EP #9: What It’s Like to Be a Solution Architect With Akshat Srivastava (AWS)

36 min listen

Akshat Shrivastava - Solutions Architect Manager (AWS)

The pre-sales engineer is a role that's become increasingly important within tech companies. The pre-sales engineer (or solutions architect or sales engineer - as they will be called alternately in this episode) is the person who is responsible for everything technical during a sales software cycle: from executing demos and Proof of Concepts (POCs), to working with the support team to make sure the implementation process runs as smoothly as possible.

Especially within tech companies that deliver highly complex software to a very technical client base, it is a crucial role. Apart from that, it's a very challenging job. Effectively, you need to be a jack of all trades: you need to be a subject matter expert and get along with people really well - so that you can guide and support your potential customers with excellent service.

As a Solutions Architect Manager at AWS, with more than 8 years of experience in the pre-sales industry and a networking community devoted to pre-sales engineers, Akshat is the perfect person to talk about this important, diverse and very challenging role.

Some topics Akshat and Anthony (who is a pre-sales engineer here at StackState) talk about:

  • What is it like being a pre-sales engineer?

  • What do - both Akshat and Anthony like about the role and what do they find most challenging?

  • How did Akshat end up in his current and first leadership role and what are his thoughts on being a good leader?

You can find a written transcript of the episode below. Enjoy the recording!

Episode transcript

Akshat (00:00): The work of a solutions architect, pre-sales engineer here is always twofolds. One is to always keep your customer updated on what's going on, be their customer advisor. And second, to update your knowledge yourself, to always yourself be updated on what's happening in an organization as big as the size of Amazon. So, taking ownership, always being in the mode of a startup, even though you work for one of the biggest companies.

Annerieke (00:31): Hey there, and welcome to the StackPod. This is a podcast where we talk about all things related to observability, because that's what we do and that's what we're passionate about, but also what it's like to work in the ever-changing, dynamic tech industry. So if you are interested in that, you are definitely in the right place.

Annerieke (00:49): So today, we’re talking to Akshat Srivastava. Akshat is a Solutions Architect manager at AWS as well as the founder of SENY, which stands for Sales Engineers New York. He’s worked in the pre-sales industry for about 8 years and now manages a team of solution architects tied to enterprise sales. And, as the founder of Sales Engineers New York, he provides a networking group for current or aspiring pre-sales engineers to help them evolve in their career. So, as you can imagine, Akshat is the perfect person to talk to about the challenging and very diverse role of being a pre-sales engineer / solution architect. In this episode, Anthony and Akshat talk about what it’s like being an SE? What do - both Akshat and Anthony (who is an SE here at StackState) - like about the role? How did Akshat end up in his current and first leadership role? What are some of the challenges you can expect as an SE and how do you overcome them..

Annerieke (01:46): Also, as an FYI: in this episode, Anthony and Akshat use the job titles ‘pre-sales engineer, sales engineer, solution architect and their abbreviations SE and SA alternately to indicate the same role: it’s the engineer who is responsible for everything technical during a software sales cycle. From demo to POC to being a technical subject matter expert on the space, etc.

So, without further ado, let’s get into it. 

Anthony (02:17): Hi, welcome back to the StackPod. My name's Anthony Evans, your host as always. Today, I'm here interviewing a friend of mine as well as a professional acquaintance, guy named Akshat. Akshat, do you want to give everybody an introduction as to who you are and what you do?

Akshat (02:36): Absolutely. Thank you, Anthony. My name is Akshat Srivastava, I am a SA manager here out of New York city. I work for AWS, and I manage a team of SAs tied to enterprise accounts. Prior to that, I have worked in the pre-sales industry for about seven, eight years. And I've also been in post-sales. I've been a Java developer when I started my career. So, I have been in the technical industry and I've ended up in the pre-sales leadership role, which I absolutely love. I also founded Sales Engineers of New York, short form, SENY, which is a premier networking community out of New York. And it's the largest east coast networking group for aspiring or current pre-sales engineers back in 2018. So, we host events, we have a Slack space for aspiring or current SEs to collaborate and develop and grow in their career. And that is what I do. And I live in New York city. I'm based in Manhattan.

Anthony (03:44): Yeah. We actually were coordinating on that Slack channel to get you on here just prior to the interview. So, yeah, thanks for setting that up. That community is actually a really great inclusive community as well. I've been to several meetings and the audience is not just pre-sales people. It's people that want to get into pre-sales, people that want to know a little bit more about pre-sales and what it actually means.

Anthony (04:20): One of the big challenges I've often found in my career actually as a pre-sales person, especially working at startups is that they don't always know what exactly a pre-sales person should or shouldn't do. And so, you effectively just become the technical cog, if you will, that does everything from demonstrating the product, to doing all the security questions, to doing all the architecture questions, to doing the POC, to presenting the POC, to then having to do customer success and implement the thing for your customer. And it seems as though most organizations have one flavor, if not all of those flavors in the way that they treat their pre-sales people, in terms of what they view them as. What would you say is the main goal of pre-sales in general when it comes to technology?

Akshat (05:20): The main goal is to support your account rep to reach their goals, whatever it takes. And really, it depends on your company that you work for. At AWS I think the main role is to be that customer advisor, to do right by your customer. As you know that Amazon is a unique company in the sense that it's driven by customer obsession, that is our vision, that's our goal. So, the SAs at AWS have to do right by their customer, even if it means to kind of go against your account reps in some certain scenarios. So again, I say that ultimately pre-sales engineers work closely with their account reps, and their job is to bring in revenue in their organization. And at AWS it's unique that we always do right by the customers because we are obsessive about our customers. So again, the trust advisor role is probably, being the trusted advisor is probably the right word for an SE.

Anthony (06:30): Well, AWS is very unique as well in how they structure their deals. That you don't have that high five moment when somebody comes in with the multimillion dollar deal, at least not all the time, right? Your high five moment is more actually post-sales in a way than it is outside. So, it makes the SE role kind of unique, right?

Akshat (06:53): Yeah. I mean, again, before I start saying anything, I do have to give a disclaimer that whatever I'm saying today is really my opinion, and from my perspective, not, it doesn't come from Amazon or AWS. So, that's a disclaimer.

Anthony (07:10): Of course.

Akshat (07:13): So, yeah, I mean, with a bigger company, right? When your revenues are higher and at a certain level, it all depends on what is your business. First of all, what product are you selling? Does that product that's to be sold, does that require handholding? But ultimately, the purpose is to make your customer successful and make it valuable for what they paid for. So, when you're, for example, selling StackState, right? It's a finished product. It's sort of a managed service. They are just hooking their environment up into StackState and getting the value out. So, once you're hooked up and you're ready to roll, I think that the professional services or consulting folks they can go away, and then the company who's bought them starts using the product.

Akshat (08:10): On the cloud, it's a constant effort that's required because number one, there'll always be some workloads that would be migrated to the cloud, right? So, they would need constant handholding. You have to be that customer advisor, as well as there might be a lot of groundwork that's being done by a lot of third-party consultants, also by our professional services. But once that migration is done, then you also talk about modernization. And that is converting their legacy frameworks or legacy application into microservices or containers. Once you're done with that, then sometimes you might want to stop using the services that you've built, rather switch them off for a managed service that's run within Amazon.

Akshat (08:44): Because we have such big number of skills, we have over 200 services we offer. Plus there's constantly something new coming up. The work of a solutions architect, pre-sales engineer here is always twofolds. One is to always keep your customer updated on what's going on, be their customer advisor. And second, to update your knowledge yourself, to always yourself be updated on what's happening in an organization as big as the size of Amazon. So, taking ownership, always being in the mode of a startup, even though you work for one of the biggest companies. And third, being okay with chaos and prioritization. Those are some things that I would recommend to people looking for a job like I have.

Anthony (09:32): Wait, what's usually I find that is recurring themes when it comes to selling software, right? And maybe somebody buys the software for a certain use case, but in your scenario right now with all those services, what are the key services you're seeing getting consumed more? Are people moving to Kubernetes? Are people using EKS? What are some of the specifics within AWS that you are seeing people consume a lot more that maybe somebody who's listening, who just wants to get ahead of everything and kind of understand what's within AWS, is a hot button topic right now, what would you say?

Akshat (10:16): Look, I would say that modernization of your apps, actually there is a website, aws.amazon.com/modern-apps. If you go there, you're going to see the stack we have there, right? EKS, ECS. We're talking about things like Serverless or Lambda. We also have Serverless compute for containers now, which is AWS Fargate. And then when we talk about integration, things like GraphQL, APIs, Service Match. And then for object storage, S3, DynamoDB, Aurora, DocumentDB as well. Those are the top things that I'm seeing for companies that want to operate at the next level, and that want to build applications that are modern, and they're built for tomorrow. So, in general, when I want to look at which service should I look at in the future, I want to understand a couple of things.

Akshat (11:30): Number one, where are the users coming from? And is my application low latency and scalable? Can it handle large amounts of traffic? Number two, is it secure and is it easily accessible? And lastly, how can it scale if I have to build it further? So, is it loosely coupled? Does it have a microservices architecture that I can add components to it, I can scale it further, I can make it what I want? So, those are some themes that I would consider. And based on those themes, when we talk about storage, it's all about purpose-built databases that we at Amazon follow. So, are you utilizing the database for the right use case you have? For example, when do you use DynamoDB versus S3? Same thing with using Lambda versus Kubernetes. So, those are some things that I'm seeing in terms of next-generation applications.

Anthony (12:38): That's cool. That's cool. Yeah. At StackState, we spend a lot of time now talking to people with Kubernetes, OpenShift, as well as not just AWS, but then also Azure. And it's perfectly normal these days for people to have more than one cloud provider, right? AWS is by far the number one in the US and in the world, I believe. But then Google and Microsoft are usually close behind, but they don't seem to be, at least in my humble opinion, as advanced from a services standpoint as AWS is, right? It's a purpose-built catalog of services as opposed to solutions, which might complicate things, right? When you have to build your own apps.

Anthony (13:30): Just because you have the services, it still requires a certain skill set in order to get it all together. We actually just got recently approved. We're going to be in the ISV accelerate program. So, we may be working a lot closer together in the foreseeable future, as we build out our own partnership with AWS. And we just listed in the marketplace as well. So, I've been helping lead up that initiative, going through all the security reviews. And I can tell you it's very detail-oriented, but once you get all the right boxes ticked, you can get through the bureaucracy, if you will, and get into the program. So, we're pretty excited at that.

Anthony (14:20): So, we kind of spoke a little bit about AWS, what it means to be be a solutions architect and a little bit around what you do. How did you get into management of the SAs at AWS? How did you end up there?

Akshat (14:44): So, at Amazon or at any big company, you need to really be vocal about what you want, and then you need to go and pursue that, just like in any other company, but more so in a big company, because you have a lot of career paths and options. At a small company, there are not many opportunities, I would say it's limited because there's limited roles and positions. But at a company Amazon's size, there is a lot of internal opportunities. So, you really need to be vocal to your manager as to where do you see yourself progressing? Now, I would say this is my first leadership role officially. Although in the capacity of SE, I do kind of lead my team and delegate a lot of work and grow the organization.

Akshat (15:44): But officially I haven't really been a manager. So, this is my first role. And I was just vocal with my manager about it. I got tremendous amount of support within the organization. And because it's a big company, Amazon, there's a lot of internal training available. They put me on a path to succeed. I got some, a training for future management program. I got interns to manage before I could go and interview for the role. And then I did have a rigorous interview as well, where I was challenged as to what do I bring to the table? How will I solve complex problems? How do I see myself coaching others, for instance? And how would I handle a tough situation? Things like that. So, it wasn't that you get what you want just by asking for it.

Akshat (16:40): You really have to be prepared to answer the tough questions, you need to put in the work. You need to go through the trainings available. You need to demonstrate that you are Amazonian in every sense of that word. And for those who don't know what that word means, well, when you're in the company you will understand what it is to be, what it's like to be an Amazonian. You got to live the leadership principles really.

Akshat (17:05): We have 16, I believe leadership principles. So, you have to demonstrate all of that. And after that process, luckily I was offered the job. In that capacity it has been challenging but very fulfilling, more than two months now. So, I'm very, very lucky to be here and do that. I would say first though, before you go and ask for a job like management, you really need to demonstrate that you are performing at the top of your capability in the current role that you have. If you are not performing good in the role that you have, you can't go and ask for things that, I mean you can, but in my opinion, first you got to be good at what you have been assigned to, and then you can ask for growth opportunity in whatever field that you want to pursue that.

Anthony (18:05): So, that is a little bit of a chicken in the egg type issue though, as well. Right? Because as a pre-sales person, right? Before you, let's say you're in pre-sales and you are at the top of your game, you're helping your sales reps meet their numbers, if not beating them, getting into accelerators and all sorts of fun stuff like that you do at most software companies, right? I know AWS can be a little bit different because of the consumption model. But if you are really good at your job, have you ever found that inhibits you from getting a promotion? Because the minute you become a manager, your responsibility goes from managing the individual quotas to managing their boss' quota effectively.

Anthony (19:01): And I find that sales tend to be very demanding in general, right? And once they get used to you and they know that you can present, and you are good, and people trust you, then they want you, right? Because not everybody should be in pre-sales, right? But then you may not always want to be the individual contributor. Have you ever encountered a situation whereby you're almost too valuable in your individual contributor role to really have the business afford to promote you into a different role?

Akshat (19:34): Well, my question to the business would be, is it worth keeping you unhappy and unsatisfied or is it worth keeping you in the company as an employee? Because that's what it will come down to. If they are deeming you valuable or too valuable, but they're ignoring what you want, which by the way, the top performers want to be valued but they also want progress and new challenges. So, if you're not listening to that, you will lose that employee. So, is it worth that loss or is it better to keep them within the organization, give them other challenges and ask them for help to hire their replacement?

Anthony (20:14): Yeah. Well, that's good advice, right? Because if you think about it existentially like that, then, and in terms of what's good for the business, you can then help drive your own agenda in a way, right? Because that's ultimately what you want. You don't want to leave because you are sick and tired of feeling valued. You just want to move on and grow, right?

Akshat (20:42): Exactly.

Anthony (20:43): You only stay in the first grade for as long as you need to stay in the first grade, right? You move on next... It's not a constant repetition. Yeah. That's good advice. That's good advice. Because I know a lot of people that do perform very well basically get stuck. Right? And they feel the value and they feel valued and maybe they get incentives, maybe some bonuses and whatever. But I've found that money doesn't really, I mean, obviously everybody would love a paycheck and everybody wants to get paid, but that's not the be all and end all at the end of the day, if you're getting... That's why people volunteer and things like that, because of the, how it makes them feel more than the gratification of income, right?

Akshat (21:32): We all are different, Anthony, if you ask me, right? So, if you talk to five people and what they are driven and motivated by, and honestly, this is a learning process for me, as I'm finding out from my own team what each one of them wakes up every morning and gets motivated by. And you'll get five different answers when you talk to five different people. Some people like money, some people are driven by knowledge, they always want to be learning. Some people like teaching others. Some people like a new challenge. So, your job as a leader is to match what people want to how they can be utilized best for the company. How can they be at their best to do the best work of their lives for you as an employer? And that is going to be your job as a leader, to match those things and always keep them performing at the best.

Anthony (22:25): Okay. Yeah. What do you do these days for team building, or have you had a chance to really get into that yet?

Akshat (22:45): I have been lucky that most of my employees I have I've met in person, most of my teams, I mean. And yeah, we have happy hours. We've had a dinner. Not any activity that we would like, but I remember last year when I was working on a different team, we all went to, what is it? The top golf thing?

Anthony (23:06): Oh yeah.

Akshat (23:06): That was good. But yeah, it's been good. What I try to do is, my job is to keep the team meetings as interesting and as less of a waste of their time as possible. And from my own experience, in an individual contributor capacity, when I'm walking away from the team meeting once a week, I want to be able to take back something that I can deem as helpful, whether it's in my career or whether it's in my ability to help my customers.

Akshat (23:41): That is what I try to do in my team meetings. So, for example, I've started a series called Know a Veteran. And in this series, I try to find some very senior solution architects who have been very successful in their role at Amazon and have been Amazon for three, four years, at least. And I just interview them and I ask them personal questions, what do they like? And give us advice on how have they lasted long at Amazon. And also then, what's their expertise within Amazon because there's so many products. One of the keys to success at Amazon would be, how can you find answers to complex questions or experts very quickly? Because that's going to save you a lot of time when you're trying to get answers to your customers. Because a lot of the problems which we see in the field have been already faced by other people, or have already been solved.

Akshat (24:37): So, it's a matter of how can we find someone who's done that and let me try to connect that person? So, in a big organization like ours, Know a Veteran series has really helped my team because now they have, now this person who my team members are. I play something called a lightning round where I ask them quickfire fun questions like, what's your favorite app on your phone?

Akshat (25:00): So, kind of ease that atmosphere. And then also ask their advice on where do we go find information about the product that they specialize in? And it has been successful in the sense that my team walks away and, with knowledge about how to be the best SA. And also while in the future, if I have a question on let's say systems manager, now I can ping this person on slack. So, you have to come up as a leader with the ideas that really are valuable to your team. And I would say that no one will trust you or will be loyal to you on your day one. You really need to build trust and build the loyalty by actually being a valuable leader. Don't expect that from your team, go and build it.

Anthony (25:51): Yeah. You need to show up, right? That's the very least. I spoke with somebody else in the previous interview around some of the mistakes of leadership, right? Is that, and I find this happens more so in supermarkets, but also in tech, people who have just been there the longest get promoted to be the leaders. And that's not really the best way of going about the hiring process. It's very old fashioned in my mind, because just because somebody's been there for a long time, doesn't mean they have any ability to lead or manage people and do the type of thing that you just mentioned, right? Where you're thinking existentially around, "Okay. How do I not just be there as the person who signs their checks and tells them you're welcome, but how can I actually engage with them? Help people grow, help people feel valued?"

Anthony (26:54): Because I think, especially in the States, right? Where you don't have a huge social safety net, right? Like in Europe and whatever, you've got healthcare, you've got every, you've got also, they can't just fire you in the UK or in Europe, right? In the US, it sounds bad, but you can literally get fired for no reason whatsoever and, if they really wanted to. So, in order to build out that trust and that confidence, should help not just with people feeling secure in their job, but then also being challenged in a way that's healthy, right? They shouldn't be concerned or worried that you are going to say something behind their back which, or the politics game, right? Which happens all too often, actually in big companies. Right?

Akshat (27:44): Yeah. Yeah.

Anthony (27:48): Okay, cool. Cool. Is there anything else actually that you want to bring up or talk about? I know we spoke a lot about all the different things associated to pre-sales. We went into a lot of detail around what you do, your role, how AWS is. And you've given us some interesting information around what it means to be Amazonian in a way. Anything else you want to talk about?

Akshat (28:15): I guess it's time for me to give a shameless plug to SENY. Would love to talk about that a little bit. I think when I look back, right? At how can I be more useful to the society in general my community? And when I say my community, it's really people around me, right? Anyone, whether it's in New York, whether it's in the field that I'm working on. And I look at my skills, I'm not a doctor, I'm not even a nurse. I'm not really a teacher. So, how can I really, or really how can I give back to the community? And that's what really triggered the idea to create something called Sales Engineers of New York. So, salesengineersny.com, you can go there and find out more about us. You can join it, there's a sign up section.

Akshat (29:08): And when I look at it is, it's a community where folks who are maybe developers who are not liking their jobs, or people who are maybe in product management or in any tech field who are kind of bored everyday to sitting and watching, looking at their computer screens and kind of confused. And that their personalities dictate that they are people person, that they are good at communicating complex concepts in an easy fashion, those kind of individuals, how do they start and go about changing their careers? And that's what triggered SENY, and you can join our Slack. There's a mentors channel where we will help you. By we, I mean, me and my co-founders and some other individuals associated closely with us, will help out you one on one to work on your resume and try to tell you how to be a sales engineer or pre-sales engineer.

Akshat (30:02): And really, if that changes your life, if it means that you'll be happier in a day to day job, that you will be bringing in more money, whatever it is, in a small way if we can change your lives, please use us. And one thing I'm really proud of is that SENY has always been free to attend, free to use our services, free to watch videos. And I don't plan to change that time soon or anytime really. I think that resources like this are community service for people who don't have any other communities to look at. And this is our way, and by our I mean, everyone associated with SENY, it's our way to give back to folks in our own unique manner.

Anthony (30:54): Yeah. I got to tell you that... So, I was kind of like you, right? I was more on the developer side. I'd worked in support, I'd worked in third level support, I'd then gone into managing performance issues for ServiceNow software as a service type thing. I then became a technical account manager and I accidentally got into pre-sales because I helped one of my accounts at the time purchase a really amount of IT operations management stuff to build out their CMDB and whatnot. And then that kind of, people looked at me differently then. And they're like, "Oh, this guy can pitch technology as opposed to just explain technology." And so, when I went from working 72-hour weekends monitoring upgrades, to then just going to boardrooms, presenting for an hour and a half, and having a sales guy just buy me a steak dinner afterwards, and I was able to drink.

Anthony (32:05): I was like, "Why have I not been in pre-sales before?" It's not all like that. I think actually it's one of the more stressful jobs, because you kind of get put on a pedestal for 45, 90 minutes, whether it's virtual. It's even harder now that it is virtual frankly. Or in person, you have to look good, you have to have the technology ready. You usually have to memorize a script. You have a present that you need to do. You also need to be the expert on all your competitors. Because you don't know where the questions are going to come from. And the minute you kind of turn around and you say, "I don't know." Even though that's perfectly acceptable, that then puts doubt on whether you are good or not. And you've also got the constant eyes of the salesperson, because all they want to do is close their deal, and they view you as a key component to them closing their deal.

Anthony (33:00): And if you don't nail the meeting, that leads to usually consequences, right? And the worst thing that can happen to you is, if you're not used as the go-to person for a meeting, right? Because that just kind of rips your heart a little bit. Because then you're like, "Oh God, what happened?" So, it is a stressful job, but if you can do it right, and you have fun getting in front of people, and you have fun actually being challenged and asked about things but then also building out small demos and POCs, and talking about the art of the possible, it is the best job in tech as far as I'm concerned. You get paid quite a bit of money usually, to do the role as well. You're usually viewed as something critical, not just to sales but then also to the view of the company.

Anthony (33:51): And so, if anybody wants to get involved, it's not just New York where we have the sales engineering community, but you can reach out to us through SENY. And we connect you with literally hundreds of different chapters all across the country that have been spun up. I saw one the other day, people in Toronto were meeting, a few people in Boston were meeting. So, it's all over the place. And most people are very well connected because it's a small community of people, and it's great. So, I will also plug SENY to anybody who's interested in getting to know us coming out, having a couple of drinks at a happy hour, listening to a few presentations, but then getting to know other people in pre-sales specifically.

Akshat (34:46): Absolutely.

Anthony (34:47): Well, so we've actually run out of time. I would like to thank Akshat for joining me today, for being very generous with his time. He's a very busy man and, but I do appreciate you taking the time to come on here and sit down with us and go through just your life and what you do.

Akshat (35:09): My pleasure, Anthony. Thank you so much for having me, and thank you to all the listeners of StackState. Really excited of what StackState has to offer in the future. And if I can be of any help in the future, let me know. Thanks Anthony.

Anthony (35:24): No worries. Thank you.

Annerieke (35:26): Thank you so much for listening. We hope you enjoyed it. If you'd like more information about StackState, you can visit stackstate.com and you can also find a written transcript of this episode on our website. So if you prefer to read through what they've said, definitely head over there and also make sure to subscribe if you'd like to receive a notification whenever we launch a new episode. So, until next time...

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