Back in 2006 I was a new manager at Cisco Systems and I had the opportunity to attend an Emerging Leadership Program training class in the UK. One of the first questions they asked the class was, “How many of you are able to take 60 minutes a week and jot down your thoughts and reflections?”. Only a few of the 30 hands went up. The class was incredulous at the question – “With all of the stuff we have to do we don’t even have time to spend with our families let alone write down thoughts!”. Working hard was and is a badge of courage.
A few years later during the kickoff for my MBA at Babson College Professor Bill Stitt asked a similar question – and then required that each of us write a reflection paper once a week.
Fast Forward to today. I recently resigned as VP of Sales Engineering and Enablement at GoodData and will be changing industries for a fourth time, this time to cyber security. I will start my new role leading the Americas SE organization at ZScaler April 11. This has given me a few weeks to slow down and reflect. I am now 37 years old (yikes!) and no longer the ‘young buck’ at work. When I look back I am proud of what our teams have done, the people I have met, and the experiences I have had. However, I can’t help but recognize that I learned and grew the most when I paused, wrote, and reflected on what I had experienced.
With age comes knowledge (and less hair). To that end I am kicking off an effort to jot down and share the lessons learned and ideas I have had over the years. Specifically, I will focus on leading technical customer facing teams, with an emphasis on Sales Engineering. There are a slew of excellent books and training courses on how to lead high performing sales teams – yet try finding collateral on being a great SE Leader or SE. It is few and far between.
This gap is driven home every quarter when the Bay Area Pre Sales Leadership group gathers. This is a collection of SE leaders from top tech companies such as Box, Citrix, FireEye, ZenDesk, Salesforce, Twillio, GitHub, Enernoc, Okta, and more. Every time we meet it is obvious the challenges we are facing are very similar and encompass coverage mapping, training and enablement, hiring, measuring, hiring business case, handling our sales peers, balancing proof of concepts, etc. Through this blog I will endeavor to share my point of view on these. Perhaps some day people may find the musings valuable and I could package them together like Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things (you have read this book right? If not go get it!)
Who am I and what gives me the right to stand on a soap box and pontificate? Nothing really. Although I have had the opportunity to observe and learn from a number of great SE Leaders like Jedd Williams, Doug Good, John Graham, Jill Van Rooy, Karen Manning, Bob Fisher, John Columbus, Randy Wood, Chris Moss, Ron Minto, and others at Cisco. While at Cisco I led a team of about 50 SEs and had matrix leadership for 22 architects. I had the opportunity to lead my own global SE team and Sales Enablement GoodData. My background covers equipment sales (Phones, Video), on premise enterprise software (Contact Center, Call Manager), cloud software (Webex, GoodData, ZScaler), and various industries (Defense, Communications, Networking, Big Data, Analytics, Auto Body Repair, and now Security).
I have learned that despite all of the differences above, SE Leadership is like the game of football, there are just different terminologies and playbooks.
I hope you find it useful and interesting. If so please click subscribe on the right to be notified of new posts. You can also comment in the box below or by clicking the comment link at the top of the post. I am looking forward to interacting with you virtually!
My next post will be on the topic of Proof of Concepts. I have also reposted some other articles I had previously authored.
- Proof Of Concepts: when executed well Proof of Concepts can secure the technical win and clinch a deal. When executed poorly due to timing, mis set expectations, or poor positioning a POC can absorb your entire SE team worth of resources and still lose you the deal.
- Measuring the SE Team: what is the concrete value of the SE team? How do you know they are spending their time in the right manner?
- Sales Enablement Approach: whether you are enabling your own SE team or the entire sales force there are some basic principles of what you do (content, process/tools, accountability) and how you operationalize it (automation, workflow, brute force). I will explain the model I created to help think through this.
- What does an SE do? Believe it or not many people do not know – even in high tech. I recently had to present to a packed room of Services and Development engineers to explain the role. Many functions see only a portion of the role and assume that is everything.
- What does an SE Leader do? The SE Manager/Leader role can be the best or worst position in a company. Every leader has the opportunity to define the role and demonstrate its value to the organization to make it happen. I will cover my personal viewpoint and strategies I have taken to implement it.
- Architects & Sales Engineers: almost all tech companies reach a point where they say ‘We need to hire Architects!’ Well, what is an Architect? ‘You know, a technical customer facing person who can explain the big picture, how it impacts the business, and can speak to CXO’s with confidence’. If that is an architect than what does an SE do? ‘Well, someone has to do the demo’. Lessons learned on the value each role can bring and why organizational design and structure is so important to its success.
- Performance Evaluation & Conversation: your goal as a leader is to have the best SE team out there. However, come review time you can’t have everyone ranked in the Top 10% (can you?). How do you handle these conversations, how do you keep the SE motivated and appreciated.
- Career Pathing, Titles: SE’s don’t often get pulled up on stage and given credit and the giant check for closing the big deal. So why do they do it? Street Cred and reputation are very important. So how do you balance this without becoming a title centric ‘big company’.
- So You Want to be a Manager? At some point in time your best SE’s will often express that they want to move into management. Do they really? What are the factors that drive this need and how can you help them answer this question for themselves. On the flip side how can you identify people who make excellent SE Leaders but don’t raise their hand?
- SE to Sales Alignment and Org Structure: there are lots of coverage models and ratios for creating an SE organization. Do you make the SEs pooled, direct alignment, or field/inside? Do you organize by geography, customer segment, size, skill?
- Making the Business Case for More SE’s: SE’s are always overloaded but are often viewed as a cost center. How do you make a business case to increase staffing. When should you?
- Interviewing and Talent Acquisition: the best SE’s are typically well treated by their current company, a lot of the value they offer are tied to their company’s product line, and they tend to be more risk averse (otherwise they would be a sales rep). So how do you find the great ones (or the ones with the potential to be great), how do you validate their abilities, and how do you make them feel comfortable making the jump?
4 thoughts on “Welcome to SE Thoughts”
I’m newbie in the Sales Engineer role seeking new opportunities. I do come across tough-spots while explaining my role to others and how the dynamic cross-functional nature of this role interests me. This blog is definitely helpful in better understanding the current and future possibilities that can be achieved.
Bill, what a terrific idea and congrats on the new gig and the willingness to share your thoughts on this subject. SE success is so critical to the sales campaign! Best to you!
Thanks for the read and much appreciated Brian! I hope we can bring you in to our my company too!