The Role Of Vendors

One aspect of design work I didn’t learn about in school was the interaction with vendors. No one ever told me I’d have to interact with real people (*gasp*) on a regular basis in order to find out about new parts. I mean, when it comes to new parts I’m assuming that right at this moment there are students at my alma mater still using the same LM741 I used. No, not the same type or the same pin layout. I mean the exact same 741. That’s how I feel about most college kids finding out about new technology. It’s just not in the cards for most college students to be up to date on components, nor does it really need to be (fundamentals first!).

So when I began work and started interacting with vendors on a regular basis, I found out how useful they are. They tell me about new parts, they give seminars on new technology and they even feed me sometimes during seminars (often cited as the most important role of a vendor). And because of the number of parts we purchase at my company is high enough, we get good response and service (not all are so lucky).

But what is really happening during an interaction between myself and a vendor when we talk about a new part? In plainest terms, I’m being sold something. There is an attempt by one of the aforementioned parties to convince me to buy a tiny piece of silicon (just a few at first) so that it will become an integral piece of whatever final design I’m working on (and what they’re really hoping is that it’ll get into every product after that!).

First, let’s define some terms for our student readers, who have not yet been introduced to the world of being sold components. Throughout the examples, I’ll pretend we’re talking about designing in an op-amp for a new product:

  • Company Types
    • Manufacturer — These are the people who actually design and (usually) manufacture the device you’re looking at and trying to buy. Examples are companies like: TILinear TechAnalog DevicesMaxim and more.
    • Distributor — These are companies that buy large quantities of components and then sell smaller quantities at a small premium to the end user. Their business is based upon turning inventory quickly to make sure they are not holding onto parts for too long. Examples of these companies are NewarkArrowAvnetFuture and many more.
  • Employee Types
    • AE — Application Engineer — They often work at the manufacturer headquarters, evaluating and documenting the uses of the newest products. They help develop some of the reference circuits and app notes that end users often use to quickly implement a function. Famous examples in the chip world are Jim Williams of Linear Technology and Bob Pease, formerly of National Semiconductor.
    • FAE — Field Application Engineer — Depending on how much business and whom you buy your chips from, you might encounter different types of FAEs.
      • If they work for the manufacturer — They are in direct contact with the designers of the product and will have the most in depth knowledge of specific functions of the chip you’re buying. If you’re really mad about a feature (or lack thereof) from a design, they might be able to give feedback to the design team.  They will help with your design, but often want to ensure that you are a high volume user of the end product.
      • If they work for the distributor — Often they will help you design entire portions of your product, if you let them. They’d love the opportunity to help you out (because you’ll probably come back the next time you need help or need to buy something) and the opportunity to design in multiple parts they sell.
    • FSE — Field Sales Engineer — FSEs also can work for either the distributor or the manufacturer (though when it’s for the mfg, sometimes they’re called “direct sales”). They will often stop in to see if you need samples or want to see the new products that have recently been released. While the FSE’s I’ve met have been knowledgeable about the products they’re selling, it’s much more rare to find one offering full-on design advice for your next project.
    • Sales Representative — A sales rep is an outside company that is contracted to sell a certain product. These people are usually a similar capacity to an FSE, though they don’t have as much intimate details about new products, nor do they have the access that (manufacturing) FSEs have to someone that can directly help with your design.
    • Marketing Representative — Again, a contracted outside company. They often will “represent” many many different companies and product lines. They will come and tell the news of the newest products and sometimes collect feedback. Probably the most disconnected from the design process.

Wow, that’s a lot of people trying to sell stuff!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met people in each of these positions who have been very helpful. They want to help. It’s good for business. But understanding the roles will often help you determine who to give time to and who to possibly ignore. In a world of ever-shrinking payrolls, time to market and design budgets, design decisions often are given to higher level integrators. Perhaps at one time you went off and designed a power supply for your embedded product? Now you talk to a manufacturer of power supply modules (and their FAEs to determine which would be the best for your application) and simply integrate it into your overall design. Yes, it’s a higher cost, but that is money you’re saving on the development and sustaining of your product.

I feel applications engineers (for silicon chip manufacturers) are the future of design. The higher level integration of functions insides of silicon chips I mention before almost necessitate that the chip manufacturers provide much of the design work. If the entire front end of an amplifier is now contained upon a single bit of silicon, there are only two fun places to do design work: Directly on the silicon, like our friend Fluxor does (and I don’t know how to do) or working as an application engineer; the latter would be creating reference designs for others to quickly replicate and integrate into their products.

Aside from being an application engineer, toeing the line of being in the sales chain is a dangerous business for an engineer. Even as an FAE, the focus is less on design and much more on selling. In fact, in talking to a friend who recently interviewed with a large component manufacturer, this was the sole goal. He was told that FAEs have the expectation of everyone in a sales organization: getting customers to buy their product. I can’t really blame the companies, it’s a business and they’re there to make money and prosper. However, if considering an FAE type position, engineers should remember that even though “sales” isn’t in their title, pushing products will be expected.

So what about you? What kinds of interactions have you had with vendors, of all types? I speak mainly of chip manufacturers because they’re the biggest players in the market I work in (and the ones who most often buy me lunch). Have you had good or bad experiences? Let us know in the comments!

7 responses to “The Role Of Vendors”

  1. Bill

    My experience with vendors is usually good until I mention our estimated annual usage, at which point they run for the door (due to the low quantities we manufacture and sell). My only hope is they’ve already given me the donuts (or any other goodies) by this point.

    But seriously, has any engineer used a component in a design because the vendor’s rep gave them donuts? Sometimes they can be a distraction, but I agree that they are a great source for information about new components and are usually worth the time to meet with.

  2. Stanley Ma

    Designing in silicon as Fluxor does, I’ve had contact with a large variety of software vendors trying to push various design tools on me. Cadence, Synopsys, Mentor Graphics, Mathworks, Agilent, Ansoft — just some of the bigger ones. Then there are start-ups that desperately hope that someone, anyone, would give their product a try. In evaluating these tools, I’ve met the gamut of the sales team from the marketing guy all the way down to the software developers.

    On the flip side, I have occasionally been called upon to talk to the customers’ engineers when our products annoy them.

  3. Stephen

    It’s funny how the sales experience varies with one’s line of work. I design electronics for implanted medical devices. I don’t talk to distributors’ sales forces often, because distributors can’t provide the traceability we need. Their sales guys lose interest fast when they find out they won’t get the production orders.

    Far more important than donuts is a rep/FAE/FSE’s attitude. Some are personable and go the extra mile to help communicate with the manufacturer. The folks that do that get more parts in our designs.

    The other odd thing about this business is having to ask whether a manufacturer will sell to us at all. Right after introductions, I explain what we do and ask, “Is your company willing to sell parts for this use?” That often ends the conversation for a day or two while the sales people ask the main office. Then they come back with a yes or no. Strangely, I have several times gotten the answer, “You can use our parts in implants as long as they don’t go inside the body.” I still haven’t figured out how that would work! Once in a while, though, the sales person responds immediately with, “Yes, we have medically-qualified parts.” Then I know the going will be easy.

  4. FrauTech

    Well my university tried to teach this and I just don’t know if it’s something you can really teach. They directed us to call manufacturers and ask to speak to the engineer or the technical representative rather than the sales person. But we were generally purchasing cots parts and just trying to get data sheets for a single use purchase. Seemed a waste of the manufacturer’s time to ask them for this information when most of it was available online not to mention we were paying incredibly low university project prices.

    Now I deal with this all the time but on the level of custom parts and huge contracts. Definitely telling how willing to work with you someone is. We’ve purchased a more expensive bid just because the reps were easier to work with, gave us information promptly, were willing to come out and help us test their product for future design improvements, and were willing to make modifications as necessary. I’ve also seen that magical responsiveness drop a couple notches when the purchase actually went through.

  5. Weekend Journal: Know Your Nerd Audience | Engineer Blogs

    […] little bit. Sometimes you get to talk. And sometimes you only get to listen. My issue comes up when vendors come in and say they want to talk. That they want to have a ‘conversation with their valued customer’…and then […]

  6. Weekend Journal — CSI: Component Stupidity Investigator | Engineer Blogs

    […] to look at a problematic part of a circuit and immediately declare, “These parts are no good. Get me the vendor on the phone so I can yell at them!“. However, that would have you chasing ghost problems and wouldn’t make you any friends […]

  7. Weekend Journal — Vendor Relationships | Engineer Blogs

    […] written before on EB about the role of vendors. Though there is a lot more I’ll expand on about that later, the idea in that previous […]