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Day Two Cloud 186: A Day In The Life Of A Sales Engineer With Pete Robertson

Episode 186

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Today’s Day Two Cloud episode gets into sales engineering. IT pros may look down on sales for not being a strictly technical discipline, but it turns out there’s more overlap between an engineer and a sales engineer than you might think. Both have to solve problems. Both have to understand requirements. Both have to design and deliver outcomes. So stick around–you might come away with a new view on sales engineering.

Our guest is Pete Robertson, Specialist Sales Engineer – Networking at AHEAD.

We discuss:

  • What a sales engineer does
  • Compensation and incentives and balancing making the sale with customer needs
  • Why he transitioned from traditional engineering to sales engineering
  • Requirements for a sales engineer role, and why there’s more technology and design than you might think
  • The educational side of selling
  • Work-life balance
  • How he responds to engineers who see sales as…icky
  • More

Show Links:

@vcloudpete – Pete Robertson on Twitter


[00:00:10.090] – Ethan
Welcome to day two. Cloud. And today, Ned, I was going to say we’re going to take a diversion from our normal deep dive of engineering and we’re going to talk about SaaS, but in fact, it turns out sales and engineering are very closely related, according to our guest, Pete Robertson.

[00:00:28.100] – Ned
Yeah, we get into a philosophical point on what is engineering anyway, because it’s not just bleeps and bloops and typing out commands at a command prompt. There’s a little bit more to that. And if you back away for a moment, take a look at the larger picture you discover engineering is about solving problems, and a portion of sales is solving a problem that someone has, hopefully.

[00:00:49.830] – Ethan
Hopefully, hopefully.

[00:00:51.430] – Ethan
And Pete is very good at that. Pete is a sales engineer with the consulting firm Ahead. They’re a large VAR, and he’s been on both sides of it where he’s been a deeply certified human who’s the guy with the bleeps and the bloops and the blinky lights making all the things happen. And these days he finds himself on the presale side. And so we thought Pete would be a great person to discuss what it’s like to both understand delivering a solution, but then designing the solution on the front end for the customer as well. And Pete’s really good about that and understanding business needs and business outcomes. So if that all is interesting to you, because I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of money to be made in presales. Pete’s got a lot of wisdom for you. Enjoy this conversation. Pete Robertson. Welcome to day two, Cloud. In a sentence or two, would you tell the nice people listening who you are and what you do?

[00:01:41.710] – Pete
Yeah, Ethan, thanks for having me. I’m Pete Robertson. I am by trade and Vocation, a sales engineer. I have a background in data center engineering. I’ve taken on a number of different roles over the years, and I focus right now on cloud networking. I’m a principal consultant for Ahead.

[00:01:57.910] – Ethan
But you led with sales engineering, Pete, which of course is the topic of today’s show. Was that your way of apologizing for being in sales when you said, I did this, all this data center stuff and cloud stuff, too?

[00:02:08.940] – Pete
You know, I have no apologies. I love what I do. But, yes, you certainly get some people that feel I’ve gone to the dark side by saying that I’m in pre sales.

[00:02:17.130] – Ethan
So have you always been in sales? Has that been your gig?

[00:02:20.090] – Pete
No, not at all. I actually started off as a software developer, sitting in a cubicle writing lines of code, and eventually, in the early 2000s, moved into infrastructure. I’ve had a number of different roles on the customer side. I started off as an administrator engineer, eventually moving up to a data center architect for one of my employers. I’ve worked in financial services. I’ve worked for a company that did hosting web apps for business to business solutions. And then from there, I moved over to the kind of value added, reseller side and started to focus on sales as my career grew on the VAR side.

[00:02:56.970] – Ned
So what drew you to the presales or sales portion of things? Because there’s a number of different directions your career can go, even in the consulting field. So what about sales drew you in?

[00:03:10.030] – Pete
Yeah, honestly, it’s quite a few different things. I can’t say it’s just one. I loved what I did in terms of building out complex infrastructures, building out data centers. I wanted to be able to help other organizations do that and take advantage of the skills and experience that I had. But sales, even if I was kind of doing it internally in terms of helping my fellow peers as engineers, understand different things that we were building, there’s an educational side of selling, helping people understand technology, understand how it works, what it’s actually achieving. And so I wanted to do that for my customers. I wanted customers to understand what technology could do for their business. And ultimately, customers are buying technology not for technology’s sake, but because it’s enabling them to do something. And I liked bridging that gap of explaining how technology was addressing a non technical need. That was one aspect. Two, when you go into sales, there is and I’m sure we’ll get to this in the conversation there’s usually targets and goals and incentives to grow the business. And I wanted that challenge. It was something new for me. I wanted to see how I could be successful at doing something and see a business grow.

[00:04:15.600] – Pete
I enjoy business. I always have. And so I wanted the challenge of being given a geography or a practice to help grow and become more profitable. And then, honestly, there is some kind of work life balance aspects to it. Most of my customers do not want to take a sales call on Christmas Eve or on a public holiday or 03:00 a.m. On a Sunday. And so having spent many years doing delivery for customers and having maintenance windows in the middle of the night or on public holidays, I kind of wanted to get away from that and get to a point where it was more of a traditional working week. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t times I’m working nights and weekends if I’ve got projects due, deadlines, things like that. But for the most part, it changed my work life balance. And my first job, the job I do, 24/7 is I’ve got five kids, so that came first. And that work life balance was important.

[00:05:09.300] – Ned
Oh, I’ll say, yeah, I only have three, and there are already a handful. So five sounds overwhelming, I guess would be the word for it. I’m curious. So you started out as a software developer, which we tend to think of someone who’s more introverted in that role. They don’t typically want to be out talking to people, they want to sit in their cube and write their little code and go home. Do you think there’s something about your personality that lent itself to a role like pre sales or sales, where you need to be more outward facing and interacting with regular humans and not just code?

[00:05:44.830] – Pete
For sure. And certainly for me, that was one of the reasons why I honestly wanted to be out of doing what I was doing. I wanted to be more collaborative. I wanted to be involved in face to face communications, decision making as well, not just face to face communication. So there is certainly an aspect that when it comes to pre sales, more of an extroverted personality, I think is going to find it easier. I’m not saying that introverts do not have a place in sales engineering at all, but you do need to put yourself in a situation where you’re comfortable presenting in front of an audience, where you’re comfortable being uncomfortable in the sense that you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s not always I’m delivering a presentation. It could be very much that you have a detractor who disagrees with your recommendation or doesn’t think that this solution or strategy you’re recommending is the right one and is going to challenge you. And so you’ve got to be comfortable managing a room, figuring out in an audience who’s the person that’s taking too much of the attention away from where you’re trying to lead the conversation, or you realize that somebody who has a key point to make is a little bit more shy and sitting in a corner and not contributing.

[00:06:52.550] – Pete
And you need to therefore manage the room and ask them to contribute. So there’s definitely aspects that probably lend themselves more to someone who’s more extroverted that allows you to do well in the presales role.

[00:07:06.080] – Ethan
Now, we’re making a distinction here between presales and then implicitly post sales, which I would think of as implementation work. I worked for a smaller consultancy once, a VAR, where we did in my role, it was presales and post sales. I was selling the solution with the help of an outside salesperson who would close the deal, but then I was going to implement the solution that I sold. Now, it sounds like where you’re at, you’re in presales only and not doing post sales. Is that fair?

[00:07:31.810] – Pete
It’s actually to say I’ve been in all capacities in that regard. So when I first came from the customer side, I was in an organization similar to yourself, Ethan, where I came in and I was doing everything soup to nuts. So I’m meeting with a customer, understanding their requirements, positioning a solution, and then once we get the signature, I’m the lead delivery engineer all the way through until project closure. I’ve done that role in my current organization with a head no, I’m presales 100%. And the reason for that, I think, is in larger organizations or in larger opportunities, the kind of hybrid model of doing both doesn’t really scale. If you sell a large project, you would be buried in it. And honestly, some of the solutions that we’re selling, my organization focuses on a large enterprise. We’re not putting an individual into a project, we’re putting a team of engineers, different skill sets, different experience levels to delivering that outcome. And so there’s a lot of work that goes into selling to the enterprise and then there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into delivering the outcome. And so it’s not one person end to end in my current role.

[00:08:38.880] – Pete
That being said, I’m moving in a slightly different direction now, which is there is also a place for selling essentially what you’re doing in presales. So, whereas we might think of a project where we’re going in and capturing requirements and articulating a solution and rationalizing alternative approaches, if we get beyond a given project and we go into I’m trying to develop a strategy or three or a five year plan for an organization, at that point, that’s not a cost of doing business. That’s not cost of acquisition for selling a project. That’s something that’s valuable to that organization to sell as consulting. And so I’m moving slowly in that direction too, where I will be doing more billable consulting and moving back to having a billable target instead of just 100% presales, but still allowing you to.

[00:09:27.540] – Ethan
Maintain that work life balance. Because post sales reminded me of sitting on a milk crate above a perf tile with cold air, blowing up Matush with a laptop in my lap, making something in the rack go and hating it because it was three in the morning and I was just tired and wanted to be done with it all.

[00:09:44.810] – Pete
Yeah, definitely being there, done that. And you kind of pick whether it’s the hot aisle or the cold aisle, depending on how you’re feeling. But yes, so I will be in a billable capacity, but more in a consultative approach of facilitating workshops, dialoguing with customers, putting together technical and strategic documents for them, not sitting with a console cable plugged into something with blinky lights at three in the morning.

[00:10:10.210] – Ned
I can’t imagine a whole lot of folks want to discuss strategy and future vision of the company at 03:00 A.m., so you get to maintain that as well. I’m curious to what degree you’re involved in the post sales process, even though you’re not specifically doing the implementation. I assume you’d want to follow up, see how the project is going because it sounds like you’re working with a given set of customers and you want to have a good interaction the next time you see them. So at least knowing what’s going on.

[00:10:40.800] – Pete
Absolutely. So that is one thing that’s key, is that sales, even sales engineering, not just kind of sales reps, it is very much relationship based and so there’s two reasons why I want to stay engaged one is that relationship. Right. I don’t want to say, hey, I got a signature on a purchase order, throw it over the fence and thanks very much and check out. I want to continue to maintain that relationship. And the second aspect of that is I sold an outcome. I didn’t just sell a bunch of products with some services attached. And so I want to make sure that the transition from what I had architected and explained to the customer is clearly understood by the teams that are implementing it and getting hands on keyboards. I want to make sure that if any curveballs that we weren’t aware of during presales come up during implementation, that I’m aware of that and involved in deciding how we’re going to address that and making sure, ultimately, that the customer is satisfied. And what they got is what they thought they were going to get, based on what I had communicated to them. So I stay involved for a variety of reasons, and I really want to have as much of a relationship with my delivery teams as I do with my customer.

[00:11:46.640] – Pete
I view them just as much as my customer as the one who’s actually paying the bills, because what I do, they take on. So if I don’t do my job well, my peers on the implementation and delivery teams, they’re starting from a hard place, and I don’t want that. I want good relationships all the way through within my own organization. Pete.

[00:12:08.390] – Ethan
Okay, that relationship that you described, that thing’s important. And the best salespeople that I’ve worked with get that. They want to maintain the relationship. They’re in it for the long haul. But I’ve also worked with salespeople who are in it for the one and done, the big deal, the close this deal and get out kind of thing because of how they’re incentivized whatever the compensation plan for the quarter or for the year was. So you mentioned earlier that you’ve got some of those, whether they’re quotas or incentives or whatever. Can you talk about how you’re compensated and incentivized then how you balance that customer relationship with the reality of money and getting paid?

[00:12:43.770] – Pete
Sure, yeah. And again, I’ve worked for a number of different organizations in a presales capacity, and so each organization obviously structures their compensation for presales a little differently. I had one offer from a large organization, fairly well known in infrastructure product sales. I will not mention them, but they wanted me on 100% commission, no base salary, and I’m too risk averse right to take that on. So in the hybrid roles where I was doing pre and post, the emphasis was actually more on the kind of typical utilization based implementation work. So really me doing pre sales was to generate my own pipeline so that I could then achieve or overachieve on implementation work that was billable in my current role, where I’m 100% presales, I have a quota that’s tied to my team. So I’m on a networking team. We have a goal for the quarter, so I’m not tied to getting commission off a specific deal. And then essentially my variable pay, I have base pay and variable pay. My variable pay is going to be based on did the team achieve that quota for the quarter. And so if we overachieve, I get more than what my performance based bonus for that quarter would be.

[00:14:01.810] – Pete
And if we underachieve, then I don’t take home as much as I would hope to be making. That’s the way we do it. Currently in my current organization, when I worked for one of the hyperscalers AWS, I’m not going to hide that fact. You can find it on my LinkedIn. If you look it up, it’s very different and it changes the behavior of how you think about selling. Because when you’re not in the get the PO ship the product, thank you very much, take the paycheck mode, but you’re in subscription based services or monthly recurring revenue for cloud, right? We see that shift in the industry. I have to continue to deliver satisfaction from what they’re procuring, right? If they don’t like what I sold them, they turn the service off tomorrow and I stop making money. So the whole shift to consumption based services to cloud methodologies really means that that aspect of viewing it as a relationship that’s ongoing and a value add that needs to be there, not just at the point of a purchase order, really shifts how you think about that behavior. And necessarily so I have seen, obviously, in my experience, people, that we got the purchase order, fantastic, let’s go out, have a drink, celebrate and never want to talk to the customer again.

[00:15:11.780] – Pete
And usually that’s because they know that what they sold them was not the right solution. It was the one that was going to make them the most money and it probably was a one and done deal. And certainly for me, my personal ethics, the way I want to do business, that is not what I want to do. I would rather make less money now, but have a relationship that is going to continue to give me further opportunity to do business with that customer or potentially with other customers. I never know where my relationships, my clients are going to move. A lot of my business with new logos has been because somebody who trusted me went to a different organization and then asked me to come in. So the It community is fairly small, I think we all know that. And so it’s important to maintain those relationships and build trust, not just in a specific project or deal.

[00:15:54.530] – Ned
But overall, I was always surprised by the sales folks who adopted more of a burn and churn kind of model to their sales. Because, like you, I realized pretty quickly how small the industry is and especially within a particular geography. Not only do people move around between companies, but those companies themselves, they talk depending on what industry they’re in, they might have a forum where they regularly meet to talk about things that are important to them. Like law firms have a group that meets together and they talk about things that have to do with law, but they also talk about the It services companies and who’s awful. So they’re definitely going to mention that. Part of the way that I helped counteract what was going on from the Pure Sales side was I also did some work as presales, and I would try to temper what the salesperson was trying to sell based off their quotas with what I actually saw was needed from the company that we were talking to. So can you dig into where do your roles and responsibilities lie when it comes to what you do as presales versus someone who’s a Pure Salesperson?

[00:17:09.050] – Pete
Yeah, and so in my experience, the Pure Salesperson, they’re the one that ultimately has the relationship. They are maintaining an understanding of the customer as a business, so not just an individual of that customer. They’re building relationships with leadership, with procurement, with finance. And overall, the kind of face between my organization and the end customer when I go into a sales opportunity, it’s going to depend on what the specific opportunity is. If it’s very much network centric and again, I’m a network presales engineer, I’m going to run that from start to finish. I can bring in peers if I need additional technical expertise that’s outside of my particular subject matter expertise. But I’m going to be deciding how we’re going to structure that campaign. I’m going to be advising the sales rep on which manufacturers to go to and reach out to and submit product registrations and how we’re going to start partnering with them to deliver a proposal. And I’m going to be involved in that kind of end to end. And to your earlier point, I’ve gone in before and blown deals up and sometimes that’s viewed as good and other times that’s been viewed as terrible.

[00:18:21.240] – Pete
Right. If I go in and say, we’re leading a customer in this direction, this is what we think we’re positioning, we would ideally like to see them purchase XYZ. And I listen to the customer and say, that is absolutely not the right solution. I have no problem in the right situation. Understanding politics. Azure always involved. I will be happy to say, I don’t think this is the right solution. I think you should consider an alternative because, again, I want to earn trust. I’m a trust based seller. I don’t want to just give a sales pitch that sounds compelling and get that signature. I understand why certain individuals and businesses operate that way. If you have a product to sell and Wall Street is concerned about you selling a certain volume and that’s all you’ve got to sell it’s, get it out the door, okay. The reason I don’t work for an OEM selling a particular product or set of products is because I think the value that we bring to a customer is understanding their needs, rationalizing solutions, building offerings that comprise of different technologies from different manufacturers, and delivering that in order to make sure that they are getting the outcome that they expect for their business.

[00:19:34.180] – Ned
It’s right there in the name value added reseller.

[00:19:36.850] – Pete

[00:19:37.300] – Ned
That was the whole original idea was you would work with multiple vendors and then you would add value by constructing solutions that make sense for the customer. I feel like sometimes that gets lost when Avar only works with one vendor and that’s all they’re basically a sell through.

[00:19:53.650] – Pete
But I would say it’s even gone beyond that. I wouldn’t say it’s just lost. I would say at this point, the terminology VAR almost has kind of a sour taste to a lot of people. It does because they don’t see the value in it. And so even where vars are adding value, they’re selling it as we’re doing consulting or we’re doing managed services, or we’re doing however they want to spin that value because unfortunately, just the reseller momentum has become such now that they don’t feel that the customer is actually the one that you’re seeking to add the value to. It can be perceived as you’re trying to do it for your own benefit.

[00:20:29.630] – Ethan
You’ve mentioned positioning a solution for the business, and you’ve said for the business several times or for a business outcome. Who is it that you’re typically selling to? Pete and I asked that because when I was selling very often, I’d be talking to It people. I’d be talking to some group of built in It folks that kind of knew what their company needed. And so the conversation tended to be very technical in nature and less about the business. But it feels like you’re coming from a different point of view.

[00:20:57.170] – Pete
I think that’s based on my career, my experience as it’s evolved. So when I first went into sales engineering, I was very much selling to the technical decision maker or to engineering. And that’s because initially I started off with fairly well defined opportunities. We have a network, equipment is going end of life. We need to refresh it. We’re going to do a little bit of validation around deeds and speeds and models. And how many do you need and do we need to plan for any kind of near term events that might change significantly occurring topology or scale of your network? And off we go. It’s a fairly tactical solution, but as I’ve been able to leverage the breadth of my experience and have worked with customers that have much broader initiatives, we’re building out an entire data center, or we’re consolidating eight data centers into two because we’ve done a lot of M and A activity, and now we need to figure out an optimal environment going forward. Those are much more complex, larger scope projects. And so at that point, we are doing far more than selling to engineering. Right? We’re now doing aspects of financial analysis, cost comparisons.

[00:22:06.930] – Pete
We’re looking at are you procuring your solutions the right way? Is the current ela you’re in the right way of consuming that service? Is there ways for the business to get what you’re looking for more effectively from not just from a financial perspective, but from can we get it faster? Right? So when we look at what the business wants, it isn’t always what the engineers want. And so as I’ve kind of had more opportunity to grow in the presales role, that’s what I really enjoy doing. Now I’m talking both to technical audiences and I’m happy talking to technical audiences. I have, obviously, all the certs and background that allow me to do that. But what I really enjoy about this now is translating technology to a nontechnical audience. So how do I get higher up in the organization speaking to leadership executives to help them align technology to what they’re trying to get to? And a lot of the times that sounds you get a technical engineering audience like, oh, here we go, here goes buzzword. Bingo. We’re going to hear agility and consumption models and opex and elasticity and all this kind of stuff.

[00:23:10.750] – Pete
And sure, those come across as buzzwords, but the reality is they’re buzzwords because businesses are looking for those capabilities in their It environment. So how do we translate that buzzword into a reality at a technical layer and an operational layer and tie it all up with a bow that someone’s willing to sign a potentially large purchase order to get that outcome?

[00:23:33.180] – Ethan
And you’re talking to smart people. They may not be educated about the technology specifics, so they may not know how to stand up a data center, but they’re also not stupid. They have businesses to run and they have finances that they have to consider and deal with. And so you do need to be able to explain this thing that you care about the blinky lights. They don’t care about the blinky lights so much. They care about the widget that comes out at the other end as a result of the blinky lights. So how do you translate to them that technical stuff into that non technical but business relevant speak and be genuine about it, not just be throwing buzzwords and being silly about it. That’s a skill. That’s a skill that I don’t think a lot of engineers, I think any engineer that does it would struggle with that a bit because it is something that you have to develop.

[00:24:19.730] – Pete
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s certainly something that I wanted to grow in over my career. It’s what scared me when I first came in to the kind of sales side of sales engineering. I knew what I knew about technology. I had no qualms about my ability to configure a data center fabric or deploy virtualization on a compute farm. What I wasn’t sure how I was going to do was articulate that in a way that I had a successful outcome, right? Success in engineering was, have I done all of my requirements capture? Have I validated my config? Have I tested it in the lab? Is my migration plan going to make sure that I get to that end state without having any business impacting outage? And we’re fairly risk averse in that. But when it goes to sales, I could do everything right? I could have the right solution, priced fairly everything, and still not guarantee that I’m going to get the same outcome that I want. So it’s a different mindset in that perspective. But to your point, Ethan, they’re extremely smart people in leadership of businesses making decisions, even if they’re not technically AWS deep as most engineers.

[00:25:24.290] – Pete
And I think actually the ones that intimidate me the most is when I’m talking to like, heads of procurement that is a whole different organization within most of our customers that does a really important role. And yet the things they think about are areas that I’m still weak in and still growing. Right. Sustainability. When we talk about things like large organizations now making decisions around who they’re going to buy from and what solution they’re going to buy based on carbon footprint and sustainability and things like this, how do I translate that back into something that I’m building with traditional products and services and stitching it all together for a customer? And yet that’s really important for organizations that are making commitments on a global platform.

[00:26:08.900] – Ethan
Do you get into discussions with business stakeholders about buying a solution for today that would be adequate for the next year or two versus buying a solution that maybe has a five year or even longer lifespan?

[00:26:20.330] – Pete
All the time. All the time. And that could be for a number of reasons. It could be we need something that is a stop gap solution. A tremendous number of my customers right now are saying we’re all in on cloud. We’re going through the process of application, rationalization planning, how we’re going to move workloads to a public cloud. But our data center gear is completely end of life. And for compliance reasons, I need to have things refreshed. But I don’t intend to be here in 24 months. So what does that look like? How do I do that in a way that my board is going to be happy with from a financial perspective?

[00:26:57.190] – Ethan
Wow, that’s a tough problem. Anyway, sorry.

[00:27:01.590] – Pete
And then you still have organizations, manufacturing, healthcare, where I’m doing a network refresh. I’m going to put something out in an IDF closet and I hope it’s still there nine years from now. It’s both. And so you have to understand, different organizations have different approaches to It infrastructure to spend procurement. Being successful in sales engineering is not just understanding. The technology, it’s understanding the customer. So you know those type of behaviors and patterns as you are putting together a solution, it’s not just architecting protocols and products and what type of optic and cable do I need to connect these devices together? It’s understanding how do I get this solution to be bought and implemented. Yeah.

[00:27:46.620] – Ned
One of the things I had to do as I moved from implementation and delivery to more of a presales and even director role at the bar I was at was letting go of my ego because I had built up a bit of a, hey, look at me, I know how to configure all this highly technical stuff. I’m awesome, I know everything. And then I kept getting walking into rooms where it was clear I had no idea from the financial sense, from what the business needed. Yeah, I could, I could make your widget do the thing, but do you even need that widget? And will you need it in five years? That was a big mind shift for me, and it took a while, but it raised a second concern in that AWS. I stepped more away from the technical aspects to deal with the business. Now I grew more and more concerned and paranoid that I was going to lose those technical chops. Do you find that that’s a concern for you or something that you worry about?

[00:28:43.350] – Pete
Yes, absolutely. When I first moved into presales engineering, I was even more concerned about it. Right. I had done that kind of hamster wheel of continuously churning out certifications and wanting to be hands on in a customer environment, or I wanted to have a really big lab that I could just constantly be experimenting on and building on. And at first I was very much like, I still need the lab. I’m going to keep doing everything. I’m not selling anything that I haven’t touched myself. And the reality was that was not going to be sustainable in the long term. So I think what’s really key here is if you have a sound grasp of fundamental principles, then as new technologies come to market, your ability to understand them, to become competent in their capabilities of when to position them, et cetera, is easier for you to grasp without needing to necessarily have the confidence. I’ve deployed it 25 times before. I’m willing to talk about it. There is definitely that shift that has to take place, but you’re going to develop new skills and so we can’t be everything to everyone. So there is definitely a decision that you need to make in your career about what’s most important to me.

[00:29:51.230] – Pete
Right. So can I maintain my CCIE lab level muscle memory for configuring? NXOS ten years later when I don’t touch a Nexus device anymore? Absolutely not. Okay. But am I much more comfortable being in a room whiteboarding, on the fly with customers that are asking me questions and I don’t know what the question is going to be or where they’re going to want to take the conversation. And so that’s a new skill. Whiteboarding public speaking, facilitating a brainstorming session or leading a workshop, those are new skills that I’ve developed and so there’s been a trade off. I’m not going to claim to be somebody that just continues to learn new things and never forget something. There has definitely been for me a shift away from being deep on the cli or in the controller, et cetera. Would I be able to do that right now if you put me back in there with some time, but I’m not going to do it anywhere near as efficiently as my post sales teams do. But the challenge and the things I’ve learned I love to speak to your ego point there. I think there’s still a little bit of a risk of that.

[00:30:57.030] – Pete
So it might be you had the ego of I knew what I was doing, I was the guy who could deploy anything very quickly and nail it every time in presales, the ego is more of like he’s the guy who’s articulate having a conversation, he’s the one you want in front of your customer. If you want one person that’s going to be able to lead a conversation and you’re not concerned about whether it’s going to be a good customer interaction, you start to identify those people and so you still have to be careful. Right? I want to be humble in what I do, but that on the sales side tends to be where the egos get developed. This person has a very high close rate, this person’s very articulate in front of a customer. There’s still a propensity for us to find an area of being proud in what we do.

[00:31:42.930] – Ethan
Are there people that end up being bad in front of a customer that you can speak to, what that might look like?

[00:31:49.410] – Pete
I think that’s definitely possible. Right? And so for people that have looked to kind of move or change their career from delivery or just kind of I’ve been behind the scenes after the deal, doing implementation, now I want to be in front of the customer in a presales capacity. There are some that make that transition very successfully quickly, others that can do it successfully with a lot of coaching and people helping them. And there are others that they just don’t ever really make that transition successfully. It’s either they were so comfortable doing what they were doing that they can’t think outside the box and a customer asks them a question outside the box that they stumble over how they want to respond. And so I’m not suggesting that you have to be a certain type of personality to be successful at presales engineering, but you have to be willing to learn, get uncomfortable, get outside the box. And for some people, if that’s too uncomfortable, then it’s probably not the right role.

[00:32:52.550] – Ethan
How does listening factor into your role as a presales engineer?

[00:32:59.450] – Ned
A lot.

[00:33:00.190] – Pete
It’s extremely important. In fact, if you look at the way I typically would run any form of interaction with the customer, whether it’s the initial meeting or whether it’s a full day workshop or we’re trying to get into a low level design. I’m trying to not talk for at least the first kind of quarter or half of that session, because, again, I’m not coming in there saying, I have the solution for you, even though I don’t know what the problem is. But you’re going to buy what I have to sell you. I’m coming in saying, Sorry, it happens, unfortunately, right. But I’m coming in and saying, I want to listen to what you’re telling me, because a lot of the times, the actual problem isn’t the first thing you tell me. Right? So if you take a typical example of someone saying, I want Cisco ACI for my data center, okay, why do you want Cisco ACI? That might sound like a strange question. A lot of people will be like, okay, fantastic. I got an opportunity to do a data center refresh. Let’s go. How many spines, leaves, et cetera. I want to understand why.

[00:34:08.620] – Pete
Is that because you’re looking to adopt network automation, because you’ve struggled with a number of tickets for making proactive changes to the network, and you’re wanting to automate it and feel a controller based infrastructure would be better. Is it because you’re wanting to use application policies to do something that’s more segmented? What is driving that? Because I want to understand the why before I start getting to the how. And a lot of times that doesn’t necessarily come out initially, so I’m listening, but then I’m probably asking questions to get higher up in the understanding. If they haven’t made those things clear to me at the beginning, I don’t want to jump straight in and just make an assumption like, okay, I’ve already made the decision. This is what they need. Until I have really concrete evidence of, okay, that was the right decision.

[00:35:00.690] – Ned
Yeah, I definitely have been in customer meetings where I came in and the engineer on the other side of the table already had a solution in mind. And part of the meeting was, as you said, first asking the question, what are you looking to do? And then they would immediately jump out with a solution. Oh, we need to buy this equipment so we can upgrade to this version of Vsphere or something. And then it evolved into a larger conversation, and you’d bring in the other stakeholders around the table and talk more about the higher up vision. And I definitely did not know to do that initially. I would go in and I’d start geeking out with that engineering guy and being like, oh yeah, have you seen the latest network adapters? This one comes with 25 gig and just really getting excited about all the cool things that we could do with the latest version of Vsphere and not stepping back and going there’s a larger question here which is does this even make sense for what you’re trying to do?

[00:35:59.410] – Pete
Yeah. And that’s a really broad conversation. It isn’t just about does it technically do what you want it to do? Again, all of Enterprise, it is there to facilitate something that the business is trying to accomplish, whether that’s we’re just running business apps for the way in which the business makes revenue or it itself is the revenue stream for the organization. There’s still a driver behind that. And we have to figure out not just how we align to that, but even once the sales made and we implement it successfully. Operational considerations, lifecycle considerations, how is that going to be taken on by the organization going forward? And if you’re selling well, you’re thinking about those things up front, not just retroactively six months after the deal closes. And they’re like how do we patch this? Those kind of considerations are important to selling well and earning trust with the customer. I’m working right now on probably what is my least favorite thing about presales engineering, which is an RFP. And the reason I don’t like RfPs, I understand they’re here to stay, they’re not going anywhere. But for exactly that reason, Ned, is that typically when you are responding to an RFP you have to make assumptions and respond with here’s the solution I’m proposing for you, without having the opportunity to ask all the questions or to get deeper into the business.

[00:37:20.440] – Pete
And so I don’t like it. One, because it’s very removed from that customer interaction. It’s hard to earn trust, which is so important to me, but because there’s a concern that I’m not actually responding with the right solution. But I don’t know that at this point in time.

[00:37:34.050] – Ned
So one thing I want to share, and maybe you had this experience as well, is when RfPs would come up and I was working at the bar, oftentimes the RFP was a requirement from some portion of the business. They had something in their processes where they had to issue an RFP. But the thing about that RFP was it wasn’t truly open. They knew exactly the solution and the vendor and the VAR that they wanted to work with. And so unless you knew that ahead of time writing up a response, which as you know, it’s a very time consuming process, we would spend days putting together a response. It would be ten, 2100 pages long in terms of response and design only to find out that they had already decided who they were going with. And it wasn’t you, it was just that they had to put this RFP out.

[00:38:28.280] – Pete
Dude, that is the truth.

[00:38:29.400] – Ethan
I’m sitting here laughing as a guy that I worked for state government for several years and we’d have to write RfPs as a part of due diligence and process and all that. It was required for grant money or whatever it was. But very often Ned, it was exactly that scenario. We knew who the vendor was, we wanted to go with who the VAR was and what the solution was and we wrote the RFP so that it would be pretty hard to respond. Unless you were that vendor with that solution, you don’t have any kind of a shot at it. So it was a bit of a sham. It was really too bad, but that’s how business was done. To the point that the state government was regarded with their RfPs enough that sometimes Avar would call me up and go, do we actually have a shot at this? Should I bother responding or kind of wink wink, nudge nudge? We’re not saying anything, but I’d let them know if they did or didn’t, all depending, because sometimes they actually did. We really didn’t have anybody in mind. But more often than not, yeah, it was kind of canned.

[00:39:25.760] – Pete
Yeah, and that’s very true, right? I mean, I wish to say it wasn’t, but that’s the way in which the industry tends to work. You can sometimes read that if you become experienced in the sales motion, you can read an RFP and go, this was clearly written a certain way, or it’s so precise that it’s essentially excluding every possibility but this one. And then you can figure out, for example, for that one solution who is deal registration. And I don’t want to get on a tangent around deal registration and that side of selling, but if the deal is already locked up from a registration perspective, you know, the outcome is already controlled, at least from a cost perspective.

[00:40:04.890] – Ethan
Pete, one more comment about selling and listening that I had to learn AWS a presales engineer when I played that role. You have to listen and not walk in there with your can solution that you’re going to sell them no matter what, because you may find an opportunity to sell them something else that they need to make their business go, oh, you need to do that. That’s a firewall upgrade. If we do that, that gives you this other capability that solves this other problem you have. And if you’re too busy waiting to spit out the solution and not really listening, you’re going to miss that opportunity.

[00:40:36.810] – Pete
Absolutely. And I know not everyone necessarily agrees with me on my perspective of this, but if you’re working for an organization that makes money by selling products and services, my perspective is it doesn’t matter what your role is in that organization you are selling. So if you are the delivery engineer that’s sitting in that 03:00, a.m. Hot aisle of the data center on the keyboard, you have a whole different insight to that customer and perspective that I didn’t necessarily get as the pre sales engineer up front. So you should still be looking at it and going like, wow, I saw they have two giant chassis switches around here that I know at End of life in nine months time. Have we asked them about that? Right. So everybody should be thinking about other opportunities. But certainly in the presales capacity. Listening is where you’re looking for cross selling and upselling opportunities to grow that deal as much as you can. More than what you necessarily thought the scope of it was when you went into that meeting.

[00:41:33.390] – Ned
Because you know that those implementation engineers have that trove of knowledge that in depth. I’ve been with the other engineers at that company in the trenches, and I’ve learned some of the inside baseball and what’s going on. To what degree do you interact with those engineers to try to extract that information.

[00:41:54.930] – Pete
As much as possible, to be honest. Right. I mean, obviously we have very different calendars, right? They’re very much controlled by project management, and they’re at customer sites at various times. But within my organization as a practice. So within networking, we have frequent meetings where we get pre and post sales resources together, especially in different subject matter areas of expertise to do knowledge sharing, not just on current projects or customers. But for example, I may have been leading with something that seemed like the right solution. And we’re seeing increasingly in post sales that the code is just not reliable. We’ve had so many issues in configuration or outages that we actually want to pivot away and say, we don’t actually lead with this. We don’t think it’s ready for the market or something like that. That closed loop of post sales back to presales is what ultimately, if it’s in place, is where an organization is going to be very successful at growing their business. If it’s not in place, you’re losing out on a tremendous amount of potential sales and really just value that you’re bringing to your customers.

[00:43:00.570] – Ethan
Well, Pete, maybe a good closing question for this interview for the engineers that are listening out here. A lot of them are practitioners hands on, and if they think of sales, it’s kind of gross. It’s not real engineering. What message would you have for them?

[00:43:15.230] – Pete
I would say this what is engineering? I mean, engineering is designing and building something, using different materials to deliver a product or a solution to an organization. Now, the building that I’m doing might not be entering the right commands in the right order on a set of devices that are connected together in a certain way. I am still taking a variety of different tools in my tool chest, deciding which is the right one to use, when and how, and putting them together to build a solution for my customer. So it’s much more high level design and architecture, but I’m still capturing requirements, I’m still designing, I’m still building, and that’s ultimately what engineering is. I enjoy doing that. I think it’s not either or. We need both I would not be where I’m at in my career today, and I would not be a confident pre sales engineer if I had not had years of doing the other side of being in the data center, being in the IDF closet, configuring gear. For me, that was an enabler of what I do today. But I think they’re just different approaches to the same problem, which is we want to build something to deliver a solution or capability to our customers.

[00:44:28.010] – Ethan
Very good, Pete. So, Pete Robertson, how can people follow you on the Internet?

[00:44:32.590] – Pete
Yeah, you can follow me on Twitter at vcloud pete and also on LinkedIn. You can find me there at Pete Robertson.

[00:44:39.420] – Ethan
Very good. Do you blog by chance?

[00:44:42.170] – Pete
I do not have my own personal blog at the moment. I have been contributing to others and to Ahead as a company blog, but I do not have my own personal one at this point in time.

[00:44:51.070] – Ethan
Okay, very good. Twitter at Vcloud pete. You can find Pete on LinkedIn if you have any questions for him. Want to ask him more about sales engineering, what that might be like, and to find out if there’s any, maybe jobs in his organization at Ahead. Hit him up and see what’s going on.

[00:45:03.650] – Pete
Absolutely. We are hiring.

[00:45:05.570] – Ethan
Very good. That was a shot in the dark. I didn’t know that.

[00:45:08.310] – Ned
That’s awesome.

[00:45:09.300] – Ethan
Ahead is a great organization. For those of you that know Chris Wall, he used to work at a head once upon a time. He doesn’t anymore. But yeah, lots of fantastic engineering going on at a head, I’m well aware of. Well, thanks, Pete, for appearing on day two Cloud today. And if you’re listening at this point, virtual high fives to you. You are amazing. And if you have suggestions for future shows, we would love to hear them hit Netteri up on Twitter. We are following at day two Cloud Show. Or if you’re not a Twitter person because there’s fewer of you these days, let’s face it, you can fill out the request form instead. That’s over at Daytool IO and the Packet Pushers Podcast Network. We have a lot more free stuff to help make you better at your job. You can jump in our Slack group and join other It engineers from around the world talking about cloud and networking. You could subscribe to our newsletter, Human Infrastructure Magazine, which is absolutely free and privacy respecting. We send you the very best engineering articles that we find. It news you might actually care about and memes to make you laugh.

[00:46:03.900] – Ethan
And that comes out every Thursday night. You can sign up for Slack in the newsletter. That’s And until then, just remember, cloud is what happens while it is making other plans.

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