrace your product’s flaws, rather than hiding them. Talk about pros and cons; about how the product “isn’t for everybody.” Talk about tradeoffs and compromises, rather than home runs and “win-wins.” That puts your product into a context that we’re comfortable with, that we understand — we expect using your product to involve tradeoffs, because in our world everything involves tradeoffs. Being up front about them just tells us that you’re more likely than your competitors to be someone who will be helpful when we have to figure out what those tradeoffs are and how we can best work with them.

(If you’re a Salesperson from the Dark Side, of course, you will have realized in reading the above paragraph that saying your product “isn’t for everybody” doesn’t preclude you from telling each prospect individually that it’s right for them. And you’d be correct! You can almost always frame a product’s pros and cons in such a way that your potential customer thinks the pros speak to them and the cons speak to someone else, no matter who that customer is. You may have to torture the facts about your product somewhat to make this strategy work, of course, but if you’re a Darth Vader/Dick Cheney-esque personality type, maybe you’re OK with a little blood on your hands.)

So there’s your sales tip: if you want to sell something to a nerd like me, don’t try to convince me that it’s perfect. Try to convince me that it’s imperfect, just in ways that I can live with.