How to Create a Successful Army of Systems Engineering Ninjas

In any organization, the SE (Systems Engineer, or Sales Engineer depending on what you prefer) is one of the most vital roles for success. Some organizations may not use the term SE, but may use the term SA (Solutions Architect). No matter what you want to call it, the SE role is what makes or breaks an organization in the early days. The question always is “How do we have the best SEs in the world out there working with our product?”. The answer is not as difficult as you may think it is.

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Ready to build an army of SE ninjas? Read on.

Hire the Right People

Your technology can be learned. What cannot be learned is passion, and drive. The best SEs are highly motivated self starters who love to learn. They love to learn not only about your product, but everything your product touches so they can provide the complete solution for their customers. Look for people who are active in the area your product serves, or adjacent areas.

For example, if I was looking for an SE for a storage product, I want to look beyond people with storage experience. I want to look at people with application experience, since applications utilize storage, or even server or virtualization experience since those areas are a huge consumer of storage. I can teach these people everything they need to know about my storage product, and the knowledge they bring to my organization only serves to make us better and enrich our knowledge as an organization.

Provide the Right Training

After you find the right people, you must provide them with the right training. This will vary on the size of your organization and how it is structured. If you are a startup, you want your SEs to be product experts, and be able to talk at a high level. You also want them to be able to go deep into the weeds when necessary and know the ins and outs about how your product works.

The key to teaching this, besides experience, is proper training. You will hear many ghost stories out there about how look it takes an SE to become self sufficient. This time period is directly related to how well you train them and get them experienced with the product.

The first thing a new SE should experience is a boot camp taught by an experienced SE, or the people who actually build the product. We are talking at least a week of full on immersion. We want our SEs to eat, sleep, and breathe our product during our early days. Ideally this should be in person, but we all know that is not always possible. Because you have hired the right people, you can also accomplish this over a video conference system such as WebEx, GoToMeeting, or Zoom.

Now for what not to do. Do not just throw them into the ocean with the sink or swim methodology. Leaving your new SE to flounder is never a good idea, they need to build confidence in your products and relationships with their peers. Assign them an experience partner in crime to help them acclimate. Someone they can go to with questions, and to trade ideas with.

Another not to do is to make them spend a week with pre-recorded training courses they will not pay attention to. Focus on in person/over the web live training and their partner in crime as the most important assets to bringing the new SE up to speed with your products.

Give Them the Right Tools

The number one thing you need to provide to your SEs for them to be successful is at least one environment for them to use your product in. This environment can server multiple purposes

  • Learning – Allow your SEs to get hands on experience with your product.
  • Breaking – Free QA from the above, challenge your SEs to take your product to the brink.
  • Demoing – Nothing shows prospective customers what your product is about more than seeing it in action.

As a startup, your budget may be constrained, but this is important! Depending on what your product requires, you may be able to have your SEs all run a lab virtualized locally on their laptops. You may also choose to place this environment in the cloud, or build a physical lab they have remote access to. Technology today is fantastic, which may let you run several labs at the same time on the same hardware. Leverage virtualization to ensure at least one environment is pristine and ready for demos at any time.

Your SEs should be able to show how your product works in their sleep. Making them practice before their peers is a great way for everyone to learn. The SE organization should also come up with a scripted demo to use in order to make sure the required message is being shared each and every time.

How Do I Structure My Systems Engineering Organization?

How you structure your organizations depends on a number or factors, such as the size of your organization and how many products you are selling.  This structure will also evolve over time. There are two main types of SEs, the generalist, and the specialist.

The SE generalist knows enough to have high level and low level business and technical discussions with customers. This may mean your generalist SE must know a number of products if you have them, or know your specific product inside and out.

The SE specialist focuses on a particular aspect of your product suite, or a specific product and integrations into other applications and products.

For example, if we go back to the example of the storage SE, your generalist may know the inner workings and details of the storage array itself. However, you may have a specialist who deals with a particular application type such as databases or virtualization. The specialist is an expert in their specific area, and how your product integrates with it. Many generalist SEs may naturally evolve into a specialist role based on their knowledge before becoming an SE or based on what they learned as an SE.

In a young organization, there may only be one type of SE, the generalist. These SEs will need to know the product inside and out to be able to enter the market. The organization may stay this way for some time. The question then becomes when is it time to hire or create specialist SEs? You will know the time is right from the generalist SEs, when they begin to look for a resource that knows about the integration with your product and a specific technology or application the product integrates with. When they cannot find the person who knows this naturally, and this person is in demand from multiple SEs, it is time to create this role by either hiring someone or training an existing SE.

Pairing Your Systems Engineers with Sales

While your SE army is a key component of your business, they will also be paired with Sales Representatives.  The SE/Sales Rep relationship is one of the most important in the organization.  It is important for both parties to respect each other.  This is especially true if you have a single SE supporting multiple Sales Reps, since each pair will have a different relationship.

If you are in the hiring process, make sure both parties are active.  For example, have multiple Sales Reps interview an SE and vice versa.  If a pair does not get along, think twice before having them work together.  The people component is often overlooked in sales organizations, with management focusing on performance and quota.

The best thing that can happen is you have a SE and Sales Rep get along, and start with your organization together.  This puts them on even footing, without having one feel superior over the other.  The also get to learn their roles and responsibilities together, and can develop a harmony in their working relationship.  This is something that management sometimes tries NOT to do since they do not see the value in two new individuals working together, in fact it is seen as something detrimental to the sales organization.  Ensuring SEs (as well as Sales Reps) have a peer to teach them the ropes can help alleviate this problem

Retaining Your Systems Engineers

SEs are ripe for poaching for competitors. It is important to compensate and reward them in a number of ways to ensure they remain a part of your organization. First and foremost is the SPIF, sales performance incentive fund. This fund seeks to reward members of the sales organization for their outstanding contributions. Requirements can be to retire a certain amount of quota in a certain time period, to selling a defined monetary value of a specific product or service. In many organizations, the trend is to give a payment from the SPIF (or just SPIF) the sales or account representative. The fact of the matter is that the sales person would not be able to meet their sales requirement without their engineer behind them. It is important to ensure SEs are included in these SPIF payments.

It is also important to invest in your SEs from a training perspective, beyond what is required for them to do their jobs. We talked about the evolution of an organization to require a SE specialist, and it is important to see if any SEs internally are interested in these roles. In order to enable them, provide the required training. We want our SEs to remain driven and fresh, and sometimes they need a new challenge to stay that way.

Determine Your Mission

What is the mission of your SE organization? Obviously, you are there to sell a product or service, but what else? It is important for the SE organization to have a mission statement or a mantra that each and every SE subscribes to. This charter can pull from the culture of your organization, but the most important aspect is to encourage the SEs do the right thing for the customer each and every time. The SEs are on the front line, interacting with your customers and potential customers, and building your company’s reputation.

Building Your Organization

Chances are you may only start out with one or two SEs. It is important to keep in mind what we talked about, and start thinking about the points at which you scale your army of ninjas. It is important to remember our ninjas are people too, and we do not want to burn them out. Be sure to check in with them regularly to see how they are doing, and what their workload is like.

If you are a young SE organization, and have already began to build your ninja army, it is not too late to implement any of these tips. Quite frankly, larger more established organizations will still benefit these guidelines. Building your SE ninja army is a journey, and your ninjas will continue to evolve personally, professionally, and as group together. These tips are key for SE success in any organization.

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