Tech Marketing, Interview Questions, and Executives as Wild Bears with John Nicholson (1/3)

Welcome to episode 224 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 1 of an interview with John Nicholson, talking through the role of a tech marketer and how to progress into that role. We also discuss some of the points in John’s blog on considerations before accepting a job offer (which includes considerations during the interview process).

Original Recording Date: 02-02-2023

Topics – The Tech Marketing Role, Consideration Points before Accepting a Job Offer, Interview Questions and the Vibe Check

3:06 – The Tech Marketing Role

  • John Nicholson is a Staff Technical Marketing Architect at Vmware and co-host of the Virtually Speaking Podcast.
    • Technical marketers can work with customers, product managers (PMs), and product marketing.
    • In John’s role, technical marketing sits within a business unit (or product team). A lot of what technical marketers do is produce content and then get the content out there.
    • Some organizations put this group within an office of the CTO, within a special evangelist group, or elsewhere.
    • Often you see tech marketing personnel on stage at conferences or producing videos, for example. John tells us roughly 80% of the work is behind the scenes working to support the next product launch – collecting information, training sales engineers, building enablement for partners, conducting workshops, etc. There is a lot that is very visible but much that is hidden.
    • Nick says John N is part of the team who creates all kinds of pretty pictures and diagrams people love, right?
      • John says yes. They create PowerPoint slide decks for consumption and even things like interactive infographics (one example being the vSAN infographic).
      • The team is constantly evaluating what people click on and what closes deals, speaking with sales engineers, customers, etc.
      • The vSAN Design Guide, for example, can be a challenge to maintain due to its length. But when you look at the traffic statistics, many people look at it.
      • John tells us there are long form content options that they team maintain as well as shorter, byte size content like 2-minute videos / demos or even a quick GIF.
    • You have to like writing to do tech marketing. Perhaps you like blogging and communicating. You don’t have to be the world’s most gifted speaker but cannot be afraid / paralyzed to go and present to audiences of 150 people or more.
    • John likes to say people get into tech marketing because they are already doing it. This role recruits heavily from solution engineers or customers who were already presenting at conferences and blogging.
    • John N mentions he knows John White from a presentation they did together probably 10 years ago at Spiceworld on storage virtualization.
      • Nick was in the audience for that presentation and says it was excellent! He remembers each John sharing a couple of slides and speaking for probably 5-10 minutes on each slide.
    • If you’re interested in pursuing this path, go speak at a VMware User Group (VMUG) or a local BSides. The idea is to speak at local area user group events to practice and work your way up.
      • John N. tells us Duncan Epping has a great 2-part blog (part 1, part 2) on working his way up to where he is today. John says he and Duncan have presented to a room of 750 people before, and at his core Duncan is terrified of public speaking.
      • The recruiting for technical marketing comes from pools of people who are already doing the speaking and writing. That shows you have experience before you take the job. Managers in tech marketing want to see that experience in people they hire.
    • This is a pattern. If you want a position, you should develop a history of doing the different parts of the job that are in that position (as much as you know) which builds a referenceable body of work and relatable experience.
      • John N says he didn’t actually apply for the role until somoene recommend he do so. Duncan Epping sent him a message about it.
      • When John N started interviewing for a tech marketing role he had been speaking, had been on podcasts, had already written technical notes for vSAN (which happened to be the product team he was going to join), and he had been involved in giving product teams feedback through mechanisms like CTAB (customer technical advisory board).
    • Coming into this field or moving between tech companies can be challenging due to the amount of tribal language and acronyms. It’s not welcoming, and we can each do our part to help people understand what we mean and ensure people new to it really understand the terminology being used (all part of removing jargon).
    • In tech marketing John N presents to many people whose primary language is not English.
      • Knowing your audience is important. Things like idiomatic expressions may not translate well and could be offensive to some audiences. Be sure to clean up the language you use in presentations so it is clear to your audience and represents what you really want to say.

11:11 – Consideration Points before Accepting a Job Offer

  • John Nicholson wrote a great blog article we’ve referenced previously on the things you need to know before taking a job offer.
    • John thinks it started as a Spiceworks post and eventually became too large to copy to a Reddit thread, so he decided to move it to a blog and let it live as a document.
    • The blog is written in two parts. The top part it is when you as a candidate are interviewing a potential employer.
      • When John N interviewed at VMware it was different for him. He felt happy in the job he had at the time managing a team and felt he was making good money. As a result John decided there were certain questions he needed to ask to "interview them."
      • Being in consulting gave John a view of what healthy functioning companies looked like. He would often have to meet with CFOs (Chief Financial Officers) to understand some of the reasoning behind IT project funding.
      • John N learned the signs of a healthy company, signs of a healthy team, and signs of things to avoid (i.e. evidence of red flags).
      • For example, if you do not meet your future manager in the interview process or just meet the manager and not a member of the team on which you would be working, those are both red flags.
      • The article was originally written for the IT practitioner (with discussion of budgets, services you might need to manage / administer if you get the job).
      • The blog also gets a lot into how to look at a company when applying for a role there.
      • John has seen people in the tech industry move from a safe, healthy job that pays well to a startup that isn’t nearly as safe. He would encourage us all to bookmark and look at things like the cap table and funding rounds. One could look at that and see how easy / challenging it might be for a company to reach an IPO. John has seen senior directors move from well established tech companies to startups that die 6 months later, for example.
      • Understanding business finance can help you make decisions about companies.
    • The second part of the blog is more about compensation and questions related to it.
      • "What the base salary is not the full story. There’s a lot of detail there." – John Nicholson on total compensation for a job
  • The first question the blog encourages us to ask is the company’s view on training.
    • John White says this can in some ways speak to how fast the company is moving and how much they want people to develop skills.
    • John N tells us we need to determine if on day 1 we would be managing something with which we have no experience or if there is a gentle ramp up. Or maybe you enjoy the chaos?
    • Another good question to ask is "why is this position open?"
      • John White had not thought about asking this one before speaking with John Nicholson.
      • This can make people feel a bit awkward, but we should pay attention to whether people say positive or negative things about the person who last occupied the role. John Nicholson has also seen someone completely destroy a datacenter on their way out of the company (which also could be a sign of a toxic culture).
      • Having a strong network can help here also (knowing people who have worked for the company at some point or people who work there currently). If you were going to work for a large organization like Amazon for example, likely there are great teams and some not so great teams to join. It would be wise to learn about the team you’re joining from people who interact with that team or perhaps work on that team so you know (at least somewhat) what you are getting into by joining the company as a member of that team.
      • John N says we need to get out there and meet people. We can stay in touch with former co-workers on LinkedIn, for example.
      • John White mentions he had a calendar reminder every other month to follow up with someone on LinkedIn. He would export his LinkedIn connections and leverage a random number generator to select the person.
      • If you go have coffee with someone you’ll find out about opportunities. People will make connections for you / keep you in mind for opportunities (even if you’re not looking for a job). It’s like having a parachute packed and allows you to have a pulse on the market in a way.

17:57 – Interview Questions and the Vibe Check

  • Nick doesn’t feel like the average interviewee develops a list of questions to ask their interviewers throughout the process.

    • John N says he’s been in too many interviews where the candidate has no questions. Do not be that person! Make sure you have questions.
    • There are certainly tricky mind game type questions, but asking a few questions (even if you borrow them from John N’s blog) helps the people interviewing you see you have thought about the role and are interested. It also helps you make a decision.
    • Not understanding what the job is going to be and not understanding what the compensation is going to be is like trying to buy a car without knowing the color it will be, what the trim package is like, and trying to negotiate without knowing the currency being used.
    • It’s important to establish some kind of ground truth, or you may not be getting what you think you’re getting.
    • John N shares the story of someone he worked with who was excited about another company offering him a 15% raise. It turned out there was no bonus structure at the new company, and insurance was more expensive. This person actually ended up taking a pay cut to make the move even though it didn’t seem that way on the surface.
  • Another question from the blog John White hadn’t thought about asking (especially when moving into a role you’re not familiar with) – how is success measured?

    • Is the measure of success a stack rank on the team?
    • What are the outcomes or OKRs (objectives and key results)? Are these measured on a short sprint, a couple of times per year, continuously, etc.?
    • Do you do 360 assessments where peers judge each other?
    • There can be environments where the measurements are nonexistent or solely based on the discretion of the manager, and those can work.
    • "Managers to me are binary. Can I work for this person? Do I respect them? Are they going to help me with my career?….People don’t quit jobs. They quit managers more often than they quit jobs." – John Nicholson on determining if someone is a good manager
    • Signs of a poor manager could be…
      • Are they someone I’m going to want to avoid meetings with, that I know is never going to have the ball in my court?
      • Are they someone I will have to work around to advance / get basic resources / accomplish my day job?
    • In the interview process you’re interviewing potential managers who could (depending on the company) fire you but could also annoy you enough to encourage you to leave the company.
  • What are some of the top questions John Nicholson would ask a potential manager in the interview process?

    • What is the expected time for productivity, or what does that look like? What is the ramp up period for the job you are about to take?
      • If you are moving from being a SRE (site reliability engineer) at Google to a role at Amazon, it will take time to learn new things.
      • One example John shares is a manager telling him for the first 6 months he probably would not be terribly productive due to a large number of unique systems and different types of activities than John had previously done.
      • This was very different than John’s experience in the MSP (managed service provider) space where someone’s first day on the job might be to lead a project.
      • If it’s a support role, how long will it be until you’re expected to take customer calls?
      • If it’s a sales role, how long will someone be shadowing you before you can take calls on your own?
      • Will there be specialists who support me?
      • Who do I reach out to when I’m stuck? The hope is your manager would assign someone in the short term and for a longer term. Another reason to meet the team is to see if there are others who will be invested in your success.
      • You don’t want to walk into a system that incentivizes people not helping each other (i.e. the stack rank option mentioned previously).
      • Stack ranking puts people into a tiered structure based on how they perform (or an executive leader’s perception of their performance / value to the company) with the top tier containing the top performers and the highest rewards. Lower tiers may contain some rewards but perhaps not as many. Listen to the way John Nicholson describes it.
      • The lowest tier of people in a stack rank system may be on performance improvement plans or get unknowingly volunteered for the next reduction in force. John N knows of at least one tech company where if you’re in that bottom tier (i.e. bottom 10-20%) your bonus will be zero. If bonus or some variable component makes up a lot of your compensation, this can have a big impact on your pay.
    • As part of the interview process, try to meet the skip-level manager (the person 1 level above the hiring manager).
      • When John N interviewed at VMware he interviewed all the way up to the VP of the (then) small business unit he would be entering. Having that conversation helped John understand even the VP wanted him to be successful, which helped sell him on the role overall.
      • When John N worked at an 18-person company he interviewed with one of the owners. If you’re at a company that small there’s no reason not to meet an owner. Make sure there is a success alignment.
    • Nick suggests it is more nerve racking the higher the title of someone you meet with in the interview process. John N says it can be but that people tend to treat executives like wild bears.
      • John N worked for a class C zoo at one point in his career that had bears. The training they took taught you to stare down a charging bear.
      • John also spent time as a hiking guide. That training for bears advises you to make yourself big and to make lots of noise.
      • "Those execs, maybe they are like bears, but they are more like the bears in the wild…People who are VPs are not all out to get you or eat you….They have kids. They are normal people." – John Nicholson, on interacting with executives and facing our perception of them
      • If a new executive comes in, learn about their career and how they got to where they are today. Try to make a connection with that person, and give them a chance to do some mentoring. It may open them up a bit.
      • "Flip the script a little bit. You’re not a good vice president or you’re not a good senior director if you haven’t been a good mentor." – John Nicholson speaking to executives and leveraging them for mentorship
      • If an executive barks at you like a bear, you know you don’t want to work at that company.
      • John N has worked for companies where he could go ask the CEO why the company ran the way it did and get good feedback. He tells us that during the hiring process we may have access to more people like this than we might after becoming an employee (i.e. executive leaders wanting you to follow a chain of command with lower levels of management first).
    • John White suggests if we are speaking with a senior director or VP it’s really a vibe check point in the process and not to override the hiring manager’s decision.
      • John N says they will be the person who makes your manager fire you if they decide they need to save budget in the future. In large companies it’s generally somewhere up the management chain where a directive is given to trim budget by a certain amount (usually at the VP level, possibly senior director). It is rare that your manager ever actually wants to fire you.
      • "I like to say culture comes from the top." – John Nicholson, speaking about executives of companies and their influence on the overall company culture
      • Listen to John N’s comparison of two different CEOs, their lifestyles, the type of books they might write, and how it might affect your decision to join a company.
      • John White reiterates the vibe check is two-way. The high level manager / executive who is interviewing you is looking for red flags, and we should also be checking to see if we would be ok working for the person one level removed from our direct manager.
      • We don’t need to share our life story in these types of conversations or share everything we were frustrated about from previous employers. Restraint is needed in these situations, but we also don’t want to interview as one person and show up as someone entirely different. Show the person interviewing you some of who you are, and always be working on yourself.
      • "Be yourself, but be a good person." – John Nicholson on the person we should be when interviewing
  • Mentioned in the outro

    • Nick says the advice on interacting with executives sounds similar to what Anudeep Parhar shared in Episode 209 on bringing a point of view and something to ask.
    • For more ideas on questions to ask in interviews, check out some of the questions John White wanted to ask and did ask when he interviewed for his current role at Nutanix:
    • Other episodes to check out on the tech marketing career path:

Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.

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