Shaun VanWeelden, Success Engineer
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Shaun VanWeelden, a Success Engineer at Engagio. After gaining engineering experience at companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Twilio, Shaun joined Engagio full-time to combine his passion for engineering with his love of helping others in a new role he’s calling “Success Engineering”. In this interview, we will get into what the role involves, why it’s important, how to hire and prepare for the role, and much more. For a bit of context, Engagio is a SaaS startup, located in San Mateo, that currently has forty employees, of which, Shaun is the only Success Engineer.
Sonia – How did you get into Success Engineering?
Shaun: Growing up in Iowa, I always thought I wanted to be a Mechanical Engineer and work in robotics. When I got to my first semester of college, I started coding, a lot. I thought, “This coding thing is actually really fun” and I quickly found myself doing nothing but writing code. The next year, I switched my major to software engineering. I fell in love with all things software related; writing code, web apps etc.
However, some of my favourite things in college had nothing to do with my technical interests. I found myself being really good at coding, but I also loved volunteering on campus, participating in different leadership opportunities, being involved with the community and so on. I was also passionate about entrepreneurship, running my own business, and figuring out the marketing and sales side of things as well.
When I graduated, I started looking for software engineering roles. I thought once you got your degree in software engineering, you became a software engineer and that was it.
After writing code at companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Twilio, I was able to watch and learn from some of the very best software engineers and I came to a realization – While I do love to code, I wasn’t wired to be just a software engineer. What was motivating the very best software engineers wasn’t motivating me in the same way. After some introspection, I started looking for an opportunity that leveraged all of my skills and interests.
While looking, I started to find Sales Engineering and Success-type Engineering roles. I actually initially applied to be a Customer Success Manager at Engagio, not even knowing what a CSM fully did at the time. I had sent my future manager a cold message on LinkedIn saying effectively “Hey I have this weird background, I love to code, but I also love customers, what do you have?” And he said, “Actually, we need someone who can fill the role of a technical person that helps customers, but also understands the engineering side.” That sounded like the perfect amalgamation of roles I was looking for, and thus began my journey at Engagio.
Sonia – Where does Success Engineering fit? Are they part of the Customer Success Team? Are they part of the Product team? Are they full on Engineering?
Shaun: When I have to point out my permanent desk, it is in the Customer Success area at Engagio. That being said, I regularly find myself sitting in all different areas of the office. Depending on the time of day, I can be found sitting at a desk near the Engineering side, next to our Product people, or just at my actual desk in Customer Success. I often find myself filling the role of a technical liaison between the CS team and all others, so I can never be sure where I’ll be at a particular time of the day.
Sometimes, if I am helping customers and CSMs a lot, I’ll end up sitting in the Customer Success department all day, participating in customer calls and things like that. Other days I’ll mostly be on the Engineering side, triaging bugs, and making sure the Engineering team has the information and context they need.
Sonia – What about this particular role attracts you to it?
Shaun: What initially attracted me to the role was that I could develop both my technical coding skills, and work with customers directly. Each day is very different, and the opportunities that come up from this kind of role are never the same. I get to learn how each team operates, and what they do to ensure the success of the customer. I have a lot of opportunity to learn, not just from my role, but from all these people around me. I get to find ways to connect the dots across the company that other people can’t see because they’re just in that one department. This allows me to see what’s going on in the big picture, and provide guidance based on those observations. Success Engineers get positioned really well to actually have a lot of influence on the growth of a company because you’re able to communicate with all teams, and share what’s happening across the board.
Sonia – What role does the Success Engineer play in an organization?
Shaun: Essentially, Success Engineers facilitate communication between the CS department, and all all others, speeding up the resolution time for support issues, and directly representing the voice of the customer to the Product and Engineering teams. The Success Engineering role makes not just the customer more successful, but also the internal stakeholders. They help make sure we are operating most efficiently as a team to support customers. This role enables the CS and Engineering teams, and the customer, to all have a better experience. What excites me about the role is that it focuses not just on how to support customers, but also ensures that the Engineering team has the necessary information, as does the CS team.
Sonia – What does a day in the life of a Success Engineer look like?
Shaun: So typically, as soon as I come into the office, I’ll review all of the customer support issues that have come in – any issues that have happened last night, in the morning, any pending items. I’ll spend my first hour and a half getting back to customers, helping them through whatever they need help with, double checking things or creating tickets based on what they see in the app. At 10:30am every day, we have our Engineering “stand-up” meeting, and that’s when I have the chance to bring up any high priority issues that customers have run into or that are happening within our application. It’s my opportunity to say, “Hey guys, we had six different customers running into this bug last night; we should fix it as soon as possible,” that’s my opportunity to do that. Another benefit of being at that meeting is that I also get to see what the Engineering team is working on. That way, I know the status of features our customers have requested, and can update them and the CS team.
Those two events occur everyday, and from there, the rest of the day can get dedicated to customer calls in which I explain technical concepts to customers. Other times, it is spent creating documentation. Besides that, one of my favourite parts of the job is actually creating different integrations and building connectors between our tools for the team – whether it is setting up an application, writing some code to integrate something more intuitively, and so on.
Sonia – Why is Customer Success Engineering necessary?
Shaun: The main reason Success Engineers are necessary is to have someone who can understand and support the customer as their needs become increasingly technical, without having to interface with the Engineering team to fix each problem. Having someone who really gets the customer’s issue, understands how the other teams in your organization work, and can tie those pieces together really makes for a more successful customer experience.
Someone in this role often becomes the most customer facing person of the company very quickly. They see all the questions coming in, and so when things go wrong, 95% of the time, I am the first one that knows about it.
A lot of the times when you have CS Engineering professional, they fill the role of technical support. However, when you have someone who is not just doing technical support, but is also working with the Product and Engineering team, now you have increased visibility and communication. To tie it all together, this role is needed to improve the communication between very distant departments so that everyone knows what’s going on, has the data they need, and can quickly respond.
CSMs can talk to a customer all day long, but it doesn’t ensure good communication between the CSM and the Engineering/Product teams. The communication kind of sits there and CSMs go “Oh man this is a really big issue, I really hope the Engineering team is on it”. As a Success Engineer, I can go to the Engineering team right after speaking to the customer. Having an advocate for the voice of the customer in the Engineering team who can communicate in a language they speak, has a similar skill set, who understands how they’re motivated, really goes a long way.
Sonia – How is CS Engineering different than Customer Operations?
Shaun: In my experience, I have found that CS Ops is all about ensuring best practices and facilitating operations within a CS team. They’re more focused internally than externally. They may handle the management of a CS platform, along with the training, onboarding, and more for a new team member. CS Engineering really gets into the technical details with a customer and can often be found triaging bugs and resolving issues themselves.
Sonia – What should I be doing if I want to be a CS engineer?
Shaun: The biggest thing I look for is a bit of passion and experience with technology. At the end of the day, it is a more technical role. You should not be afraid of technology, and actually should be actively learning and trying to figure out new technologies, say, how an API works, for example. The other thing that really stands out to me is the people who go out of their way to get opportunities outside of their given role. I think to really find success with this role, you have to be able to connect the dots and have an interest in not just writing code, but also how customers are actually using your product. Having experience that goes outside of just writing code is essential. I want to hear, “I love to code, but I really want to be doing more than just that. I like people, and I want to help people.” In order to be successful in this role, you don’t need an Engineering degree. My preference is for candidates who have a multitude of interests, and somehow found themselves liking coding as well.
Sonia – How do you hire for the role?
Shaun:I think one of the best ways to answer this question is to just show some snippets from previous job postings I’ve put together.
Sonia – How do you think the role will evolve in future?
Shaun: Honestly, I think this role is just getting started. A few years ago, you didn’t really see anyone with a CS Engineer position. Now, there are actually quite a few companies starting to hire for this role because they realize that they need someone who can sit in the middle. Organizations actually want to know what your customers are doing; they want to be able to support those customers in a meaningful way, whether it is technical or otherwise. Having someone who gets it and can actually speak the technical aspects of your product and be that person across your organization is invaluable.
Especially in a company that has fewer than 150 people, the Success Engineer role is a really critical part of growing and understanding your customer needs and ensuring that really good first customer experience. CS and SaaS focused companies will probably find themselves realizing they want this position more and more because what they really need is someone who can do Support, but also can talk to our Engineering team, and can help the CSMs out as needed. When you have these things together, you find yourself wanting a Success Engineer.
Shaun is the first Success Engineer at Engagio. He helps customers get past any technical hurdles post-sales and works closely with the CTO to support customers, create documentation and best practices, and act as the bridge between Engineering and everyone else. He’s a recent graduate of Iowa State University, where he received a B.S. in Software Engineering. During his academic career, he was able to intern at six different amazing companies including Twilio, Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, the MathWorks, and Union Pacific.