Network Automation Nerds Podcast

#049: Tech Marketing with Alex Henthorn-Iwane, Part 2

January 10, 2024 Eric Chou
Network Automation Nerds Podcast
#049: Tech Marketing with Alex Henthorn-Iwane, Part 2
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Today we have a true powerhouse of marketing joining us, Alex Henthorn-Iwane. In his own words, he is a multi-exit, full-stack B2B marketing executive, technologist, and advisor, currently doing fractional CMO work. I have followed a number of Alex’s posts, including one he summarized his experience at AutoCon 0, which I am looking forward to digesting more of. 

In part 2 of the interview, Alex and I go deeper into the conversation around network automation messaging, technical marketing and how an inspired professional can get into the field. 

I am super excited to have Alex on the show today, and I know we will have a great time diving deep into Alex’s wealth of knowledge and experience. Let’s dive right in!

Connect with Alex on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexhenthorniwane/
Follow Alex on Twitter:
https://twitter.com/heniwane

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Eric:

Network Automation Nerds Podcast. Hello and welcome to Network Automation Nerds Podcast, a podcast about network automation, network engineering, python and other technology topics. I'm your host, eric Cho. Today we welcome back Alex from a technical marketing perspective to join us again. Last week we talked about his background, what led him into technical marketing in networking space, as well as some of the challenges that we face as delivering that network automation message. Maybe some of it has to do with the culture, some of it has to do with trying to change tires while we're driving all these other stuff. This week we're going to dive more into it, maybe give some of the specific advices and just see where the conversation takes us. Welcome back.

Alex:

Alex, thanks, it's great to be back. Thanks for having me.

Eric:

Last week we actually opened the Pandora's box, because I feel like we scattered a little bit, because it is a big topic and it is all variety of factors that place into maybe the engineering's background, maybe the team size, maybe the Cloud Movement. I want to be more specific and say if you're a network engineer who's looking into a mid-enterprise, you're one of the networking team, but your primarily job function is to make sure everything's up and running. You're at AutoCon Zero, you come back and you want to advocate for network automation. What would you, from a marketing perspective or from convincing perspective, conversationalized? What would you say to your boss in that regard?

Alex:

My mind goes to two places. One, I think that, sharing the perspective of that, a lot of the great automation work that's being done is being funded by taking advantage of the when you're making changes. When are we next going to be making a new investment? Is there a way that we could prepare to take advantage of that to get some add-on funding to up our level of automation here? There were some great talks about how to justify that. They're really cool, be worth checking out, and maybe we could all brainstorm about how to set that up, because I think that just having something positive as a possibility to offer to your boss, I was like this could be a really. Hey, I know we're supposed to do a refresh of acts portion of the network in a year or whatever. I mean, that's the reality. Right, it's not going to happen tomorrow, especially not on the holidays. Yeah, you know, could we think ahead and could we kind of start making a game plan for that? I think it's gonna be really exciting. It could be really great, you know a thing for our team, etc. And I would like to get involved in that. I would love. You know, I want to develop my skills and all that sort of thing, because I think you know sometimes you know as a manager you're going like you know you have so many things you're trying to juggle and you know, keep those lights on and try to push forward some initiatives of someone's coming with ideas and and willingness to kind of lean forward and invest as always encouraging to a manager too and it can be kind of one of those things like cool, I'm going to check those talks out. Yeah, you know, I've been having some of the thoughts and it's good to even have a brainstorming partner Right, right, I mean I like that.

Eric:

I think I think that is very true is that you want to be explicit, right, even even like the movie Inception, right, like you're planting that seed deep down into the subconscious. Even if you're not doing the refresh tomorrow or the next year, you're planting that seed and say next time we were doing something, and you explicitly express your intent and I mean I don't want to be, I don't want to get into like the supernatural stuff, but it really I really do believe in like the secret, right, and I think that for the book, the secret is you want to express and then and then your senses will be open. So now you're saying to yourself and your boss that I want to be involved in our automation, and now your, your receptive receptacles are open and now you're receiving all this information on that. So I really like that suggestion.

Alex:

Yeah. I think the second thing is then to think about and propose concrete ways to develop, not just personally, but really say, hey, could we do some, you know, brown bag automation sessions where we come up with some idea, brown brainstorm, so ideas of things that we like, the simple stuff that we could take from manual to automated and from, you know, sitting on our individual laptops to like some kind of shared repository, if we, you know, if we don't have a GitHub or get X, whatever, Get Lab yeah. Get Lab. You know, could we, could we do something? And you know, because I'm interested in, you know, developing some, some automation for these common tasks, and maybe there's some others who are interested in that Could we do something like that? That's another really concrete thing to do. That's also personal enrichment and investment, but also makes a team a team sport. Yeah, I think it's true. Who's who hears that someone wants to help the team grows going to be like let's do it Right.

Eric:

Or help your manager grow right. Like I support that, then you know yeah yeah, maybe that's not the right place, long term Right, but no, I, I definitely agree with that too. I think you know I recorded a few podcast session today and most of them are, you know, down to what you were saying about star, something easy like the low hanging fruit. And that is where that a lot of the use cases that's represented in, you know, I don't know, cisco network or Cisco live, or, you know, autoconsumer, will come into play. They, they offer this concrete, specific on ramp strategy for you and you just have to like kind of plug and play your use case in there and whether that's, like you said, get or whether that's, you know, automating this one task that's repeatable and stable and Reliable, then those are actually the concrete steps that you could take.

Alex:

Yeah, it's kind of like the it's, it's the equivalent of, of adopting project management or you know a system, right? Yeah, I mean, like you know, everybody has to use it for it to be successful to some degree. Like so, just getting people to agree to say, okay, let's do it this way, going forward, yeah, it's progress. And then you, you know, over time, you do more and more of that. All of a sudden it's like, hey, wow, you know, like 30% of the things we do are automated. Now, like what, when you make that kind of progress, all of a sudden it gets exciting, right, because you think, like, what would it take for us to get to here? What would it get to for us, you know, take for us to get to here, you know, and I think that kind of momentum is really becomes addictive.

Eric:

So how do you develop that muscle, right? So I mean, alex, I mean just talking to you I know you're a man of where you're screaming different hats and we talked about like delivering that message to your boss and part of it is just convincing other people, right, like speaking and writing and getting your message across. And a lot of us no work engineers, we know we locked ourselves. Like you said, it's a lonely thing. We locked ourselves in the basement. The only thing we talked to is are the routers and switches? How do we, how do we gain that muscle? How do we gain that muscle of empathy and you know, delivering business value? How do we train for that?

Alex:

That is. I mean there's a few different answers, you know leveled answers to that. I think one of the simplest ways is to find a partner or an ally, just a very practical basis, yeah, or maybe a mentor. Yeah, or a mentor Like, if you're really starting from, I don't know where to start. I mean, obviously I don't think it's uncommon for engineers to invest in their own education. That's common. Sure, allocating some educational and mind budget to automation. But beyond automation, because that's the technical part is even sort of things like how do I learn how to build a business case? Exactly Right, because learning biz speak is its own protocol. That oftentimes is very important.

Eric:

I like how you put it, instead of framing it like oh, this is the other field, this is just another protocol. You just need to learn this. That's the way we communicate.

Alex:

Exactly, and it is true because biz speak is sort of the way of getting the connection that you need to the person's point of view and someone who's up the chain. One of the thought experiments I like to do oftentimes when I talk to technical people about as a market, if I'm working for a company like hey, what was the benefit you get is there can be a very technical track to that. But one of the things I like to ask is okay, if you had to explain to your CFO why this is valuable, what would you say to them? They don't know, anything and it's sort of like the grandma test or whatever. But the CFO is a better test because your grandma has no vested interest. The CFO does, because they're saying it in chat.

Eric:

Just a certain angle that he's very interested in, like money Right.

Alex:

Because spending on tools and everything is one of those things that CFOs are always like. Hmm.

Eric:

Yeah, are you a cost center or are you a money generation machine?

Alex:

Right. And so, even thinking about stuff like that, how would I explain what is that I want to do, or what we want to achieve, to a CFO? Yeah, I'm at the proverbial cocktail party and he says so I hear you're working on some project. What is it and why is it?

Eric:

Yeah, well, we have to be at that party first, right? So we have to come out of that basement.

Alex:

Yeah, but I mean, I think having the practice means that when you have, because sometimes it's just being ready to take your shot.

Eric:

Yeah.

Alex:

It's literally the elevator pitch, right, right, it's ability, when you have the hallway conversation opportunity whether that's, you know, in a huddle or an actual hallway, you know your ability to say, even just socially, say, hey, you know, we're working on some really cool stuff. That is, we think, add a lot of value to the business because we can really we can increase, you know, our security. Yeah, it's reduce our security risk by making sure that we're always really buttoned up on our configurations. And one of the major ways that security you know kind of, you know having a lot of, you know, vulnerabilities oftentimes comes from just inconsistencies. You know you can't say attack surface or whatever, Right, right, but that is like inconsistencies in the way we do deal, you know, deal with our systems can be exploited by attackers. And we can, you know we can, really reduce our risk. You talk to a CFO about what a CFOs really care about. They care about spending, they care about risk, right, right. So risk, because risk is a huge potential cost to the business, including their job. Right, you know, like, if you're big enough, secure, like, look at what happened to Target, right, the CFOs, you know like these guys got fired. So thinking about like ways to express in those simple like why does it matter to this person and to your job? Just thinking about kind of stuff, so that when you have the opportunity and it's not even you're giving a hard sale, like hey, we want, you know, $500,000 to do this project, you know, and then you hear that right, the, the, the tire screeching sound, none of the teams necessarily want to spare from our surprise challenge until the end, but even socially say we're also really cool things and here's what they can lead to, kind of really developing some things that we may want to come back later and propose something around. Right, that's kind of like inception thing you just talked about.

Eric:

I could just see in my mind the networking junior doing a news clip on like the Solar Wind CEO getting might be going to jail or I don't even know the details, but like the digital equivalent of that right, and then the next time you see the CEO and you want to propose a network animation that minimize the risk, then you kind of pull that out. So I really like that approach where you exert some kind of empathy on what does other persons really care about and then tie that back into your own goal and what are the common grounds that I convinced him of? Yeah.

Alex:

Jeremy Shulman had really great. I can't remember the second one, this analogy of what justifies automation, whatever was the ah-ha to Cha-ching. Hey, we have an idea.

Eric:

How do we turn it to me?

Alex:

There's some way that you can support that. Take that work and you know, oh, and I think the second was oh crap too. All clear, right, and you have to relate that to not just internal issues but something affects the customer or the parts of the business that generate the money. Right, if you can directly tie it to customers, better, because everybody, that's very visceral for folks. But even if it's like, hey, we want to make sure that we're in the past or have been issues on the network at a quarter end and that's really bad for sales, really bad for closing the books, all that, whatever that kind of thing. And here's, you know, by automating we can make sure that these kind of outcomes, you know that we reduce those and we give everybody a great experience and everybody can be more productive, et cetera, et cetera. You know, I mean just thinking about those sorts of things. But ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-cha-ching and oh, crap too. I see those are great sayings you know, cultural, changing sort of like frameworks, like does it fit one of these two things? Can I build a business case on one of these two ideas?

Eric:

If. So.

Alex:

I might have a shot.

Eric:

Yeah, I mean I look forward to just. I mean I couldn't make it this year but I look forward to seeing the videos and a lot of these talks. Now, that was like the second time I heard about like Jeremy's talk. I could just imagine, you know he talked to like the MLB folks and say, hey, you know that jumbo trial you just put in like that thing's not going to work unless the network works right. So it's like, hey, you know, that's both ah-ha-ha-cha-ching. So yeah, I'm really looking forward to some of these other talks. That's great, yeah. So I mean, what are your? I mean let me shift our conversation a little bit and just asking you about what are your overall impressions on the event and how did you hear about the event and what drove you to attend the event.

Alex:

Well, I mean, there's a lot of folks I know and you know, and either know directly, have worked with or cross paths with in the community. So I, you know Chris Grindeman I mean I've worked with him and various things, and so that was one thing. And then Anna Claiborne, who I worked with that packet fabric the other packet was, I think, on the board and she was giving a talk, so I just started seeing it pop up. It's like I have you know, you're the most interesting things. You know, this is a really interesting one, and I had recently been out of the networking space for a little bit, working in a very different sort of business, and then, having come out of that was like I kind of I miss it. I need to get back in you know, I think of not getting out of the networking, that general arena for a little bit. Reminding me like this is really kind of my. This is my comfort zone, this is the stuff I enjoy, this is what I know, this is the thing that I'm tracking mentally.

Eric:

Right.

Alex:

It made me really feel like, yeah, I got to try to show up.

Eric:

Nice, Nice. And so did you go both days or did you arrive on Sunday and what's your overall impression on the scheduling? Because a part of the one of the reviews I saw was like the first day was too short, the second day was too long, or something like that. So what are your overall impression on just the logistics?

Alex:

You know I'm sympathetic to that view. I definitely think the second day got a little ragged at the end because there was a ton of really good content. I think that the trick of that is keeping momentum as much to the end. So the last sessions were pretty late in the afternoon, really almost into the early evening, and the crowd thinned out a lot, which is unfortunate because it was like, hey, how do we move this forward? That said, I'm also. I actually flew in the morning of the first day. So I was there for a few days and it was a long trip for me and it was in Denver. It was like, okay, it was easy to get to. I got up very early that morning but I was able to show up and be there for the whole first day, which was really kind of like a half day. I appreciate the consideration of not forcing multiple nights, something like that, but maybe I think it's probably it's not a bad idea to keep it sort of economical that way. That said, if you look at where people are coming from and they're going to have to come in the day before anyway, you might as well have more of a full day on the first day and then maybe bring it a little shorter on the second day. I mean, I can't fault them, it worked for me, so I think it was awesome. Oh, no, I think that, yeah, probably if they had flipped it a little bit it would maintain the energy level. I think that there's a psychological trick, though, which is you kind of probably have to extend the day a little bit. If you call it a day too early, people will plan to leave even earlier, but if you actually call it at like four people will stay for that. If you call it at like two, they're like maybe I'll just take off at noon, and then you lose all the benefit of people being there. So it's an interesting planning question. Yeah, I mean I think it's too long of an answer, but isn't it?

Eric:

No, I mean there's something that's, I think, relevant to all of us right, because I mean, for all of us who have attended conferences, I see a lot of I mean, and obviously this is the first year so there's going to be out of kind of one already. But I see a lot of good practices at PyCon and they've done a lot of practices on iterations and what makes the best experience. So they will have like a little bit of a hackathon before. So if people arrive early, they have something to do, they have some social event in the morning, they have a quiet place for people to have, hallway conversations. So there are people who showed up just for hallway conversations. So they might as well book like private rooms where they could put the topic in and then whoever is interested in this one observability they could just go into this room and then people just rotate out and some people who are very invested in that space would just stay in that room the whole time and while others would just kind of rotate.

Alex:

Yeah, and that's great, and I think that this kind of a conference that lends itself, you know, or a PyCon that really lends itself to that sort of more creating more shared spaces, yeah exactly Exactly.

Eric:

So I mean, and I like the, I like the mission about. I mean I don't really like that tagline and why haven't we see wider adaptation? Because that's kind of gave a. I mean that's my own personal opinion, right, I want something to be more like cheerful and say like let's march toward this goal, versus it's like, oh you know what, why are we not doing something?

Alex:

So yeah, I mean again, you know, I mean it's, it's, I think the I think going forward aspiration is always going to be a little bit more powerful.

Eric:

I think so too.

Alex:

But I think the it was punchy and I think they were trying to land a little bit of the, the barb of like come on everybody. And so you know, I don't think it's in 2023,. Why are? we, you know you know, I remember going to these Gartner conferences year after year after year that like the, the IOCS, or they had 12 different versions of the name of the time, but you know IT operations. One usually was like in November or October and Vegas, year after year after year, and then go to the networking session and they're like they must say well, here's the results of the survey about who's still primarily using CLI versus automation, and it never changed. We already know it's going to be like you know 87% are pretty much doing everything on the CLI still, because the Gartner audience tends to be more of like middle corporate and Fortune 500. Like yeah they don't have the luxury of being all in cloud, for example the digital. So you know, so you get a little bit of that frustration thing happening. So I get that, but I do think that there's a there's probably a more aspirational thing to to tackle Ion or to aim for in the future. And again it's about the whole like how do you tell the story? What's the story? Where, where? Where is this going?

Eric:

Yeah, yeah, so I mean. So just to just to wrap up. I mean, I know when you're almost out of time, but I want to bring it back to what we talked about last session, right On, you know, technical marketing, whether that's for a network, automation or something else, telling a story. So how do people, how do people get started if they're interested in doing what you do, alex, I mean, if they're interested in talking, state, technical, state, technically curious, but they also want to be a good marketer. Like, how do people get started?

Alex:

There's a few different paths. I mean one. One path is, if you don't want to Just jump directly into it that the easiest path towards this kind of role. Yeah, and and certain somewhat depends Also on how ready you are. Yeah, like, let's just say you've never really been anything close to what you think about as a marketer. Move to that way. Great role is a like a solution, engineering systems and engineering role in a vendor, because you get like, start dealing with customers and you start having to reframe the way you think about things as, like, all right, we're trying to help these customers, all these problems, as opposed to I'm cracking the wheel on this big corporation or whatever. Right.

Eric:

Right, you're that lonely guy who's.

Alex:

I'm trying to help these lonely people cranking their wheels.

Eric:

You're creating another way, right like you're helping.

Alex:

Looking at it in a different way, and then then you know you then that's not a bad place to Shift into what's oftentimes a technical marketing or a TME role. Yeah, tme role, which is sort of like the the person really Produces the technical goods for the, the systems or a solution is engineers in. In these kind of technical companies, you know, if they have any size, that then starts giving you touch to product management paths or marketing paths and then you can kind of make a decision as to you know whether or not you really want to go into. I want to run the product or I want to be a communicator. So that's a very good kind of career path to get closer to it.

Eric:

If you're not, if you just want to leverage your technical skills first and and you're not totally averse to dealing with people, yeah, I mean, I think that's a great advice because you know you always want to Leverage your strength and if your strength right now is engineering or you know technical stuff, then you should leverage on that right and they expand that a little bit and that Logical path would be, like you said, solutions are get the solutions engineers, systems engineer and then go into your TME role the one other path, though, is, let's say, you're a technical person but you like to write, you're already sort of a communicator, you already have.

Alex:

You've been exercising that muscle, right, that's where, and you want to find a way in the. I think a good thing to think about is is Is a product marketing role, a technical product marketing role is a good, can be a good fit. Oftentimes, technical solution providers and vendors struggle to find people actually know what the heck the technology is. Is a barrier, right? I mean yeah to even coming up with messaging and things like that. And then you can go invest in some some product marketing education. There's things like the PMA that do courses, and there's you know Pragmatic, there's other things where you take, and then there's some great mentors and coaches who specialize in helping people move Into product marketing, yeah, and translate their skills and everything To land a job, and if you have those technical skills you know and capacity for that, that sets you up really well. If you have, if you've developed the knowledge about, like, here's what how product marketing works Is how you do it, and I've taken some courses and learned, and and I have a good coach and I can position myself for that you can actually, I think, use that technical knowledge as a real advantage to get in if you already have the propensity and some Musculature development around writing and communicating, and that's an educational and coaching path it.

Eric:

Yeah, and I want to also mention that because we mentioned, we talked about mentors a lot during the the two episodes that we're on. I want to also mention that one thing that worked out well for a lot of people and, you know, my guess is that, even if they don't have a mentor at their job, like a physical mentor or somebody who they could approach physically, they could follow the leaders in the industry who they aspire to be right, and then, you know, we're living this great age of you have very, they're very accessible. I mean, maybe some are not, but many are. So you could also, you know, subscribe to newsletters, like the one I subscribe to for product management was Lenny's Newteller. And that's a great one too, and then it veers into, you know, not just product management, but also marketing and delivering messages, and so on. So, though that he would be, I will classify him as my mentor, even though we never met each other.

Alex:

Yeah, I think that we're in a golden age of social learning right now. I mean, I, I do the same thing, the people I follow, and I I love it. And the other thing to do is is take the risk to just Be social and and make comments, ask questions. You know we're sharing that stuff. They love the engagement anyway, so you can get some extra sort of goodness out of by just being brave enough to say hey, you know, how does it apply to this? Or, you know, asking a question. You know that that for some people could be feel a little risky, but it can be really worth it To engage or start a podcast and cold cold message somebody who you saw the message on right. Yeah, you got the template down.

Eric:

Yeah, yeah, there you go. But hey, you know, alex, thanks again for for being here. I really enjoyed our conversation. I especially enjoy the part where you talk about delivering the message and also those concrete Advises on for people to you know, get into that right like get started. So thanks again for for being here. I want to ask again when can people find you follow your work on social and other places?

Alex:

Yeah, so I'm primarily on LinkedIn and If you take my name, you will absolutely find me Okay. This, I think I said before, is globally unique. I think so globally unique, yeah for sure, and you know.

Eric:

Or if you want to just follow our show notes, I'll have it. So just you know, click on that link and connect it with Alex and follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter or some other platforms. So thanks again, and what you know, I hope this is not the last time we speak and you know, maybe, maybe out of con, one will have you back and give us another thought as well.

Alex:

Yeah, this is super fun. I really appreciated the chance to talk. Thanks for having me.

Eric:

Thanks for listening to narrow got a mission or its podcast today. Find us an Apple podcast, google podcast, spotify and all other major podcast platforms until next time, bye, bye.

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Conference Logistics and Career Path Evaluation