Enabling Your Channel – Part I

For most SEs, part of your responsibility includes supporting your channel partners. These partners are a direct extension of your sales coverage. In large companies there are teams of SE’s dedicated to these functions. For most, however, this responsibility falls to the local territory account team and SE. In this two-part article we’ll first explore ways to manage this organizationally and secondly how to manage this locally.

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The Need for Training

One of the advantages of working for a company highly specialized around one or two products is that it is easier to stay on top of product knowledge. When your portfolio of products grows and begins to touch a lot of other technology is when the issue of training takes center stage.

So how much time should you be spending on training as an SE?

If you ask a rep or sales manager the answer will be astonishingly low. If you ask product managers the answer may be quite high. In reality there are many factors that influence this and will vary from company to company. My criteria include:

  • How many products are there in the portfolio?
  • How vertical in nature is the SE position? Does it include implementation and support or is it strictly presales?
  • How intricate is the technology (desktop apps or ERP for example)?
  • How many other technologies do the products interact with?
  • Who is the primary buyer, influencer, etc. in the account? The higher up it goes the less technical the SE needs to be.
  • How often does the portfolio turn (i.e. new versions released)?

As each of these goes up, the training requirements increase. This is because the SE is increasingly responsible for knowing information that is in flux. That aspect can be part of the allure of being an SE, but without adequate allowance for training it is a huge morale killer. Regardless of the position, people that do not have the necessary tools/information to perform their job feel disempowered and overwhelmed. This makes training a very important consideration for the company and SE manager.

My general rule of thumb is 4-6 hours every week (or 10-15% of a theoretical 40 hour work week). Depending on the answers to the questions above, the slider may move up or down by 5% or so. In a separate post I’ll go into the benefit of scheduling a full lab day every week. Part of that purpose is to allow for necessary training.

So what can each of us do to maximize the value of training?

The Sales Engineer

  • Know your learning style
  • Take advantage of down time by always having education resources available on your laptop, Kindle, iPod, etc.
  • Put yourself in situations to learn from other SEs. No one knows better the key information you need than a fellow SE. The lab day is great for this.
  • Never rely on others to provide all the training you need to maximize your effectiveness. Don’t be afraid to dive in to product manuals, go through real installs, and test scenarios out for yourself. Good or bad, your ability to learn on your own has to be a skill you hone if you want to be considered one of the best.
  • Always push yourself to acquire knowledge beyond any narrow confines of your current position. Learn about supporting technologies, business strategy, soft skills, etc.

The Company

  • Develop and religiously fight for consistent training programs.
  • Publish everything in multiple formats to support various learning methods.
  • Subscribe to books online services that allow your folks to go right to the best sources of 3rd party information.
  • Celebrate learning and ensure all employees have access to the best training possible. A Learning Organization may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.

SE Managers

  • Zealously support your team’s right to take an adequate amount of time out of the field to focus on training.
  • Give your team a training allowance and let them go crazy on Amazon or attend seminars.
  • Encourage your people to seek self improvement beyond the confines of their current job. This can include books but also formal education and certification as well.

I consider myself to be a voracious reader/learner and I can’t say enough good things about the personal value I feel I have received by continually pushing this envelope.

Good luck in your own studies!

Value of Certification for SEs

Almost all of us at one point have had to get certified in a particular product. In some industries it is job critical and others it can be seen as nice to have. I’ve run into very few certifications that have actually been a detriment to advertise—though 8-10 years ago my Microsoft certifications got me uninvited to a couple UNIX shops.

Some SEs live and die by their certifications, even though it is not a job requirement. I know some that would rather schedule a visit to the dentist than Prometric. As with most things there is not a clear answer to the debate. Here is my take.

In the workplace, everyday, big decisions are made, deals are won and lost, and events take place that hinge on the slimmest of margins. An associate of mine likes to call them tie breakers.

You can not afford to be losing the tie breakers.

There are many different types of tie breakers: your dress, your speech, your likability, reputation, trust, credibility, etc. If you take a look at ways you could influence some of these (especially the last 3), I think certification definitely plays a positive role.

There are several situations to consider. If you walk into an account right after an SE from a different company pitching the same type of solution, who might a customer believe is more credible? Someone with no industry certifications or someone with 6 acronyms after their name. If you’re vying for a promotion and it comes down between you and someone with similar credentials, the certification may be the tie breaker. The same thing will play out in a job interview. These are some big factors in your life and is why I take every opportunity to stack the deck in my favor.

Having said that, this doesn’t necessarily come down to a yes or no discussion. You can draw the line in different spots. 1 certification or 5 or 17. Here are some things to consider:

– Are you a good test taker?
– Can you breeze through technical manuals?
– Are you still early in your career?
– Are there highly respected or coveted certifications in your field?
– Will your existing company pay for classes and/or tests?

The more yeses you have the more beneficial certification will be for you and the more of them you should seek. If you’re late in your career, like where you are, and have difficulty passing tests, you’re better off just obtaining 1. The sweet spot for most people is between 3-5. Holding too many certifications might make some people think you are compensating for other weaknesses. Of course hold as many as you like, just be more particular about which ones you publicize on your business card, email signature, and resume.

One other factor I’d like you to consider is interindustry certification. What I mean by that is pursuing a certification that is well respected and recognizable but falls outside your day-to-day job function. If you’re a desktop/server guy seek some network experience and certification. I would even go so far as to recommend certifications outside technology. You’d be amazed at what happens when you can put a CPA, CFP, Esq, etc. on your card. Not only is it a conversation starter, but invariably you’ll find others now in technology who once worked in these other fields as well. This practice works best when you already posses this knowledge from school or former profession or is a hobby of yours—otherwise it’s not worth the time investment.

Finally, as a manager, I think it is good practice to encourage your people to seek certification—and pay for it within reason. Not only are you contributing to their knowledgebase, you’re also contributing to general career growth and development. You’re also likely benefitting from a confidence booster as tests are passed. Most companies recognize this benefit and subsidize certification. If you’re not you may be taking a hit for it that you don’t realize.

So as an individual or company, don’t miss out on the tie breakers. You’ll find time/money here is well spent even if not immediately quantifiable.