Good SE, Bad SE

A few months back I read Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. In it he reprinted a piece he wrote many years ago comparing good product managers to bad ones. On the eve of returning to presales I collected my thoughts on system engineering (SEs). Taking his piece as inspiration I wrote the following four months ago but am only sharing now.

First off, it should go without saying that SEs are great technologists. But being a great technologist doesn’t make someone a great SE. In fact it is merely the table stakes to join the SE game. What follows is what I’ve seen from the best SEs I’ve ever worked with.

If you lack time to read this article just look at this magnificent doodle and ponder.

Good SEs have sharp ears. They actively listen to customers and deeply understand not only what the customer is saying but what interests and motivates him. They actively listen and note new names of people to meet, new projects in planning, application and vendor problems that will produce disruption in the customer and more. Bad SEs nod as the customer speaks, not taking notes, thinking only about his own product, and rarely questioning or challenging the customer.

Good SEs are curious. They want to know how things work and are therefore always improving technically. They want to know what motivates their customer. As a result conversations with them cover far-ranging topics with surprising depth. Bad SEs’ knowledge is no deeper than a prepared deck.

Good SEs are hands-on. They build systems, write code, and plan their own demos. They become experts for their own products but also advanced users of their ecosystem’s products. Bad SEs only speak from powerpoint and couldn’t setup anyone’s product in a lab, including their employers. They run other SEs’ demos and cannot answer deep questions or recover when the demo gods derail their demo.

Good SEs constructively challenge their customers. Customers want to have the best products for their business and value the early identification of potential problems. Good SEs identify those potential problems and raise them to the customer constructively, even if the customer may at first be unwilling to hear it. Bad SEs watch their customers jump off a cliff.

Good SEs are sales professionals. They co-own the sales plan, meet customers independently, and are capable of delivering a reasonable forecast. Bad SEs arrive for the demo and think nothing of the customers after declaring a technical win.

Good SEs are a force of positivity. They beam with pride over their own product. They treat their competitors with respect. Bad SCs waste their valuable customer time slighting rivals instead of owning a vision of positivity and productivity.

Good SEs lead an army of colleagues. They know product marketers, product managers, solution engineers, product engineers, consultants, support engineers, channel teams, senior managers and any person that can help them help their customer succeed. They build networks with these people by brokering information exchange. They educate HQ about the field while learning about products and industry trends. Bad SEs have no network and gripe when they have no where to go for help.

Good SEs know their customers. Both the individuals and the company. They work to show value to the customer so a relationship of trust develops. They respond to customers with urgency and make those customer feel important. They are considerate of their customers’ wants and needs. They know their customers’ schedules and relentlessly drive everyone to meet them. Bad SEs want the sales rep to do this.

Good SEs act with integrity. They know the sales org is the frontline of the company. Sales teams own 90% of the touch points with customers and project a company’s reputation through those engagements. Good SEs own that reputation as if it were their own and they behave accordingly. This means all of the things above in addition to expense considerations, dress, demeanor, choice of words, and temperament. Bad SEs are self-important, deluding themselves to believe that it is they and not their team that succeeds.

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