Distribution World – Banking on FAEs

Distribution World – Banking on FAEsField applications engineers are in demand like never before, and they are the ones that the distributor and his customers rely on to get it right. It’s a case of your product being in their hands….Mick Elliott
The dynamics of the distribution industry are endlessly changing. The established ideas of the past are supplanted by new trends and strategies.
Distribution has taken more of the strain as customers seek to outsource non-core activities or at least seek more help and support from distributors than simply sourcing components.
Product design is no exception and the swelling ranks of the sector’s field applications engineers is testimony to the customer’s clamour for help and the distributor’s desire to supply it.
Demand creation is the order of the day from suppliers and the field applications engineers (FAEs) are at the cutting edge of this strategy.
Alan Shearer remarked recently that there has never been a better time to be a professional footballer.
FAEs can’t expect those sort of riches but the good ones are in demand like never before.
More than one distributor admits a bright spark is regularly picked from his FAE ranks by one of the suppliers. “In-depth knowledge is the key customer requirement,” remarks Gerard Braybrook, managing director of Thame Components.
Clearly an engineering background is essential. Surprisingly, many distributors differ on the amount of experience they require from prospective candidates. Future Electronics has one of the most rigorous selection processes. “We are looking at people with an engineering degree and not less than five years experience in electronics design,” comments Fred Knowles, technical director at Colnbrook-based Future.
“We must have experienced engineers. Rookies just do not have the credibility,” he remarks.
“Field applications engineers can find themselves working with a company’s technical director on an important project,” continues Knowles.
“We look for at least three years of design experience in industry,” comments Hans Meinersen, technical director at EVBElektronik. “We also expect open mindedness and a special, extrovert mentality which turns knowledge into relationships and trust.”
Tesfay Embaye, v-p for Avnet Design Services in Europe concurs. “Three years minimum is our start point for hiring field applications engineers, plus a degree.”
Abacus Polar’s marketing director Graham McBeth is looking to bring FAEs through from the ranks. “We hire graduates for our internal technical support desk. We see them as our FAEs of the future.”
They pick up experience of dealing with customer problems and ingest the company culture. “Three of our teams of 17 FAEs started on the technical support desk,” says McBeth, ” and they are among some of the better people we have out on the road.”
Specialist distributor Sunrise Electronics does not use the generic FAE term to describe its engineers.
“Our sales team are all engineers,” comments managing director Roy Kirsopp. “They are as qualified as most FAEs and are comfortable helping customers with design solutions.”
Kirsopp says the team will handle all aspects of the account. “The customer will not be interfacing with different people at different stages of the project,” he adds.
David Spragg, general manager in Arrow Design Services does look for pure FAEs, “with an engineering or technical degree equivalent, plus some hard design experience.”
“We like people, to have a minimum of one years experience, though in some more complex technology areas like RF, power and communications, we like it to be longer,” says Spragg.
Software experience is just as important. Spragg rightly points out that these days there are not that many pure hardware designers around. “Certainly if we have customer using high end microcontrollers we like our FAE to be able to demonstrate the development system, install it and offer first line maintenance support if necessary,” he adds.
Specialisations vary within the sector. Thame Components Gerard Braybrook prefers the product specialist approach. “Take Altera a key supplier for us. I want the FAE to be immersed in that company’s products and technologies and be the best Altera FAE in the market.”
Braybrook does encourage his FAEs to communicate. “I like them to get together either at segment or customer level. You get a cross pollination of ideas, and a facility to spot opportunities and solutions.”
McBeth of Abacus Polar indicates sometimes the specialisation can be very focused. “On the Hitachi line there is a requirement for high level language and programming in C skills,” says McBeth. “Following their training McBeth reckons they a are also as knowledgeable as the suppliers.
Avnet’s Embaye likes candidates to have some specific market segment expertise. “It could be motion control for industrial users or say wireless or ISDN for telecoms customers,” he points out.
“Regional FAEs who report into local sales offices are the first technical interface to our customers,” explains EBV’s Meinersen.
“They own product responsibiility, take care of day to day problems, allocate resources, provide advice, tools samples etc.”
“At any time they can call in a specialist,” Meinersen explains.
One example to which that two-later concept can be applied is for example private mobile radio. Our regional guy has the general systems knowledge, knows about microcontroller, power management or mixed signal functions, but if it comes to low noise front end he will bring in the RF design specialist.” The technical skills however are only half the story. Presentable, articulate, sensible, self-motivating are just some of the personal qualities distributors seek.
“Fast learners too,” adds Arrow’s David Spragg. “The products and end markets can change fast, and the engineers have to keep pace to obtain a fundamental understanding of new technologies and their appli cations.”
“And very important,” Spragg stresses, “is the ability to juggle a number of projects at the same time and, from the customer’s perspective, engage as a problem solver.”
Like most distributors Arrow is an enthusiastic trainer of its employees. Each employee gets a personal development plan. Most suppliers now ask potential field applications engineers to gain accreditation through a series of courses and examinations. “We endorse that policy,” says Spragg.
More specific courses include account management, and the Arrow Marketing Academy.
At SEI Macro an inter-departmental seminar is staged once a month. “We need to ensure that even specialist product engineers get a good grounding across all the technology fields,” comments Miriam Murphy, demand creation manager at SEI Macro.
She acknowledges the importance of supplier training as does Future’s Fred Knowles. He identifies two levels of supplier training. “There is the market updates and new product introductions. At Future we like to get our FAEs onto the supplier’s own internal courses.”
Knowles describes FAEs as the “backbone of the company’s strategy in technical distribution.” And he notes an interesting change in the engagement policy at customers.
“Yes, we have to spot the opportunities for our products,” Spragg agrees. “But now we have technically adept people who sit down with our customer’s marketing director. They know where the customer’s products are going in the long-term future and if we are going to design in our suppliers products we need a view of that too.”
Grafting commercial skills onto the engineering know-how is one of distributions biggest issues. It’s every distributors nightmare to put time and effort into a design and then have a competitor snaffle the deal.
“Essential,” says Avnet’s Tesfay Embay. “At the end of the day we are here to sell components.”
At Sunrise, Kirsopp offers internal training and back-up. Abacus Polar circumvents the problem at the recruitment stage. “Our systems engineering guys are chosen on the basis that if they were not technical they would be in sales anyway,” says Graham McBeth.
So let’s assume you have made it as an FAE. Does this doom you to a lifetime of motorways and design-in.
Not according to the distributors. Career opportunities abound. “Our Altera product manager and Altera applications manager are both former FAEs,” says Braybrook at Thame.
“There are opportunities within teams to progress to a regional manager or technical marketing,” adds Arrow’s Spragg.
He also picks out opportunities in the specific franchise/product modules, recently established during Arrow UK’s reorganisation. And for those with designs on the upper echelons of management Graham McBeth points out: “Every distributor now has a technical director.”
The next challenge facing distributors is the effect of the Internet according to McBeth. “The fact is that companies can now gather a variety of information from Web sites. They do not necessarily need the basic distribution support. As distributors we have to demonstrate we add value.”
McBeth is confident Abacus Polar can. “It is quite likely we engage customers with a blank sheet of paper and become an extension of their design arm,” McBeth continues.
“What we have to do is to answer the questions the customer does not know to ask,”he adds. “For example did they know these three functions can be found on one chip?”
At Avnet Tesfay Embaye agrees. He is keen however to see his customers using the Avnet web site to source information and get them to return for field applications support.
“We are in the throes of developing an Avnet Design Services web site within the Avnet EMG site,” he says.
It will include a comprehensive database of products which can be searched using a detailed parametric search.
“The web sites can get customers to the first level of information,” comments Gerard Braybrook at Thame Components. “That’s good because when our expensive FAE arrives, it is to take the project on further.”
EBV’s Meinersen is clear on his objectives.
“Credibility with both customers and suppliers demands more investment in FAEs. for each region, segment and product area. This is not for window dressing. This is for future business.” What happens next?
At some stage in their mid-thirties, most FAEs start hanging up their data sheets and sample boxes and quietly disappear into management and marketing roles. Many seek out what they believe to be greener pastures working for semiconductor manufacturers. But others are discovering that distribution today can offer as rewarding and varied a career as anywhere else.
So why has Mark Zirngast, the Linear Technology franchise manager at SEI Macro, chosen to keep working at the sharp end, that is in the customer’s premises. “With customers turning to distributors for help with designing in from the ground up, the role of the FAE has never been so important,” says Zirngast.
His background is fairly typical for an FAE; an honours degree in physics followed by a design role at GEC Marconi and Sortex and applications work for Burr-Brown and Harris Semiconductor.
Zirngast admits that some FAEs like to swap lines from time to time, with some wanting to move up to more glamourous fields such as DSP and multimedia. But he still gets a buzz out of getting involved in a product’s earliest design stages and following it, albeit at a distance, through to production and marketing.
“It does happen that the design engineers phone to tell you how well their product is doing,”says Zirngast.
Something else he particularly enjoys is investing in smaller customers, the little guys and watching them grow.
“Those FAEs that do enjoy the commercial side,”maintains Zirngast, “are the ones who are best cut out to deliver what Ilike to call techno-commercial solutions and are more likely to stay in distribution.”

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