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Interview with Eric Rodwell, VP of Conga

Ledge sits down with Eric Rodwell, VP Worldwide Solutions Engineering at Conga, to discuss the importance of self awareness when starting the journey of professional development. He shares helpful tips on putting yourself in the shoes of your customer to keep quality high and deliver an exceptional experience.

David Ledgerwood
David Ledgerwood
· 24 min


Ledge: Hey, Eric. Thanks for joining us. Good to have you on.

Eric: Yeah. Thanks, Ledge. Looking forward to it and thanks for having me on.

Ledge: So if you don’t mind, give a quick introduction of yourself and your work, things you’re doing now so we can dive in and give the audience some interesting tidbits.

Eric: Sounds good. Right now I’m the Senior Director of Worldwide Solutions Engineering at Conga. Started out as an engineer, so writing code for SaaS applications when I started out. Then gradually moved into a more customer-facing role, doing demos and presentations and proof-of-concepts.

I have a lot of passion around presenting and presenting value and those types of things so I moved into a solutions engineering role. Then, over the past probably 15 years or so, been managing technical teams – both solutions engineers and then moving over to just software engineers and whatnot from there.

One of the things that I’ve seen, just in general, and is a big point for me, is around growth and development and skills. How do we continue to grow skills and to grow our individuals and our teams? I really look at three top skills for particularly solutions engineers, and that are technical skills, selling skills, and then interpersonal skills such as emotional intelligence.

Ledge: Well, lots to unpack there. Those of us who have been in, and sometimes remain in, the engineering seat are not maybe famous for our emotional intelligence, although there is a great deal of convergence there. In fact when I talk to engineering leaders that it is one of the number one selection factors. That it isn’t about code tests anymore. The table stakes of getting a technical job are, you can code and you understand good practices and you can do your algorithmic development things like that, but the biggest piece is around that emotional intelligence.

Frankly, I don’t know that we have done a great job arming our engineering class with the tools for that, so that professional development makes a huge difference.

What are some best practices there if that’s something that you’re invested in and working on on a daily basis?

Eric: Absolutely. When you talk about emotional intelligence there’s a lot around that. I think at times people feel like, is it something that you’re born with or is it something that you can develop over time? The research shows that it’s something that you definitely develop over time.

One of the things that comes to mind initially is just the self-awareness piece. How aware are you of both your own emotions and how you’re feeling, thinking, doing things and then how that comes across to other people?

A good example of that is, maybe I had a tough night last night with say my daughter and I didn’t get much sleep. I come into the office today and I’m meeting with my team. I’m grumpy. I’m a little irritated. So immediately the team is kind of like, “Wow. Is something going on? Did something at the company change? Did I do something,” if you’re talking to somebody individually around that.

The first piece is around that self-awareness. Understanding how your actions and emotions can affect obviously you, but then the people around you. And how, good and bad, that can affect their emotions and mood and some of those things.

Ledge: Right. Absolutely. It’s so much about self-awareness and I would say situational awareness. That you are not – none of us are – a good compartmentalizer. I think we’re as good at compartmentalizing as we are at multitasking, and yet all the research would show you that, in fact, that is a convenient lie that your brain tells itself. You’re not good at that. You can’t do it. You’re not built that way.

Just to be aware that you’re bringing your whole self, holistically, to that position. It’s so important now when engineers are being asked more and more and more. It’s not just about engineering meetings anymore. Customer-facing roles are really like all the roles now.

The days are gone when, early in my engineering career, we actually were encouraged to sit in the basement with all the lights off and monochrome screens and hammer out code. God forbid you ever talk to the customer, or the user, or anyone.

That doesn’t happen anymore. There’s this rapid convergence of product and engineering and customer success and all those things.

Certainly in the solutions engineering and sales engineering seat you’re hyper aware of that. How do you make the whole organization rally around those points?

Eric: You talk a lot about that in terms of just being aware and putting ourselves in our customers’ shoes.

A lot of times we get focused, as an organization, around our process and our procedure but we really don’t understand the customer’s journey and what are they going through from that point of view? Whether that’s for developing new product and being able to understand, how is an end user going to interact with this product, and putting ourselves, as the engineer, in their shoes. Even when we’re going through say the sales process. We may have certain things internally that we want to do to make sure we’re tracking and those types of things, but a lot of times those can be onerous to the customer in their journey. They’re like, “Why do we have to go through this step or this process? That’s not how I buy software,” for example.

Being able to understand from the customer’s point of view what’s most important to them, and removing some of that friction. If you can get that aligned as an organization in a customer-first or customer-centric mindset in everything that you do – from sales, from marketing, to engineering, to product management, to customer support and success and services – I think that that helps with that piece.

Ledge: We’re talking about this in a very abstract level. I’m curious, from your experience then, maybe some examples where things were not on the right foot and customer experience wasn’t top-of-mind, and you had to make some course correction.

I always find it’s easier to identify the symptoms sometimes than… We all know we should do these things, but what does it look like when you’re a little off-kilter on the road, and how do you refocus? Do you have any examples like that?

Eric: A couple of examples come to mind. One is, we’re going through, for example, a user interface redesign. As we’re going through that we come up with, hey, this is how we think things should work – and that whole thing. Then we start rolling that out and we didn’t get enough input from the customer base.

Being able to spend a little bit more time with them, do some more interviews. Say, “Here’s where we were coming from and some of the feedback that we heard. But now let’s get, what additional things,” and iterate through that, from that point of view, to help reset that piece with our customers. That’s one area.

Another area. A lot of times in a sales engineering role, a lot of it is around showing product. People want to see a demo. There’s a balance between trying to get enough information to show a demo that’s going to hit their points versus just interviewing somebody, getting as much discovery as possible, and almost boring them to death with question after question. You almost feel like you’re being interrogated. So some of the feedback that we’ve gotten at times is, “Can we just see something?”

Instead of getting a solutions engineer involved, delivering something like a video where people can just see something. “Okay. Now I understand the product. Let me tell you a little bit more around what I’m trying to do from my point of view. Now that I can see things, feel and touch, I have a little bit better understanding from that point of view.”

Again, we’re trying to fit people in a specific, “This is our process. You need to do this, this and this.” We got some feedback saying, “Yeah, but what if I want to see something before that? I should be able to do… Go on my journey with me as the customer.”

Ledge: Right. What you bring to mind is, having sat in a number of different departments, particularly in operations and marketing, we want everything to be the same and making processes. It’s just so much easier to track and count.

From the sales seat, also having sat there, you come back and you go, “I don’t know what to tell you guys. Every customer is different. Do you want me to make the sale or not?”

Eric: Yep.

Ledge: Of course there’s that middle ground, but it’s so easy to think – and engineers would be the same thing – like, jeez, if we didn’t have to deal with the damn customer trying to change everything all the time, this would be so much easier. Of course they pay the bills, right?

Eric: Yep.

Ledge: I get it. I think everybody has that, you’ve got to put on that empathy hat inside the organization. Forget about before you get to the customer, we all have to realize that we’re trying to get to the same goal. Sales is going to say, “Dude, I’m going to sell whatever you need me to sell, whatever I can to get the deal done because that’s what we need. We need customers.” Then everybody else is going to say, “Well, we need to actually deliver the thing so you can’t just make stuff up. You can’t fork the product for every customer.”

I get it. There’s that constant push and pull. It really comes down to organizational trust and culture to put that together. I’m sure that you have many stories along those lines, having sat in the sales seat.

Eric: Absolutely. I think you bring up a good point around culture. You want to be open and honest with your customers, and not overselling things, or selling that things that aren’t there from that point of view. Sometimes there is that friction between selling – you want to sell the latest and greatest and push features that are coming and things like that. But again when it comes to delivery, when it comes to customer success and support, and again thinking about putting the customer in mind, we need to do what’s right and best for the customer.

If sometimes that means that we’re not the right fit for them at this point in time, that’s fine. Let’s be open and honest about that. Let’s share our journey – where we’re headed, where we are right now, and where we’re going to be. If that’s a journey that the customer wants to come on with us, then let’s go ahead and go down that journey and really create a really good, strong partnership. Which I think is really important.

Ledge: Absolutely. You know, creating a good experience, people are going to come back a long time later – it can be a long tail – and say, hey, those people were straight with me and I wanted to buy that solution but it wasn’t where I needed it to be at the time, or what have you. Years later, they’re going to come back and say, “I saw you changed companies and now you’re doing whatever you’re doing. Maybe this is a good time to reengage. You were always someone who was honest with me.”

It’s that long term disposition. I’m thinking, again, that intracompany culture and dynamics. All of us who have sat in the engineering seat have also heard the endless barrage from the users in sales of all the things they want in order to make the product better, if it’s their ideal use case. It’s completely overwhelming at times.

I’m curious. Since you’ve sat in both seats there, how do you think the interaction with sales and product and engineering should go for prioritization? Again, sales and customers, they’re hardwired to always want the thing to get the job done exactly how they want it, but that honestly isn’t tenable from a prioritization standpoint in product and engineers. How should those conversations happen, because not every salesperson and customer is going to get what they want.

Eric: My view is always a longer term view. We hear a lot around we’ll say technical debt and things like that where, for example, there may be things that we need to fix in the product or enhancements that we need to create, but a lot of times we’re chasing after customer commitments. So, in order to close this deal, we have signed the contract and said we’re going to deliver this functionality. It’s like we’re almost chasing after these things.

My first approach is, we need to take a long term view and then balance that with some of the short term requests. I think internally, in terms of strong product management and leadership from that point of view, working with your sales leaders and engineering leaders to be able to say, how are we balancing that long term of we’re trying to create product for market trends and things like that.

When we talk about digital document transformation or artificial intelligence, we’ve got to make sure our products can deliver on some of those. But then at the same time, we do have the reality of the customers pay the bills and there are things that they need. So being able to balance some of that.

I think having a good, strong, open communication and leadership between the product managers, your sales leaders, and your engineering leaders to be able to balance that long term and short term view is key. You’re going to have to make some tradeoffs. Not everybody’s going to get what they want when it comes to that.

Ledge: Absolutely. You talked about, A, wanting to do the emotional intelligence, and then, B, the professional development and growth and coaching.

What are some actual sources or techniques or things that you’ve used there, for people who are interested in that? It’s another macro thing that you kind of go, well of course we want that, everybody wants that. But what do you actually do to start bringing that into your job?

Eric: One of the things that we start with is, I would say, from a cultural point of view. With my team specifically, I talk about this notion of 1%. If we can just get 1% better each day. Learn one new thing. Think where we’ll be three days, three months, three years from now. So that’s the first. Is that we try to get that learning curiosity and development mindset in place.

From there, we do specific things. We’ll have monthly we call them Development Days, where we get the entire worldwide team together and we focus on some of those skills I talked about earlier. Technical skills. Selling skills. Some of the interpersonal skills – emotional intelligence being that.

Then within this I think there’s a big piece here. It’s something called psychological safety. If you can create an environment – and this is back to culture – of a team that is willing to share and collaborate and make mistakes and learn from each other, you can create what I would call the self-learning environment. So, when people need things, or have a question, or something’s not working, or anything like that it’s like, “Well, I’m going to go reach out to one of my peers.” Or, “I’ll post this internally and find out who else can help me with that.”

But if you can have some of that vulnerability where we don’t know all the answers. We may be the most senior person here, but we still run across things where we need help. Sometimes just having somebody else’s view, like the beginner mind looking at it and being like, hey, have you thought about this? Oh, yeah, didn’t think about that from that point of view.

So, I think creating an environment and a culture where you can learn, fail fast, iterate through things and be vulnerable with each other really helps, specifically with some of these ways of improving the overall development of the individuals and then of the team and the organizational overall.

Ledge: Absolutely. Those of us who are parents are thinking, yeah, if you go ask your little kid for their input, sometimes it’s really valuable. You kind of go, jeez, my adult brain is completely broken and I never even thought of that from their kindergarten mindset.

I think it’s the same thing. We often encapsulate maybe some of that in the diversity discussion, which is huge right now. In thinking about, we need different ways of thinking, we need different opinions, we need different backgrounds. All of that comes back to the emotional intelligence, and an organization that creates a safe arena for those ideas to be shared, opinions.

Not just sharing, but then grokking. How do you bring that in and turn that into a decision making process where again, just like the customer, not everybody gets everything they want but I do as a contributor need to feel valued for that.

It’s a tightrope that leadership and everybody really has to walk, because you need to be a contributor and consumer of feedback and information all on that continuous evolution to getting better.

Final tips on that. I’m waxing philosophic a little bit, but you have me going and this is an interesting topic to me as well.

Eric: Absolutely. Yeah. I think one of the things in terms of feedback and being heard I think that’s a really big piece is, at times there are decisions have to be made and you can’t get feedback from everybody and build consensus. You may want to try and do that – and at all times, at least from my point of view, I strive to do that. Especially when I’m working across departments.

So when we’re talking about, for example, we need to close a deal and it’s specific on functionality. It’s like, how can I build consensus of why this is something we need to do, from that point of view? But if we can get input and feedback and have the individual’s voice be heard, and then understand… They understand, and as your leader they understand, that it’s not always going to go their way. It’s not always going to be something that they’re going to get. But if they feel like they are being heard and that their input and suggestions are being considered. Then you share with them, yeah, we’re going to move forward with them or when you don’t you share with them why, I think that creates a lot of trust throughout the organization and the individual.

So I think that’s important.

Ledge: Agreed. Agreed. So, quick, before we have to take off here, tell us a little bit about Conga, just in case anybody listening could benefit from the solution. Who is it for? What does it do? How can people find more information if in fact they’re the target customer for you?

Eric: At Conga, we bill ourselves as digital document transformation experts. So, anything from proposals and quotes that you generate, to contracts. We like to say that we live on planet Salesforce – so we primarily are generating these documents from Salesforce, from your CRM. Really helping organizations automate their documents from that point of view.

To find out more information you can go to our website

Ledge: Fantastic. Eric, thanks for sharing the insights today. Thanks for spending the time.

Eric: Really appreciate. Thank you, Ledge.