Welcome to SE Thoughts

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.

images-2This 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.

Future Topics

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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’.
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. 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?

Leadership Lessons Learned – Cisco Goodbye Email

Originally posted to linkedin at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leadership-lessons-learned-goodbye-email-bill-lapp

About a week before I left Cisco I was on a 3 hour plane flight without WiFi.  To keep busy I decided to write down all of the lessons learned I had from my time there.  People have recently asked for a copy of the list so I am sharing here.

The good bye lessons learned email:

I have always challenged our team to “think differently” and “do something different”.  As such this will not be a goodbye but instead I will share a list of lessons that I have learned from each of you.  I have learned an immense amount during my time here and as such it is a long list.  I cannot claim to have been successful in applying all of these lessons but hopefully you find some below that are attributable to you. 

I have tried to make this list mimic my approach at Cisco.  Be open, transparent, rough at times, humorous at times, and way too long.  If I missed something that you may have taught me, or something I taught you, I would appreciate hearing from you unicast and I will add it to this list.

  • Never stop learning.  Never stop teaching.  Make a lot of mistakes – do your best to learn from them, do your best to teach from them. 
  • Never get on a bus with 30 SEs, beer, and a possibility you will get stuck in Chicago rush hour traffic.  Especially if they are ticked off about Microsoft and product gaps in Jabber. It will be a long drive and you have no where to run. – Central Team
  • You know you are doing a bad job if your team stops inviting you on that bus.  They have lost confidence that you can help them 
  • If it is 1am and you have been out late with the team be wary of hotel lobby discussions.  You are likely to get into a heated debate for hours on some esoteric technical topic. -Jesse
  • “Love your work” – East Team, Wenning, Cliffy
  • Be transparent and genuine – Jedd, Doug Good, John Graham, Chuck Robbins and others 
  • If engineering is delivering  new products or features to sell then you have two options.  Sell old stuff to new people or package old stuff in new ways. -Matt
  • Don’t focus on what you can’t control. Take ownership and action on what you can – Shark Tank – Dennis 
  • Never ask what is the difference between a CSE and a TSA…  everyone
  • Never muse about wanting to open up the fence in your backyard to put a door in it.  At least not where a certain TSA is in listening range and a crowbar is available.  – Central Team, Ian, Andy
  • Always separate emotion from evaluation.  It is never personal.  Giving feedback is not an assessment on the individual as a person.  It is just an assessment of the actions they did. – CMS 101 class
  • “Aligning” is a bad way to work.  Instead of scheduling meetings to stay in sync, change your actual workflow so that it coincides with each other. That way you don’t need to align because you are already working together. – CCBU, Jefts, Needelman, Arvenkat
  • If you ask the team to track something, but it isn’t a part of their day to day workflow or they don’t see value in it then you are screwed.  You will never have accurate tracking and they will resent it.  It is better to figure out how your teams work and figure out how to tap into that workflow to get your data. – SFDC, GAMES, UCPROFIL
  • Give a lot of CAP awards.  Overspend your budget.  Chances are someone else didn’t spend all of theirs and you will equal out – Jedd
  • Don’t talk too much in big meetings 🙂 – anyone who was ever in a meeting with me
  • If you are not talking out loud in big meetings, don’t keep whispering to your neighbor – Karen 
  • If you are first out of the gate for a 200 mile jogging relay race.  Be sure to check your pockets and make sure you don’t have the keys to the only van.  When your team calls to tell you to come back don’t keep sending them to voicemail.  You will only have further to run when you have to turn around and return the keys.  – Doug and Cindy
  • When delivering an SE bootcamp you should not use cheap wooden boxes with sharp metal edges, some elevators are bigger than others, always have a hand truck handy, be prepared for a semi truck to show up, know where your closest Frys is, learn how to crimp rj45 cable, and be ready to spend a lot on your Amex.  – Gene, Monica, Leo, Kevin, and 1300 other people
  • When merging two companies where there may be a culture clash the best way to overcome it is to throw them all in a room and have them work on a really hard problem under duress.  They will quickly realize that they need each other to pull it off and will love learning new things.  Pizza and beer helps too.  – Durick and Bob
  • When trying to run a program at scale don’t manage the tasks centrally.  Define the outcome, identify the local owners, hold them accountable for the outcome, and let them be entrepreneurial with the details.  The only thing to manage centrally is the progress against outcomes.  –Bootcamps, City Hubs, ACE trainings
  • A buttset is a big red phone with wires that you used to have to connect to test if an analog phone works.  -Patrick and Joe
  • When you ask a committee for their opinion people don’t feel they are adding value unless they ponder risks and say ‘no’, otherwise if it was so obviously the right thing to do why would you be asking them? -Deric
  • When trying something new – don’t ask permission.  Start small, run fast, experiment, and be darn sure you show value quickly.  Typically this means 30-60 days since that is when you will need someone to pay your Amex Bill.  – SE Bootcamps, Jedd
  • Explain things to your team and be transparent. Go ahead and tell them what their comp ratio is, where they are in the 9 block, how promotions work, etc.  There are no rules saying that you can’t. -East Team
  • “Did you learn more from your hard classes/professors who graded you hard or the easy ones you coasted through?” Push your team and challenge them.  You will annoy them.  But they will grow. And thank you for it. – Deric
  • Let your team push you.  You will be annoyed. You will grow.  And you will thank them.  -Shelly, Dennis, Ben, Uly, Dave, Jedd, Karen, Jill
  • Breaking the build as a software engineer intern is a quick way to get a bad rap right off the start. But be a valuable contributor and your peers will put up with it (one or twice).  -CCBU
  • It takes some broken glass to do great things. -Jedd
  • Driving change can be very lonely.  Find your first follower.  Find your second follower.  Other followers will start to find you.  Then you won’t be lonely.  – CAMS class
  • If there is something cool and interesting to do – why not just do it?  Don’t spend countless hours waiting for permission. Do it broad.  -Collaboration Bounty
  • Even if everything you do usually turns out well, you will still someday make a mistake and screw up.   When you do, the best thing to do is go and admit it plainly and clearly, offer to help fix it, and tell the person what you learned.  You may be surprised at the other person’s reaction – Deric 
  • If you are in a meeting or listening to a message, you believe it is off base, and that “the emperor has no clothes”, don’tstay quiet.  Tell the emperor he has no clothes. Don’t be afraid to give feedback up the chain.  -Jedd
  • …. in the middle of that meeting and in front of everyone else it may not be the best idea to tell them that  🙂
  • People don’t give feedback enough, if you ask for feedback a person will give you a thumbs up and tell you good job.  They are doing this because they want your help in the future. If you want to hear critique from them, you need to offer a critique of yourself first so they feel safe to chime in.  -Chris
  • It is amazing how much people value real, candid feedback. They may only remember the constructive feedback you give and ignore the positive feedback.  They will likely be upset for a few days.  But if you gave it because you are genuinely invested in their success it is the most trust building thing you can do.  -Clarence and others 
  • Getting constructive feedback sucks and feels like someone punched you in the gut. (360s, NMAPs, etc.) but.. don’t dwell on it. Reflect on it.  And then a few days later… See bullet above. It is invaluable. -Gerard
  • People in Cisco will always say something can’t be done because “They” said so. Rather than accept that something can’t be done, find out who ‘they’ are and then ask them ‘why?’.  Chances are they had no idea the impact of their decision and will often fix it. – Chuck Robbins
  • If you are going to do something for yourself or your team and it is X amount of effort. Chances are that for X+1 effort you could do that same thing and share it with other teams, segments, organizations, etc.  (GAMES, ACE, CityHub, Partner SE Bootcamps) -CCBU Deployment Success team, Needelman, Arvenkat, Jefts
  • Trying to fix things can be tiring. But anyone can do it.  And it is rewarding. 
  • People don’t come to work everyday and want to stink at their jobs, they have goals and metrics – you just need to learn them.  Maybe they are doing well when judged against those.  Next time you are frustrated about another organization or a team, just remember this. – Deric
  • Pushing back is futile – our culture is to overcome obstacles. Instead discover the outcome they want rather than the action they are asking for.  You can often find an alternative action that would be a win-win.  – Emily and NYC team
  • You train engineers and keep them happy not by classes but by “locking them in a room with pizza, peers they respect, and a hands on tough problem’ –Jeff
  • When you come into a situation that you need to do a diving catch for… Dive and Catch! But then follow back after, explain why it can’t happen again, and get the other parties agreements in email.  The next time the same situation comes up – reference that email and situation and put the responsibility back on them. –CAP team
  • Karma is real.  When you see something that could be done or needs to be done, Do it. Even if it isn’t important for your day job.  Do college recruiting.  Mentor people not on your team.  Be IT tech support for those who need it.  Spend an hour to talk about someone else’s idea.  Offer to present at a company function.   The world is incredibly small. It is eerie how often these small things come back to you in a rewarding manner.  -Jill, Gino, and others…
  • Don’t ask how can you make something X% better. First ask yourself if you need to do the thing at all.  Next ask yourself what do you really want the outcome to be. Keep asking yourself ‘Why’ or ‘What’. Then develop a solution based on the outcome and not how to only improve the set of actions. Chances are you will come up with something transformational. 
  • People are always overwhelmed with ‘stuff’ in their jobs. Reports, tasks, ‘fire drills’, and endless emails with the subject “ACTION Required:”.  If you have to do something more than once, automate it. Don’t make weekly ppt or excel reports. Invest upfront, automate it, and present using a dashboard.  Or better yet don’t present at all, teach people how to go to the dashboard themselves.  –CCBU
  • When you go away on PTO for a week and a decision needs to be made your team will usually say “we need to wait until so and so gets back from PTO”.  When you go away on PTO for two weeks people figure they can’t wait and magically make the decision on their own… and it is usually a good one.  So why not push them to make those decisions day to day on their own even when you aren’t on PTO? –Deric
  • The best way to operate in a big company is to know the rules better than anyone else.  That way you can bend them without breaking them.  You can overcome objections because you know the rules better than the organization who is saying no.  –Deric and Bill Belichick
  • When there is a crisis, get everyone on a call.  Do a round table and get all the issues out on the table.  Document them in real time for the audience.  Then one by one spell out the actions, owners, and dates.  Distribute it in writing after the call and schedule recurring calls at a rapid frequency. On each call review or add new issues and track actions and accountability.  Eventually everyone will get on board, trust each other, and ask for fewer calls 🙂  –Dave
  • Customers and team members get nervous when there isn’t a plan. This is when people start escalating and demanding things. All people really want is a plan and to see progress.  If you can’t show big progress split something up and show small progress.  –Dave
  • When a customer or person escalates – decide up front if you will give in eventually or hold your ground.   If you firmly believe you shouldn’t do something then you need to stick with it.  If you say no at first but then give in afterwards you have only taught the customer or person to kick and scream louder and louder next time. –Deric and Cable & Wireless
  • If someone threatens to escalate you should be OK with it.  Be sure to prep you leadership or stakeholders ahead of time.  Those leaders hired you because you are a talented individual. If you are doing the right thing then you need to trust that your leader will support you. Give the leader a chance to support you.  They may surprise you.  –Jedd, Doug, Richard, Deric, Dave, Will, Matt, Ken and my matrix leaders
  • If your leader does not support you – get a new job.
  • Matrix management is great.  Having 4 bosses is the best way to have the entrepreneurial independence you want.  If you have 4 bosses they will all assume one of the others are managing you. If one boss wants you to do something but you don’t think it is the right thing to do then chances are that one of your 3 other bosses shares your opinion.  – Me
  • Push responsibility to individuals and manage to the outcome. 
  • If someone on your team wants to do something different, try to challenge them in their current role. If you can’t challenge them anymore do whatever you can to find them an awesome opportunity.  By rotating your people into other roles people will see that and want to join your team. 
  • When a call gets emotional, end it.  You will achieve nothing else. –CAP, Steen Wagner, Ludford, Plaskon
  • Don’t over complicate the role of a manager/leader.  First, if something is broken in one area of the org it is that area’s responsibility to fix it (and learn in the process).  If it is broken in 2 or more areas then it is the leader’s job to fix it because it is a systemic issue.  Second, if something is working well in an area of the organization it is the leaders responsibility to operationalize it and spread it to the rest of the organization.  Finally, it is the leaders job to get good people, keep them challenged, and put them in a position to do what they do best everyday.  – East CSE Team
  • If you really need something done give it to whomever on your team is the busiest. 
  • After seeing 50+ ‘business plans’ for an open job role they all start to blend together.  Don’t forget that everyone else applying for the job is probably a rockstar just like you.  Keep your plan simple – focus on why you want the job, focus on the business – what would you invest in or divest in. What innovative things would you do? Only at the end should you talk about why you are the right person.  The fact you are the right person should be conveyed in your plan and not your list of past achievements, certs, and awards. –Doug
  • We all run fast.  Not investing in yourself or your team’s infrastructure because you are running fast is an excuse.  You should always pay yourself first.  No matter how busy your team is you should always invest 20% of your time on ways to scale.   -Tandberg Merger
  • As you rise in responsibility it is more and more important to do less.  Keep things simple. You have 10, 50, 100 or more people you are trying to steer.  Do you really think those people are going to execute on that amazing list of 10 initiatives you created? They will be overwhelmed, give up, and do what they did before.  –Fehrunnisa
  • Never take a job for a title or pay.  Take the job where you can learn the most.  Every time I did that it was invaluable. A year or two later I always ended up in a higher position with higher pay and a higher title – all by doing a job I loved. – Me
  • If when you assess your career path and respond “to be a Grade 12” you probably take a step back and ask why?  What does a higher grade get you?  What is the real outcome you are looking for.  Figure out what you love to do – and set your goal to that.  The money and other items will work themselves out.  
  • Always do the right thing for customers, company, shareholders, and people.  
  • The right thing isn’t always the easy thing.  
  • The tech industry is a small world. People are what make the world run.  Your relationships with those people outlast everything. 

As you can see, I have learned a tremendous amount from all of you.  It is said that people leave companies because of their managers or because they have stopped learning.  I have been fortunate to work for great leaders who supported our team and myself.  They made the company feel small and allowed us to break glass and make things better.  In turn I hope I was able to take the lessons learned above from all of you and made our team a place where you never wanted to leave because of the manager.  

It is the second reason why I am leaving Cisco.  I have had the joy of working in development, post sales, and pre-sales.  I learned enough to create this long list… and more!  Now I am ready to learn different ways of doing business, how to create a large enterprise from a small company, and how to apply the lessons learned above. 

Thank you all for a great internship and an unbelievable career.  I am looking forward to staying in touch.