SE Leaders – We Are Falling Behind

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A major part of growing a business is finding the right people and talent to continue to grow it with you.  I am in the fortunate position to be a part of a fast growing silicon valley technology company and have spent the last 7 months with hiring as my #1 priority.  Hiring for Sales Engineers and Architects has been a fairly straightforward task.  However, hiring for World Class Sales Engineering Leaders has been challenging and sometimes frustrating (but extremely rewarding when you find the right people).  I apologize ahead of time if this post’s contents come across as negative.  My intent is only to share the real world observations from my last two companies.
The Sales Engineering Leader (SEL) positions can be challenging to fill for two reasons:
  1. SE Leader skill sets do not translate to new companies
  2. SE Leaders are extremely cross functional and each org expects something different

Skills Do Not Translate

The most disappointing thing I have observed lately is when a top notch SE Leader (SEL) is looking to move to a new company and but their current skill set is focused on how to navigate their current company vs. transferrable customer value skills.  This tends to be a symptom of large companies SEL’s.

In a large technology company the majority of an SEL’s time can be consumed with the demands of reporting from corporate, doing their sales leader’s forecast spreadsheets, knowing how to escalate support tickets, knowing who in the engineering or product management teams to contact, etc.  As the demand to do these activities has increased the SEL has decreased their Technical Skill Set.  When they are removed from their current company 80% of their value add is removed.

Technical Skills

I am an SE Leader not a Player/Coach or Super SE!  
How could I possibly learn all of the technologies that my company sells – there are too many!

Yes…  I hear you, I do.  But… remember the middle name in your title?  Sales ENGINEERING Leader.  Remember the key traits of top notch SE?  CURIOSITY, Drive, Ethics.  Aren’t you curious about what you sell?  If you don’t understand what it does or how it works then how can you zealously and honestly convince the customer to try your new and innovative approach?
For example, when I was at Cisco did I try to learn Call Manager and set it up in my home lab?  Nope.  I didn’t really have a need to.  However, I am a big fan of home automation. When I learned that the Tandberg/Cisco Telepresence endpoints had open REST API’s for control you better believe I tinkered on the weekends so that when I was stuck at work (geo fence) past 5pm on a work day and I was still on a video call my home automation system would detect it and text my wife that I would be home late.
I am the first to admit that I am not the most technical person out there.  I don’t have my CCIE, my snowflake data modeling skills are atrocious, and I still can’t figure out how to make PPT do what I want.  Yet while screening SEL candidates (many of which have advanced networking certs) 60% cannot explain what happens behind the scenes in a browser window and press Enter.  80% cannot explain what a true multi tenant cloud is.  85% cannot explain what a 3 way TCP handshake is.
Didn’t we study these topics in our Computer Science classes?!  I decided to do a bit of research on what degrees SEL’s have.  I reviewed 150 SE Leader LinkedIn connections and resumes submitted to our SEL openings.  Below was the breakdown.
What stood out to me the most was:
  • Only 1 in 8 had a computer science degree
  • Only 3 in 8 had an some form of formal software education (assuming  EE people had to take more than 2 computer science classes)
  • There were 2x as many liberal arts degree holders vs. computer science

Thus my two pleas:

Please encourage and support both enrollment in computer science and encourage graduates of computer science to explore non programming careers.  To this day I remember and leverage everything I learned in my CS degree – even Prolog and Scheme concepts.
Second, fellow SE Leaders please, please, please, stay curious and technical.  You don’t need to be coding configs but you should endeavor to be the equivalent of your customer’s CIO/CTO/CISO.  It is trendy for SEL’s to call themselves their area’s CTO, but it is a rarity for me to find the technical chops to match.

SE Leaders are Extremely Cross Functional and Each Org Expects Something Different

Ideally you are in a company that places a high value on the SE Leader role.  When the company does value the SEL it also means that each organization has a strong opinion on what they should be able to do.  It is not uncommon for:
  • Sales Leader: They need to be strong in business and direct customer contact/selling.  They MUST have worked at XYZ or ABC competitor.  They have to be high energy and own the room!  We don’t want people from big companies – they don’t know how to run fast.
  • People Ops: even though this role has 8 direct reports they must have managed teams of 50+ before because they will need to grow into that role.  I am sure they don’t mind taking a step back in scope/title.
  • Product Management:they should have 30 years experience in our industry but be up to date on all the modern stuff.  They need to be an architect and product expert.
  • Development: they need to be able to write code in order to customize our great platform.
  • Support: they need to be an expert on reading logs and handling customer escalations.  The SE team owns troubleshooting first.
If you were to interview your cross functional stake holders you may feel it is impossible to give them all what they want:
With that in mind I am sharing a recent definition that was created as a result of lessons learned from my last few places of employment.  It may not fit your specific needs but ideally it gives you a starting point and something to reuse.

SE Leader Job Description

  • Voice of the Customer → Urgency, context, futures
  • Advisor to the Customer → Expectations, architecture, insight to peer companies, be a ‘challenger’, be ‘on stage’
  • Capability Building  → invest 10% of your resources to fixing and improving
    Is the Problem or Opportunity a Root Cause of a Symptom?

    • If something is broken in your area → I will consult/coach but you own it
    • If something is broken in 2+ areas → It is systemic and I will own fixing it
    • If something is working in 1 area → It is a best practice and I will own scale it 
  • People → Hiring, Enabling, Empowering, Engaging, Accountability

SE Leader Capabilities Weighting

  • 25% Leadership and Capability Building (Team, X-Func)
  • 20% Technology & Architecture Fundamentals
  • 20% Company Culture Fit  + SE Fit (Curiosity, Drive, Ethics)
  • 15% Communication & Presentation (Own the Room)
  • 10% Organized & Disciplined
  • 10% Business Acumen

Leadership & Capability Building

The #1 responsibility of an SE Leader is hiring, building, and retaining a world class team and a system to sustain it.

  • Ability to hire exceptional talent
  • Ability to lead and develop talent to meet business plan
  • Demonstrated ability to scale an organization
  • Ability to demonstrate a “people play book” or a framework of how to get the best out of people
  • Required Control Book/Playbook for structure
  • Can name three strong hires that will follow him/her to this company
  • Can lead cross functionally through influence not authority to improve processes, product, and other areas of need
  • Can hire and lead a diverse team (background, experience levels, personalities)

Technology & Architecture Fundamentals

The SE Leader cannot just be a spreadsheet manager building and operating the team.  They must lead from the front.  Note that this does not mean they should be a Super SE or Player Coach but rather that they fulfill the role of a technology executive/architect, i.e. has the technical depth to be relevant to a customer CIO/CTO/CISO.  They do not need to be a XYZ Tech expert but must have a strong foundation in one or more of the areas of networking, SaaS, web services software, or computer science.  The SE Leader is an Architect who can draw on their varied technical background to teach how all of the technologies in an Enterprise are connected and can be utilized to add value/transform business.

  • Understands current XYZ landscape and areas of XYZ technologies (Did they do their homework?)
  • Broad understanding of XYZ reference architectures and operation
  • Familiar with XYZ technologies
  • They win not by understanding their customers’ world as well as the customers know it themselves, but by actually knowing their customers’ world better than their customers know it themselves, teaching them what they don’t know but should.  Can they teach the interview panel something new?
  • Demonstrates the ability to explain and articulate complex architecture/technology in simple terms.

Company Culture Fit + SE Fit (Curiosity, Drive, Ethics)

The primary predictor of success for both an SE and an SE Leader is Curiosity, Drive, Ethics.
  • <Your Company Culture Fit Criteria>
  • Are they CURIOUS about how things and people work? (Lots of hobbies/interests, tech, always asking questions)
  • Do they then have the DRIVE to get off the couch and discover the “why” and put it to use?
  • Do they have the ETHICS to always do the right thing and collaborate well with others?

Communication & Presentation (Own the Room)

The SE Leader must have a ‘Challenger Sale’ approach.  They must demonstrate confidence, passion and energy. Note that this does not mean extroversion – many of the best SE Leaders are introverts.
  • The ability to do three things: teach, tailor, and take control
  • Can push the customer out of their comfort zone
  • Can focus and teach the customer value (rather than customer convenience)
  • Persuasive consultative communication style
  • Strong written skills (evidence; bring a proposal, C level correspondence, internal email)
  • Creativity – did they customize the hiring presentation to convey new information in a compelling and cohesive manner
  • Has used their network of advocacy along the way to build support within <hiring company> for their hire
  • Has the confidence and ability to tell a CxO they are wrong, explain why, and still maintain or improve their relationship
  • Strong customer facing skills
  • Strong presence & credibility

Organized & Disciplined

In order to fulfill all of the operational tasks required of them but still have time to be customer facing an SE leader must have a very efficient approach to operations.

  • Disciplined planning (evidence; has a weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly plan (beyond quota)
  • Leverages SFDC or other systems (Planning, track previous involvement, budget, users, etc.)
  • Ability to work as an overlay resource, qualify opportunities, prioritize, handle prioritization conflicts

Business Acumen

The SE Leader must be a business partner with their aligned Sales Leader.  The two must be able to divide and conquer on both customer and internal business activities.  While they do not have to have worked in the SaaS industry before they should demonstrate evidence that they have studied it (curiosity/drive).
  • Strategic thinker; demonstrated success in developing strategies
  • Understands the levers in building a start up business (that doesn’t already have momentum or a strong market presence)
  • Smartly leverages the channel and other partners
  • Understanding of SaaS Based Revenue Models
  • New ACV and New TCV, Run Rate/Renewal Revenue


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