Job Titles – the dangers of the “Senior Principal XYZ”

One controversial topic when building an organization is how to handle job titles.  In my first leadership role my Director always used a very simple email signature, “- Name”. I asked him why he didn’t have a formal signature and he shrugged “if people are contacting me it is because they already know who I am and what I can do to help”.
Over time I have become more and more turned off by fancy titles.  A recent favorite of mine is “Senior Principal XYZ”.  Seriously – google it.  It is all over the place.  I searched my email inbox and found the following examples:
  • “Senior Principal Analyst” – Research firm
  • “Senior Principal Customer Success Manager” – Symantec
  • “Senior Principal, Expert Advisor” – Data Science at SAP
  • “Senior Principal Learning Consultant” – Enterprise Rent a Car
  • “Senior Principal Program Manager” – Veritas
  • “Senior Principal Actuary”
  • “Senior Principal, Digital Marketing Platform & Analytics at CSC”
  • “Senior Principal Java Engineer – Java” – from a email in 2009!
I always thought Principal was better than Senior, or maybe Senior is better than Principal?  Why not just make the title “Good Great Program Manager”?   When was the last time you saw a job posting for a “Junior” anything?  Next time I choose a doctor or lawyer I will be sure to get a “Senior Principal General Medicine Doctor”.
The arguments in support of titles are:
  • Individual
    • I can’t get a different Job without it!
    • I need it for my customer to feel important!
    • I can’t get Married without the right title!
    • I want to know I am progressing in my career
  • Manager
    • We couldn’t give the person a raise but a Title is free and helps show recognition
    • I can’t hire good people unless I have it
My concerns with these:
  • Individual
    • I can’t get a different Job without it! First, good to know you are planning to have a nice long career with our company 🙂 Second, I too would never want someone to feel trapped in a role.  I believe that our team is a volunteer organization.  You should have whatever title makes you not feel trapped.
    • I need it for my customer to feel important! This is the argument for banks and everyone being a VP. But really… when was the last time a customer said “Boy I am really glad I have an Account Executive and not an Account Manager!” or “I dont want a Sales Engineer, I will only work with a Senior Sales Engineer!”.  Customers care about good people who can help them.
    • I can’t get Married without the right title! Yes. This is true in places like India.
    • I want to know I am progressing in my career. Most of the work force today grew up in the world of Pong, Super Mario Brothers, and World of Warcraft.  We grew up in a world where we “gotta play one more turn, gotta get to the next level!” Even though the next level is only minimally different from the last.
  • Manager
    • We couldn’t give the person a raise but a Title is free and helps show recognition! – this comes up a lot when your company isn’t doing well but you want to retain talent.  Let’s give them a bigger title and show them how important they are!  I have seen it work but it also seems cheap/fake to me.  If you want to recognize the person then recognize them through clear honest ways.
    • I can’t hire good people unless I have it – they wont apply! – I dont know of many managers who hire great talent through unknown applicants.  Almost all hires are referrals or somehow connected by 1 or 2 levels of separation on LinkedIn.  Do you think excellent hard working top performers will only apply based on a title?  The smart humble people you want are better than that.
  • as-a-kid-grumpy-old-man-as-an-adult-hero-7074116

Why am I so against fancy titles?

  • If you bring them in at the wrong level – you can’t demote them.  Leaders aren’t perfect.  It is hard enough to bring in people who will be successful at your company but then to also bring them in at exactly the right level too?  What often happens is you want to hire someone but their compensation is high and it forces you into the salary band for that title.  Then when that person joins and doesn’t perform at that lofty level their fellow team members resent that the person has a higher title than they do.  When you make this mistake you can’t just demote the person – they would quit.  You are locked in.
  • People want a checklist of things to do to get the title – when you start to differentiate one peer from another with a different title they want to know why.  So you are then required to document each difference and what it takes to get to that other level.  Do you think you can clearly write the legalese required to satisfy your detail oriented team members? 🙂
  • It defines not only what you do, but what you WON’T do – then once you have documented all the differences you give someone a reason to start saying “that is not in my job description, I am over qualified for that” or “I don’t do POCs or take Problem tickets any more”.
  • You can’t move people more than 1 title level – every try to move someone from a “software engineer I” to a III or a “Junior TAM” to a “Senior Principal TAM”?  Skipping more than one title level somehow becomes an act of god.  You are now breaking some unwritten rule of the corporate ladder.
  • Tie your self worth to a label rather than your impact/results – your title then begins to define how you value yourself. “Oh, I can’t leave this job – I am a VP and I don’t want to go backwards to be a Director”.  Guess what folks.  I was a VP in charge of 8 people at GoodData and left to be a Director of 25 people at Zscaler.  Turned out pretty good for me so far… go check our post IPO performance 😉
  • It only serves to make one person feel better compared to their peers – this is the most important reason.  If at the end of the day the customer doesn’t care about your title, compensation isn’t tied to it, opportunity to work on more challenging projects, and training isn’t tied to it, then the only purpose it serves is for one team member to feel more important that the other.
Have you ever taken a step back to ask why we have a job title in the first place?
It is because without a job title you would have to spend 5 minutes explaining what you do to every person you interact with.
The purpose of a job title is to convey what you are responsible for and the scope.
Role: what do you do?
  • Engineer
  • Sales
  • Support
Scope (Assuming ~9 person teams the below framework will scale to ~7,000 people…)
  • Manager = 1st line leader
  • Director = 2nd line leader
  • VP = 3rd line leader
  • CXO = 4th line leader
So what is my approach?
  • Choose only a few titles
  • Convey scope
  • Convey responsibility
  • Single very large compensation range
  • Enables a person to marry anyone they want and get any job they want.
For example in our Organization we have only two titles
  • Customer Success Manager (CSM) = a post sales resource focused on making the customer successful
  • Technical Account Manager (TAM) = someone who is technical and dedicated to only a few accounts
In the last Org we had
  • Sales Engineer:  deep product expertise, few named accounts
  • Solution Architect: broad industry expertise, lots of accounts / overlay resource
For scope we do have traditional levels like the ones above but we don’t do Sr. Director.  Instead I have become a fan of what Google and Atlassian does.  For scope everyone is “Head of” something.  For example
  • Technical Account Management – Head of Americas
    • Technical Account Management – Head of East
      • Technical Account Manager – Head of Boston!
Originally these teams had titles like “Senior SE” or “Senior TAM”.  All at once we hey-chill-out-youre-the-teachers-petnormalized everyone to the same title.  Surprisingly there wasn’t much backlash.  Perhaps because it is harder to be upset when everyone has the same title as you.
A person shouldn’t need a fancy title to be able to work on the hard accounts, get the best training, the highest compensation, peer recognition, etc.  It should be based on performance and results.  If you are good – you get more opportunity.  If you stop being good you get less opportunity.  As a leader you need to fulfill your part to make these things happen.

Why I Chose to do Customer Success

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Apologies to the readers (the 3 or 4 of you out there)…  it has been a year without consistent articles.  To be honest, since transitioning to the Customer Success Leader role I haven’t been sure I should continue this blog or pivot it to a CS focus.
wifi-does-not-work-memeAlso being on a 12 hour flight without Wifi helped too… Onto the first topic.
Even though our organization is almost 200 people I still do the final interview for every candidate.  A common question I am asked is “why did you leave Sales Engineering to do Customer Success?”.  When I talk to fellow sales leaders about their Customer Success teams a common theme is that if you have a person who isn’t performing “but is a good guy” rather than manage them out of the company they put them in Customer Success.  Ummm…. Not a ringing endorsement.
Yes, it was my decision to do Customer Success. Why I Chose to Do it
If you have been following this blog then you would know I am a big supporter of doing what you love, don’t chase titles, money and opportunity will follow.  I loved the  SE leader role I had.  I had the opportunity to build a team the way I wanted to, the talent was top notch, and I really enjoyed the people.  So when candidates ask me why I chose to do Customer Success I tell them: “I didn’t, I said no 3 times”.
  1. Head of Talent:
    • “Bill you have the unique background of post sales escalation support, business savvy, technical acumen, and know how to scale teams – this job would be a big promotion to VP and perfect for you!”
    • Me: “I have already done the post sales thing before, after working ~300 critical accounts at Cisco I don’t think there is much left to conquer/learn.  Love what I am doing, make good money, titles aren’t important anymore.”
  2. COO and Chief People Officer:
    • “Bill we don’t like the retained search candidates, and think you would be a good fit for this role.  It will grow to be one of the most important roles in the company responsible for all of our recurring revenue.”
    • Me: “That is pretty cool.  But I love what I am doing.  I am really happy.  Here are some other good people…”
  3. CEO, Chairman of Board, Largest Share holder
    • Ok – maybe I should at least listen 🙂   Again I said I love what I do – but suggested that rather than interviewing for the job why don’t I take some time to think about what I think the role and team should be.  Then let me come back and propose a vision that I would be happy and engaged fulfilling and if it is a fit for the business I will do it. If not, no worries – I love my job.
When I was 25 my career really took off.  My boss left the company and I was planning to accept a role as an SE Manager.  Before I transitioned my general manager asked if I would create a proposal of what should be done with our escalation team once I left.  So I proposed a whole new org/function that was not only focused on escalation but the whole customer lifecycle – “Deployment Success Organization (DSO).  I wished them best of luck and I was off to go do the SE thing and make bunches of $$$ until… our GM asked if I would be willing to stay and run the new org as a second level leader.  It may not be the same $$$ but it would be an opportunity to build something from scratch.  Taking that opportunity over more $$$ was one of the best decisions of my career.
Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 9.44.33 PM.png
Now 15 years later I had the same opportunity.
I thought about the things I was good at and liked to do:
  • Build a team and scale
  • Be involved in both business and technical
  • Learn how a customer’s business worked (like an ongoing MBA)
  • Challenge the customer to get out of their comfort zone and change/transform
  • Present on stage at events
  • Entertain clients and travel
  • Be able to float around and focus on different things internal/external
  • Get shit done and be independent
Then I thought about the business need for a Customer Success organization.  I purposely did not go and look at what other companies were doing.  I wanted a fresh perspective.
I went back and looked at what drove me to leave Cisco in the first place.  During my last 3 years at Cisco we changed how our Collaboration team sold.  Rather than try and focus on multi million dollar deals we realized we could drive growth by simplifying our sales process and focus on consumption economics.   At the time Cisco was trying to sell all these different complicated features, upgrade all their customers software versions, and it was easy to get stuck in the weeds.  Our approach was:
  1. Determine what our sustainable differentiation in the market was and put them in 3 buckets (Architectural Control Points)
  2. Document the customer’s current environment and control point status (Collaboration Profile Tool)
  3. Learn a customer’s business objectives and map them to one of 5 differentiated use cases (Power Plays)
  4. Rather than pitching 100’s of features, work backwards from the Biz Objective to the technology needed
  5. Drive adoption of the technology through guerrilla end user marketing and technical assistance (Ranger Program)
Our hypothesis was that if we did this correctly we could turn selling phones and video units into SaaS consumption business and unlock budget from the customer’s lines of business and individual teams rather than IT.  For 3 years we did > 30% growth and grew the business to almost $1B.  All of this while the rest of the segments and global teams had -1% growth.
Doing Sales well isn’t about pitching and closing.  It is about understanding a customer’s business objectives, your solution’s sustainable differentiation, and how you can marry the two of those together and make it a reality.   The conclusion I came to was that Customer Success is really just the fun part of sales without the burden of a quota!
So what was the proposal back to my company on how we should do Customer Success?  It has evolved and matured over time but the initial hypothesis has held true.
Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 9.47.24 PM
If we did this would it check the boxes on what I was good and and liked to do?  International travel, business/tech, present on stage, get shit done, etc.  Yup! IMG_3426.jpg

Yes, it was a good decision to do Customer Success and it has been a wild but rewarding ride the past year.  If building the SE org was like checkers then this has been like 3 dimensional chess.  My next blog posts will cover this journey and lessons learned.  My tentative topics are below.  If you have suggestions feel free to comment below.

  • Job Titles – the dangers of the “Senior Principal XYZ” 
    • already written – will post next week
  • An Argument Against the LAER Model for Customer Success
    • Part 1: Vendor Success or Customer Success??
    • Part 2: Team and Structure
    • Part 3: Metrics and Measurements
  • What Changes When You Become a Public Company?
  • Lessons Learned from Managing a Global Organization
    • Incorporating new entities in Eastern Europe
    • Opening offices in Latin America
    • Deciding marriages and parking passes
    • Keeping your own marriage intact
Btw – you can choose to do Customer Success too!  We are hiring and have 50+ openings to fill in the next 5 months.


What is it like to ring the opening bell at Nasdaq and IPO?

A Wedding

This past Friday I joined 50 of my fellow co-workers at Zscaler to ring the opening bell at Nasdaq and observe our shares being traded on the public stock market for the first time.  The president of Nasdaq described the events of the day as similar to a wedding along with photographers, people directing you where to go, energy, and lots of well wishes.  While directionally correct I would like to clarify his comparison.  It is more like being at a wedding where you are the proud parents of the bride to be.
You have invested time in raising your child and you hope things go well but it is now out of your control.  You are not the focus of the attention but you are a part of it.  You are told where to stand and walk.  You sneak away like a little kid to take pictures and selfies.  You are hugging everyone in sight and congratulating them and they are congratulating you

The Legal Fine Print

When you move towards an IPO there are a lot of legal issues and concerns around privacy, insider trading, and ensuring all is smooth.  Therefore things can get very hectic towards that IPO day and in fact up until the night before the official day the IPO itself isn’t set in stone.  That makes it hard to nail down travel plans or let your wife know what type of clothes she should pack.
So what is the experience like?  When prepping for the experience I couldn’t find out much information online so I will do my best to detail it here.

The Night Before IPO and all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a…

Customer?  At Zscaler our customers are a critical part of our success.  They have driven our product and vision and as such we wanted to include them in the festivities.  The night before we sponsored a Customer Appreciation Dinner where our board of directors and executive team hosted customers who have been with us since the beginning as well as recent additions.  A great opportunity to get to know our champions and sponsors outside of a negotiation or post sales support issue.

The Night Cap

The one downside to the customer event was that our team had planned to have a group dinner at the same time.   After the customer dinner our COO and myself swung by the other restaurant to meet up with the team (and my lovely wife who attended our team dinner in my place).  A glass of wine and back to the Marriott Marquis hotel for a final night cap.  That is when all the various groups and teams started to trickle in and come together.  A few glasses of wine, some reflections on our journey so far, how lucky we were to be there together, some fun hazing (and maybe a few more beverages for the extra courageous).   Around midnight Julie and I went up to bed.  As I was about to turn in for the night I turned to her “I hope I don’t oversleep tomorrow.”   We both set an alarm just to be safe.

7:00 AM its go time

IMG_2247Get up, get ready, suit up!  We are meeting at the lobby of the Marriott so that we can walk across Times Square to the Nasdaq building as a group.  While the folks from the West Coast tried to wake up (it was 4am for us) we mingled around to chat and say hello to team members we don’t get to see everyday.  You of course have the few people who had the extra beverages the night before oversleep but in true team fashion we have their back and call to wake them up.

7:30 AM – its Cold Out There!

IMG_8414We walk across Times Square before the crowds have formed and the Sun has a chance to warm things up.  None of us know what we are doing other than we go should go to the Nasdaq building.  What do we do when we get there?  “Just do what I did when I was underage at a bar.  Just walk in the front door like you belong there.”  In the front door we go and walk up to the security guard.  “Hello, we are from zscaler and we are here to ring the bell”.  I mean… what else would you say?  “Photo ID’s please” was the only response and through the door we go.  You mingle around the lobby for a bit without clear direction of exactly what you should be doing until about 15 minutes later when a woman with a headset lets us know we can go upstairs and brings us up an elevator.

8:00 AM There is always time for Bacon

We are brought to what looks like a TV studio with an adjoining breakfast area and stage/lecturn.  Some of us take the liberty to walk up on stage and start taking photos.  Others go for bacon.  Some of us go for bacon and eat it on stage.   Eat up!  Mingle!  Eventually groups start to form and a professional photographer starts taking photos.

8:45 AM Master of Ceremonies

The president of Nasdaq joins us and describes the agenda for the day.  We find out that our offices all around the world are having parties and we are being webcast globally.  As we look behind there are video cameras moving and following us.  After a short speech the President gives way to our CEO and Founder Jay Chaudhry who gives a short speech to our global team.

9:00 AM Move to the Studio

IMG_2340We are then herded downstairs to a TV Studio with glass walls facing Times Square.   It looks like anyone out there can watch the opening ceremony.  It is a round room surrounded by cameras.  The back wall has TV screens with famous brands and their stocks on Nasdaq.


We are advised that the CEO and Family will be at the podium, followed by the board, followed by the exec team, and then everyone else fills in  from there.  We do a practice run with lots of cheering.  It is recorded and will be used for Social Media.  In the meantime our group is packed in tight being goofy and marveling at the experience.
A couple more speeches and we are brought back on stage minutes later.  We are told to cheer… and cheer… and cheer for minutes.  The louder we are the more likely the news stations will pick us up and broadcast.  We see the TVs and they are all showing the various channels.  Eventually all 4 news stations pick us up and before we know it 7…..6….5…. (what happened to 10, 9 , and 8?) 4…. 3….. 2….. 1….. confetti!!!! That was a blur!

9:45 AM – Outside we go!

We are ushered directly outside into Times Square where the buildings all around us have our zscaler logo emblazoned on them.  My wife Julie is out there watching along with a number of team members who either live in NYC or were in town for customer meetings.  We move into the square for professional photos as a group in front of the Nasdaq and Times Square screens.  As we all marvel and cheer I catch photos of our team start to show up on the big screen.  One of my favorite parts was being able to snap photos of all of us as the pictures flipped through.

10:00 – Its Champagne time!

Back inside we go.  Now that the ceremonies are over our wives, husbands, and other team members can come inside to join us.  Or at least we snuck them in.   Champagne is served and we walk around a big room split in half.  One half has cocktail tables and windows that look out onto Times Square.  The other half has people at their desks working with multiple screens.  Our new master of ceremonies Jeff joins us and explains what to expect.  Our shares were all purchased the evening before by the banks.  The banks will now start taking buy and sell orders to try and match things together before officially allowing a trade.  The goal is the allow a smooth start without volatility.  He warns us that because there was a lot of interest it may take awhile to get an initial price and then trade.  While we wait we get distracted by fancy screens with pictures of us on them that we can touch and get emailed to ourselves.  Cameras are every where.  I find out we are being live-streamed when people keep texting me screen shots of me doing stupid things.


Jeff comes back and lets us know that some guy named Jay is working with the banks to settle on pricing and trades.


Jeff comes back and lets us know that some guy named Jay is working with the banks to settle on pricing and trades.


Jeff comes back and lets us know that some guy named Jay is working with the banks to settle on pricing and trades.


Jeff comes back and lets us know that some guy named Jay is working with the banks to settle on pricing and trades.


Jeff comes back and lets us know that some guy named Jay is working with the banks to settle on pricing and trades.
We finally figure out who Jay is and some of us mingle over to look over his shoulder and see whats up.  It is very cool how we could just stand over his shoulder as he took the calls and worked the phones.  All while drinking champagne.


Jeff comes back and lets us know that some guy named Jay is working with the banks to settle on pricing and trades.


Jeff comes back and lets us know that we finally have an “Indicative Price”…..  holy crap!


We get our first public trade!  The price is set. CHEERS everywhere!!!

11:00 AM

Wow.  We are all so proud.  Pictures continue.  We have been on social media lockdown for weeks, but now we can share our excitement.  Onto Linkedin and Facebook we go!  We get to see all of the excitement finally from all around the world.  We had a feeling of being sequestered.  Our legal and finance team did a great job of putting the fear into us not to do anything that could be construed as inappropriate.

A favorite picture of mine came from my little sister who is studying finance in college and now thinks her big brother is kinda cool:


11:15 AM

Things start to calm down and we all head to a nearby restaurant for a wrap up lunch.  All of us but our CEO Jay who has 20+ more interviews to do.

3:55 PM

Some texts to remote team members.  The day end. All of us emotional and proud.  Until tomorrow when there is more email to do and a Customer Advisory Board in the UK on Monday and in Germany on Wednesday.
As a final note, I apologize for the lack of updates to this blog.  About 5 months ago Zscaler formed a new organization called Customer Success and I left the SE Leader role to lead that global group.  I was not quite sure what I would do with this blog since it would be the first time in years I would not be an “SE”.  However, I do own the domain and will likely have that forward to here.  As I have reviewed my previous posts they are more about technical management and not just about sales engineering.

So… you want to be an SE Leader?

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Every few weeks a team member or colleague asks how to become an SE Leader.  The most direct approach would be to answer their question with a list of steps.  However, just as with customers we should give the aspiring leader what they need not what they ask for.  We must first take a step back to understand the individual’s drivers and motivations.  Educate them on what the role of the Leader is.  Provide them with tools for self introspection and awareness.  Finally, develop a career action plan – that may or may not be a leadership role.


When entering these conversations I can typically tell if the person would make a good leader or not with a very simple question.

“Why do you want to be a leader?”

The answers typically fall into 3 buckets:

  1. minions-03 (1).jpg“ME-ME”: the candidate talks about how successful they have been.  They feel like they have reached the peak.  They have to be a manager to move up in the company.  The majority of the time they are complaining about their day job.
  2. “SUPER SE”: the candidate describes how team members always go to them for help.  They want to formally train and mentor the team.  They know what SE’s want and how to have their back.
  3. “LEADER”: the candidate describes interests not only in doing the SE role but has evidence of learning or being involved in ancillary activities such as business, finance, non-profit organizations, interfacing cross functionally.  They are the ones who always step up to leading tiger teams, cross functional projects, and tools to help others, even if it doesn’t directly impact their quota.  They are seeing exposure to learn and to build.

I find that ME-ME’s reason for being a leader is more about a cry for help than it is a desire for leadership.  Focus on transitioning the discussion to a general career discussion.  They would not make a good leader – at least not with that current mind set.  Leadership is a servant position.

The SUPER SE is a borderline candidate.  Your focus with them is to educate on what the SE Leader role really is, i.e. only a small percentage is downward facing to the team itself.  Their risk is that they will try to be both an SE and a Leader and do both poorly.  Their SE skills will atrophy while never fully having the time to become a leader.  These are the managers who are constantly busy doing paper work, micromanaging their team, and being overworked but not producing.  These candidates are often best as peer leaders and mentors.\

LEADER’s are those who understand the multi disciplinary part of the SE Leader role.  They are ready to leave behind being an SE.  They have a build first mentality and have displayed a willingness to do so without personal gain.

What do you love doing?

After the “Why?” you should seek to understand the candidate’s drivers.  In any given day, what gives them energy and what takes it away?  What activities make the day go by in a flash but by the end of the day they still have energy and a sense of accomplishment.    What are 20 things that make you smile?  On the flip side, what activities do you dread going to work and doing?  What things do you procrastinate at doing?

How well do things that give them energy align to the activities of a leader?

Do you know what an SE Leader actually does?

Many aspiring leaders don’t actually understand what a leader does.  Remember, they only see the parts of the leader role that interacts with them personally.  They don’t have visibility to the other 70% when the SE leader works cross functionally or up the chain.

A few key points I make are:

  • The role is more than just SE skill development and mentoring.  It includes budgeting, territory planning, process development, customer escalations, content development, product management, go to market planning, forecasting, etc.
  • The job of an SE leader is moving the entire bell curve of team performance 5-10% higher.

Finally, the most educational tool I have found is to share my calendar.  Show the aspiring leader what the week is really like.  In the example below (click for full size) you can see red eye flights, staff meetings, enablement meetings, one on ones, customer workshops, recognition, pricing calls, team member assessments, forecast calls, head count planning, fiscal years planning and interviews.  You can also observe that there are times for work life balance such as hitting the cross-fit gym, traveling to Paso Robles, going out to dinner with the family, and attending wine tasting events.

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 9.21.54 PM

Scare Them Away!

The candidate would be crazy to want to be an SE Leader.  Do they realize:

  • booRecognition: They will no longer be the rockstar getting all the attention.  An SE Leader has to be OK with only 10% of the credit (or no credit at all).  The SE Leader role is one of the hardest and most under appreciated/recognized roles in a tech company.  You need to be ok with that.  We are servant leaders.
  • Adults can be Childish: Adults never really stopped being children.  Just because we turned 18 we didn’t mean we magically matured.  Adults try to play the “mom said no, lets ask dad game”, don’t know about personal grooming habits, fib, etc.
  • career-decision-making
  • Money: an SE Leader’s base salary may be slightly higher but for any given year ~45% of their team will make more money than them.  The SE Leader’s quota is the sum of their team’s quota.  They will have top performers and low performers.  Thus they are the average.  Go do the math 😉
  • Career Decision: moving into leadership is a completely new discipline than technical fields.  The aspiring leader must move from being a rock star individual contributor and start at ground zero on the skill curve.  They have to go back to learning.  It is not like trying out a different tech for a while and then swapping back.
  • Fail and you Leave Company: if the person moves into leadership and fails they end up leaving the company 90% of the time.  Sometimes this is the companies decision but more often than not it is the failed leader’s decision.  When they made the move into leadership their SE skills atrophied.  They also have pride and it is hard for a person to fail and then go back with being a peer again.

Personal Exploration

Arm and challenge the aspiring leader to do some personal exploration.  I often recommend they read a few books.  If they are fascinating reads then they are likely on the right path.  If they are boring drudgery that is a sign as well.

Take Action

At the end I explain that any career path they choose whether management or not I will support them and we should make a plan.  I am committed to their career whether it is in our current company or if I even have to find them a fit outside the company.

should_you_invest_in_a_401k_with_no_matchingHowever, the support I offer is not free.  I offer an employer 100% 401k match.  The amount of effort they put into their career plan and path I will match 100% with my effort.  I will join recurring mentoring calls with them, expose them to leadership activities, etc.  I warn them that their day job is busy and they will need to find the time to do these things.  After all if they can’t find the time now how do they think they can do it when they are a first time manager?

If we have discovered during the course of the conversation that people leadership is not for them then I do my best to find a different role or even create a role for them.

A final recommendation is that they try leadership out in a safe manner without having to go all in and risk failure.  Determine ways they can take on some leader responsibilities while still an individual contributor.  Setup a leadership training curriculum for them.

If they decide to take the plunge… get ready for a wild ride!



How You Know You Are in the Right Role

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My next post is in process and will focus on whether or not an individual contributor should move into SE Leadership.  In the meantime I was listening to a new hire training presentation by one of our sales leaders and he shared the below graphic.  In my previous posts (How do you know when it is time to leave your job as an SE?My Favorite Interview Questions – SE & SE Leaders) I highlighted how important it is to uncover what gives an individual energy and motivation and align that to specific roles.  Innately I have understood the concepts of ‘You Love It’, ‘You Are Great at It’, ‘You are Paid for it’ but I missed the concept of ‘The World Needs it’ and how they can all overlap.

How does your role fit the following?


If I think about my own recent roles

MIT Lincoln Laboratory

  • Great at it: didn’t have a PhD but I could write some decent code, but I was not most detail oriented.
  • World Needs It: shooting down nuclear missiles is a pretty important effort.
  • Paid for: not a ton since it was non profit, but I could feed myself
  • Love it: loved the people I worked with and the travel, but working on government and long term projects wasn’t the best fit for me.


  • Great at it: SE leadership, enablement, SaaS were all strength areas.  Big Data was a new discipline and just average.
  • World Needs It: with a crowded market in analytics it was a nice to have vs. a change the world effort.
  • Paid for: sales is pay for performance, high tech – all good.
  • Love it: analytics just wasn’t a passion area of technology


  • Great at it: my background in IT sponsorship, time at Cisco, SaaS, application development, computer science, SE leadership, scaling teams, recruiting, hiring, mentoring – all areas of skill.
  • World Needs It: ummm… cybersecurity… have you seen the front page?
  • Paid for: sales is pay for performance, high tech – all good.
  • Love it: great people, honesty, scrappy, can wear jeans (most of the time), trust, etc. Yup.


How to Create an SE Leader Business Plan

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Q4 can really put a damper being able to takie a step back to reflect and write.  At least that is my excuse for the delay between posts.
One of the key needs for every SE Leader is to create a business plan for their team/organization.  The plan is leveraged in multiple ways such as the initial interview to get the job, fiscal planning for budgeting, as an ‘operations manual’, and also as a means to explain the vision, strategy, tactics, and results that the team will measure and how it maps back to the company goals.
doyourjobMany SE Leaders, especially those new in role, don’t realize the many facets of a business
plan or why to create one.  Rule #1 from the famous book “First Break all the Rules” is “Do I know what is expected of me at work?”  Without a plan how will your team know what is expected of them let alone the the rest of the company?  How will they know how to “Do their Job”?  For those of you who are interviewing for a new role this plan is a way for you to demonstrate your understanding of what the job entails and how prepared you are for it.
I recently went through this exercise with my SE Leaders (SEL) to build our FY18 plan.  Step 1 was a session on “What do we need to plan for?” 😃 The team did an excellent job of mapping out the areas to agree on and document.  What follows is a cleansed version of that output.

Who is joining the party?


ou probably know most of what you want the team to do and achieve.  The easy approach is to make the plan yourself and then come down from the mountain with your 10 commandments.  Unfortunately, you don’t know everything and you are missing an opportunity to leverage the talent of your team.  You did hire people smarter than you right?  Also, by involving not only your team but also your cross functional stakeholders you increase everyones understanding, ownership, and buy in.

What do you mean I can’t just do what ever I want?

When you create your plan you will often have different guiding criteria from the various groups such as Finance, Exec Team, Sales structure and for global
  • Finance: headcount ratios, investment…
  • Sales:  sales territories, rep placement, segmentation…
  • Global SE Policy: programs, initiatives…

Categories of Planning

The approach I take is to create either a single PPT deck or a Webpage/Wiki spelling out each of the below.  The key is that your plan is in a medium that can easily be shared verbally as well as bookmarked and referenced by the team.  The structure our team leveraged is as follows:


Feedback & Lessons Learned

    • Last years Plan Summary with final results: too often leaders shared a plan at the beginning of the year but never stick to it.  The only way the team will believe you is if you are continually referencing it and then when sharing your progress throughout the year you map it back to the plan.  Thus I always start the plan off with the previous year’s exec summary slide (more on that below) and document the results.
    • Team Sentiment: many companies will do employee surveys.  At Cisco we called these Pulse scores and at Zscaler we call them Voice of the Employee.  I typically take the scores and do a summary analysis showing the changes from previous surveys over time for the team but also where they are relative to the rest of the company.  It is important to not only be transparent with the survey results but also to document action plans to improve.  These action plans do not only need to be SEL owned but may also be owned by a tiger team of the SE themselves.
      • Areas of Strength / Weakness (Discontent) – relative
      • Improvement Action Plan
      • 360 & Skip Level Feedback Consolidated

Summary Plan

  • SE attention spans are very short.  Thus I have found it valuable to have an exec summary of the entire business plan that fits on one piece of paper or slide.
    • Vision: what are you trying to achieve as a team?
    • Strategy: what are the high level strategies or concepts you will use to get to that vision?
    • Tactics: what are the concrete actions you will take to implement those strategies?
    • Results: how will you know you are successful when you execute those tactics?  What are the measurables?

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 10.24.05 PM

  • A second slide can also be useful that covers
    • Start, Stop, Continue: much of your plan/approach will be similar from year to year so it is often useful to call out the key changes.
    • Ratios, Alignment, Comp:

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 10.50.46 PM


  • Segmentation
    • How will you cover and engage with your customers?
      • By Size: Commercial, Enterprise, Large Enterprise, Majors
      • By Vertical: Oil, Finance, Retail, etc.
      • By Type: Federal, State Local, Education, Enterprise, Service Provider
      • TAM (Total Addressable Market)
  • Coverage
    • SE Organizations are typically driven off ratios of X SE of a particular type mapped to Y number of Sales Reps.  Before you can plan your own coverage you typically need to know
      • SE Ratios
      • # of accounts
      • Geography of Sales Reps
  • Event Planning:
    • How will you cover your major events throughout the year?  For example, for us it is RSA, Gartner, HIMMS, EDUCAS, and Black Hat.
  • Technical Sales Process
    • How will you engage with your customers and what are the proven steps to win their trust and business?
    • How does this map into the greater sales process?


  • What is your partner plan?


  • Job Role Expectations
    • For all roles
      • SE
      • Architect
      • SE Leader
    • One Page Summary for each covering
      • Mission Statement
      • Core Skill Set
      • Customer Verifiable Outcomes
      • Responsibilities
      • Metrics – what does success look like?
  • Career Paths
    • Grades, titles?
  • Recognition Plan
    • Annual merit, retention bonuses, stock allocation
    • Ongoing recognition (verbal, awards, etc) – we had an SE working group define this.
  • Compensation
    • Split & Out of Territory Policies
    • Comp Plan (team, individual, geo, product specific, net new, renewals)
    • Teaming Policy
  • Enablement
    • Labs, Training, SE Summits
    • New Hire On Boarding – rotations, certifications, etc
  • Talent Assessment
    I have found it valuable to evaluate the team across many different lenses as it serves different purposes.

    • Skills Matrix – do you have any skill gaps such as core networking skills?
    • Potential vs. Performance – 9 block & skill vs will are models for this
    • Readiness for Next Role (Up, Out, Different) – how soon?
    • Risk to Depart – 2×2 matrix of criticality to the business and risk to leave
    • Participation Rates & Performance – any risks of people who didn’t earn?
    • Bench Depth – if one of the SEL were hit by a bus, who would take over?  Are there people in support or services who would like to be an SE?
  • Hiring (who, what, where, when, how)
    • Budget (Zero BB) vs HC (specific number of people)


  • OPEX
    • Travel, Training, etc.
  • PTO Schedules
    • When you are on PTO/Holiday what are your expectations?
    • Policy – Coverage when on PTO (individual, manager, comp)
  • Process Improvements & Changes
    • POC Extensions, Activity/Outcome Tracking
  • Communication Cadence
    • Mandatory vs Optional Meetings/activities
    • Meeting Cadence (1 on 1’s, all hands, ZU, MM)
  • Operational Cadences
    • SFDC Hygiene
    • Ensuring the Technical Sales Process is followed
    • Hand off to post sales teams
    • Meeting notes
  • Cross Functional Requests & Dependencies
    • Invest in other programs or resources

Communication Plan

  • Create it
  • Communicate it
    • Again
    • Again
    • Again
    • Again
    • Again
    • Again
    • Again
  • Post it front and center on your team web page
  • Reference and update it whenever you speak

Our Fiscal plan ended up being ~53 slides.  However many of them are from the People section that are restricted to SEL only.  The goal is that the plan becomes a reference guide for the team but for the day to day they can just reference your one page exec summary.

How do you know when it is time to leave your job as an SE?

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When you are hiring at a rapid pace you find yourself having similar conversations over and over.  A key tenet of my hiring philosophy “Is the company a fit for what the candidate wants both in the short term and in the long term?” This conversation inevitably leads to
“How do I know when it is time to leave my current role/company?”
This is a complicated issue.  As a hiring manager I am asking a candidate to take a leap of faith and change how they spend 60 hours a week and how they support their family.  If you are looking to hire top talent chances are that they are a high performer at their current company, are well compensated/appreciated, and have an extensive network of friends at work.  Those are difficult things to leave behind and you want the new team member to be all in on your company.

Standard Reasons

Most leaders have read the book First, Break all the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and his excellent data driven explanation of why people leave a company:

  • Your Manager
  • Stopped Learning / Challenged

However, I find that these are not as common with Sales Engineers.  Typically if an SE doesn’t like their manager there are a number of other teams that SE could go work for inside their company.  SE are valuable resources whose impact often has visibility up to the CEO and leadership will intervene to keep the person on board.  Second, it is nearly impossible for a top SE to stop learning.  They are naturally curious and driven.  They will find new industry trends to study, dig in on the next product release, etc.  I am not saying the above reasons never apply to an SE and why they leave – it is just rarer than normal.

Specific Reasons – SE

Old-vs.-New.pngSales Engineers are different than many roles in a company.  Their primary value is in the deep (often tribal) knowledge of their company’s products and how to get things done cross functionally.  It is less about their industry knowledge and pure sales skills.   SE derive their self worth via the reputation and respect they get from their peers.  It takes an SE years to accumulate this knowledge, professional network, and respect .  When they change companies they start at ground zero and it can feel like taking a major step back.   They are also more risk averse than a sales rep.

As a result a top performing SE will only leave a company due to:

  • Organizational Changes:
    has the entire company changed their approach and it doesn’t jive with the SE’s own internal beliefs.  Are they being asked to do something completely different than they have before, i.e. handle post sales, be a consultant, work on deployments, etc.  Is the Company having layoffs or down sizing?
  • Lose Faith in Technology:
    SE are passionate about their product lines and have passion on where roadmaps should go.  That is why they are so hard on their product management teams.  Imagine being an SE selling on premise servers and you can see the industry moving towards cloud computing yet no matter how hard you try your company will not adjust to tackle that inevitable technology transition.

With all of this said,  I will admit I am amazed at how long top SE’s will hold on through round after round of layoffs or would rather be the industry expert on Mainframes or TDM Telephony vs modern solutions.

Specific Reasons – SE Leader

Trust-In-Your-WingsAs detailed in SE Leaders – We Are Falling Behind much of an SE Leader’s value is in navigating their current company’s hierarchy and processes.  Changing companies means losing a large part of your value add.  After speaking with numerous SE Leaders who have switched jobs recently, including myself, the following two factors have emerged.

  • If you perform to the best of your ability – are you in a position to be successful?
    As much as SE leaders hate to admit it, we are supporters and multipliers of other functions.  We don’t build products (Product Management & Engineers).  We don’t carry legal quota (Sales Reps).  We aren’t certified to practice law (Lawyers).  We can’t do acquisitions or open hiring requisitions (Finance).   However, we make all of those functions better.  So what happens if those functions are weak and you don’t see light at the end of the tunnel that they will improve.  Talk about being in a tough situation. You could do the best job of your life and be guaranteed to fail.  That sucks.
  • Trust
    One of the key value adds of an SE Leader is their ability be a trusted advisor to their customers but also to their internal stake holders and executive team.  What happens when an SE Leader provides feedback on the product line or organizational direction and instead of debating and agreeing to disagree the SE Leader is instead viewed as ‘not on board’ or ‘just doesn’t get it’?  Or when an SE Leader is working cross functionally and they gain agreement on action only to find out later it was lip service only and the other groups don’t follow through.  That sucks too.

What Are NOT the Reasons

  • Money – Compensation: mediocre or poor SE will leave for money.  Excellent SE rarely have this issue.  They are well compensated and appreciated.  If for some reason they are not compensated well and tell their company they are leaving it is amazing the rapidity an organization will move to rectify that.
  • Sales Rep Conflict: almost always their current company will realign that SE to a different territory or make them a ‘swing player’ until that can happen.
  • Accounts, Territory: if an SE doesn’t like the market they are in – see “Sales Rep Conflict”

Net-net if an SE is a top performer a company will move mountains to fix the problem.


An SE and SE Leader’s primary value and self worth lies with their company and their product set.  It takes A LOT for them to leave.  Hopefully the above factors provide areas to compare your current situation against.


Oh… and if you are feeling any of the above factors apply to your current situation, I am currently hiring both SE and SE Leaders 🙂