How to Improve Your SE Hiring Process: Tips from Top SE Leaders
In a competitive hiring market, talent inexorably drives to well-run companies that provide a compelling candidate experience.
While there are many factors that contribute to hiring strong candidates, running a thoughtful, efficient hiring process is among the most crucial. Conversely, a recruiting process that’s slow, uncoordinated or otherwise onerous for the candidate is a strong negative indicator for future hires.
When viewed this way, it’s instructive to view the candidate experience almost as if it’s a product in and of itself. Iterating as you go, gathering market feedback, and prioritize learning above being right are core values that great product teams take to heart. Given that recruiting high-caliber talent is one of the few sustaining competitive advantages companies can achieve, investment in this area often yields strong, long-lasting returns.
To learn some tactical ways presales teams have designed this process, we spoke with top SE leaders to learn about their approaches and share learnings they’ve gathered along the way.
A Common Presales Hiring Process
Based on our conversations with presales leaders, we’ve noticed the following is the most common presales hiring process:
- Interview led by recruiter/talent partner
- Hiring manager interview
- Panel interview
- Follow up/peer interview (as needed)
While hiring processes vary by industry, vertical and company size, four interviews appears to be the standard approach. With a four-step hiring process, companies can get a strong picture of a potential candidate while keeping in mind the time commitment required.
Tips for Improving Your SE Interview Process
We asked presales leaders what best practices they’d recommend for teams actively building out a presales hiring process. Let’s dive in to their recommendations.
1. Treat interviews as a two-way process
After chatting with top pre-sales leaders, a consistent piece of advice centered around building an interview process that equally prioritized the candidate experience.
Matt Finch, Global Head of Sales Engineering at MixPanel, recommends treating it like a 50/50 process:
They are interviewing you as much as the other way around. It’s worth taking the time to prioritize the candidate experience and make it super positive. Approaching the hiring process this way will help you secure highly engaged and thoughtful candidates and avoid common pitfalls (over interviewing, long and drawn out processes, ghosting, etc).”
Scott Winterton, Senior Manager Presales Business Architects at Oracle, adds:
Managers should try to remember that the interview process is a two way process. It’s more of a “date” than an “audition.” The best interview experiences I’ve seen are ones where both parties are gauging mutual fit and benefit.
2. Set expectations prior to the panel interview
Great panel interviews are built on excellent preparation and as the hiring manager, a key responsibility is setting your candidates up for success in the panel interview. SE leaders shared tips on ways they accomplish this today:
Darlene Volas, Director of Solution Engineering at Twilio, notes:
I always do a prep call with the candidate to make sure they are clear on our presentation instructions and what we are looking for. I tend to give a few tips and suggestions which also allows me to see if they take my coaching when preparing for a presentation or demo.
She also recommends aligning expectations with internal teams:
It’s important that panelists are on the same page in regards to a role - sometimes SE teams and their sales peers have different ideas of what they need in an SE. Choosing the right panelist and having a quick recap before starting the process is helpful to align internal expectations.
Greg Wiley, Sales Engineering Manager at Splunk, shares a tactical recommendation:
I provide a briefing note to the panelists so they know what I’m looking for them to look out for and if there were any particular points of note that came out from the screening and my hiring manager interview.
3. Thoughtful design of the interview panel
A core component of the presales hiring process is the panel interview. In this stage, a variety of internal stakeholders are gathered to assess the candidate on a variety of skills ranging from soft interpersonal skills to pure technical acumen.
Based on our findings, there is often a brief behavioral section, followed by a presentation or demo with questions interspersed throughout. For many, this is when the rubber hits the road as it’s closest to the core job functions of the sales engineer - understanding prospect pains, showcasing product functionality and answering prospect questions.
Greg Wiley, Sales Engineering Manager at Splunk, notes that a well designed interview panel can compress the hiring process:
A prudent panel selection allows you to combine several aspects of that process into one. We have panels made up of one or more peers who can assess technical ability, SE ability and cultural fit. I have one of my SE manager peers on the panel as well as an AE from the team that the SE would be supporting (ideally the AE they’d be supporting) and the sales director.
Tony Francetic, Senior Manager, Solution Consulting at Thomson Reuters, notes that panel interviews can also reduce bias in the process:
I would recommend including other parties (even existing teammates) in the panel to get their perspective. Without another voice, it’s easy to make assumptions or pigeonhole someone. So much of presales is based on the intangibles (personality, presence, energy) and you don’t want to limit yourself to only what’s reflected on paper.
A critical and often overlooked piece is ensuring that a diversity of background and thought is considered when forming the interview panel.
Darlene Volas, Director of Solution Engineering at Twilio, adds:
It’s critical that our panel should be as diverse as possible, not only to make the candidate feel comfortable, but for them to realize that it’s a priority to our organization.
As the panel interview progresses, Matt Finch, Global Head of Sales Engineering at MixPanel, recommends adding a measurable component to the process:
It’s important to determine how you are going to score each candidate against a set of criteria to make the panel interview objective. I wouldn’t recommend going with your gut alone, instead, combine gut feel with measurable justification on why someone should be hired.
Matt also shares a recommendations around post-interview deliberations:
Avoid overriding panelists who think strongly about not hiring someone. That candidate will have an uphill battle if they start with folks already against them.
Common SE Hiring Pitfalls
1. Restrictive job qualifications
Great pre-sales engineers come from a variety of backgrounds. Setting hiring qualifications that are restrictively narrow could filter out potential rockstar candidates.
Tony Francetic, Senior Manager, Solution Consulting at Thomson Reuters, shares:
Some of my most successful SEs come from backgrounds outside my company. Most surprisingly (or maybe not) are teachers. They naturally want to help others, are presenters at heart and most times are lifelong learners. It’s unfortunate they are so severely underpaid in education. Maybe more of us recruiting teachers can really help to show their value!
We’ve seen a wave of automated recruiting software immensely streamline the recruiting process - from outbound outreach, to resume parsing and qualification assessments. While this software is helpful in many ways, it’s important to ensure that the pre-defined search and filtering criteria does not unintentionally exclude qualified applicants.
On this point, Scott Winterton Senior Manager, Presales Business Architects at Oracle, notes:
Ultimately, the interview process is people connecting with people. Automated systems that scan for keywords turn the process into a crap shoot, and some candidates (especially ones with entrepreneurial backgrounds, neurodiverse candidates, or career re-entries / changers) face particular difficulty.
If teams are experiencing low candidate throughput, it might be worth evaluating the top-of-funnel criteria talent partners are using to filter applicants.
2. Unnecessarily long hiring processes
Completing proper diligence on a candidate is an essential component of the hiring process that can’t be skipped. However, some organizations take this to the extreme with 7+ interviews before offers are extended.
It’s important to remember that candidates are often interviewing with many companies concurrently and the longer it takes to get to an offer, the more likely they will already have other offers in hand.
Scott Winterton Senior Manager, Presales Business Architects at Oracle notes:
The biggest mistake I’ve seen companies make is that they don’t build the process from the candidate’s perspective first. Skip level or peer level interviews should be used sparingly to validate specific gaps or concerns.
Building an interview process from the candidates perspective doesn’t mean you need to take shortcuts in your diligence, though.
Matt Finch notes you can increase both the efficiency and efficacy of the hiring by identifying and avoiding interviews that are repetitive throughout the process.
The panel interview can be very effective for this purpose. Gather key stakeholders and assess the candidate on a variety of skills in a single session, without weeks of repetitive interviews.
3. Over-indexing on technical skills
This was a recurring recommendation from presales leaders. For many technical products, it can be challenging to find candidates that have both the acumen to answer highly-technical prospect questions and the soft skills to effectively run a group demonstration.
However, it’s critical that teams equally weigh culture and team fit in their candidate evaluations.
Matt Finch, Global Head of Sales Engineering at MixPanel, shares:
A common pitfall is focusing on technical skills alone, not cultural fit. By evaluating both, you can protect your existing team from a toxic hire. In my hiring experiences, I’ve learned to prioritize low ego collaboration above almost any other trait or skill.
Greg Wiley, Sales Engineering Manager at Splunk, reiterates the importance of a holistic candidate evaluation:
As a hiring manager I wouldn’t trust technical certifications solely as they don’t really reflect the candidates ability to use the knowledge. I imagine there are quite a few people out there with IT and security certifications who have never been in an IT or security operations center.
Scott Winterton, Senior Manager, Presales Business Architects at Oracle, notes:
While in some cases a candidate needs to understand the technical aspects of their product and industry, more important is the evaluation of the candidate’s CAPP.
- Competency: do they know how to do the job?
- Ability: could they execute the job effectively?
- Potential: could they function with coaching?
- Passion: Do they want to succeed in this job for this company, in this industry, not just “a job?”
Interested in reading more content from Navattic? Check out some related pieces below:
- Complete Guide to Product Demos: What They Are & Top Product Demo Software to Evaluate
- What is a Demo Center?
- The Essential Guide to Sales Demo Software
Have more tips to share? Are there other areas you’d like us to cover in future posts? Please message me on linkedin with thoughts and feedback!
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