EPISODE 078: Red Hat Federal Software Chief Nathan Jones Opens Up About How Sales Professionals Can Get Deeper into their Markets
NATHAN’s CLOSING TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Remember that you are on par with the customer as a business partner and that you’re out there for the long term win, not the short term deal win, and you will set yourself up for a very good career and you will be respected as a business partner, and not disrespected as just somebody who came to try to sell them something. I want everybody in our profession to understand that this professional deserves respect and it’s something that is absolutely essential.“
Nathan Jones is the Vice President of Federal at Red Hat and was one of the first sales reps hired by Red Hat.
Before that, he had sales roles at Mercury Interactive and EMC.
He’s the president of the AFCEA, Washington DC chapter.
Find Nathan on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: You’re episode #78, four episodes ago we did an interview with Lynne Chamberlain who’s also on the team here at Red Hat, one of the sales leaders. I’m very interested to seeing how your story compliments some of the stuff that she has done in her career. Let’s talk about your career. Why don’t you tell us what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that?
Nathan Jones: I joined Red Hat 15 years ago so at this point it’s almost been a career here at Red Hat and we have grown our product in solution portfolio every year I’ve been here. We are the leader in open source software which was a very new thing when I first joined and is now becoming the standard for a lot of the new innovations out there in Silicon Valley as well as elsewhere.
I think there is a lot of value that Red Hat provides and our customers are very happy, they keep coming back to us for more solutions, they see the impact we’re truly making to their business, they truly become partners with Red Hat and so that’s why I’m still here today is that long-term value I’ve seen that we’ve been able to partner with the customers to create and it excites me about continuing my career and my journey here.
Nathan Jones: We sell from the CIO down chief architects, program managers, everybody who’s making infrastructure decisions in IT. It’s our job to get out to more of them. When I started, it was a small group of us here and now we have a larger team so one of our challenges is to make sure that we get to more and more of the customers to impact even the line of business.
Red Hat software can impact the mission, Red Hat software can impact certainly the business value that they provide but typically we’re spending time with CIO’s, chief architects and those folks who have for many years made infrastructure decisions which is how we started in the IT world 15 years ago, certainly.
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales as a career?
Nathan Jones: I started – and I think this is the journey a lot of young folks have – but I started as an intern and my internship choice could have probably defined my career in many ways. I applied for internships near my parent’s home in New England and I could have ended up at Textron, Fidelity, and I ended up at EMC, and I ended up with a great leader there who took me under his wings. He was one of the senior VP’s and I was his personal intern in the customer service department.
Once I started there in technology, I realized that it was an amazing field, there was a lot of opportunity there and it applied my talents well. I ended up deciding that the career path was a junior sales role they had which in today’s world and what we have at Red Hat is kind of an inside sales role. He helped me get that first position as soon as I graduated from college and the rest is history, I’ve been in this career ever since. I love it, couldn’t imagine doing anything different.
Fred Diamond: Starting your sales career at EMC is probably as good as you could be if you’re going to be an IT.
Nathan Jones: They were very small then, so the EMC you know today was not the EMC of that time. I was employee, something like 2,500 or something in the intern range. They were very small then but it turned out that I kind of grew with that company as well, similar to the way I’ve grown with Red Hat so I have had some great blessings in terms of choices, companies that I picked to partner with.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the key lessons you learned from some of your first few sales jobs?
Nathan Jones: I think the most important thing is to think about how you’re adding value in the role you’re in today. I never really thought about what I was going to do next, I thought about how I could impact the organization I was assigned to in the role I had at that moment and it’s back to the basics of I worked extra hard. I put in a lot of hours, I was the overachiever, the eager beaver in terms of being there early, being there late, taking on the tough tasks in terms of became territories, became very small customers that nobody else wanted doing creative things and just going the extra mile.
If somebody needed an extra task done, I was raising my hand and jumping in to do it. I think that establishes value and for me, I was having fun doing it. It wasn’t really a chore but of course, it did interfere with the personal life but I think early in your career, that’s the way to do it. I try to convey that to some of the millennials and some of the folks we have in the office today about dedicating yourself to what you’re doing today and whenever there’s a choice about going the extra mile, just do it.
Fred Diamond: That’s great advice. Tell us a little more about yourself. What are you specifically an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Nathan Jones: I don’t use those words but I think what I hear I’m helpful at to the reps and to the team and to the customers is creative problem solving, analysis of the situation, just helping figure out those tough opportunities and rolling up my sleeves to be a part of the problem solving process. I believe that you have to look at the problem, understand the problem, analyze it and when I say problem, the customer’s problem. The opportunity we’re trying to solve for them. And then be a part of creating a solution with your team instead of coming in with some preconceived notion from the past few although clearly I now have some degree of legacy knowledge from best practices of previous similar situations.
But I think it’s really that dedication to the problem solving, that analysis, that persistence and that creativity that I think the team tends to like and use me for. I don’t know if it’s brilliance, but it’s fun to hear that word. If I’m adding value and I’m helpful and they keep asking me to come to the table, then I’m excited and that keeps me going.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of the sales career mentors who have impacted your career?
Nathan Jones: Since my early career was at EMC, I have to focus on that being where I really learned the most. There were 3 leaders there that I think I got the most from in my early days and maybe this will spur them to be on your podcast as well, but Aileen Black, Caroline Hyde and Steve Alfieris. All very different individuals and I learned a little bit from each of them. From Aileen, I learned an amazing amount about creativity and problem solving, deal making, just a master at the art of the deal.
From Caroline, I learned a lot about how you can connect with customers, how you can have a great executive presence, how you can build a strategy and a vision and how you can be a very interesting, fun person that your customers want to get to know. She had such a fun personality and an amazing sense of humor that the customers loved and then Steve Alfieris who I was able to see grow in his career became kind of a mentor in terms of what you can do by being absolutely excellent at every step of the way. He did a number of different jobs at EMC, had a number of different groups eventually that reported to him and he figured each one of them out and became a master at each level and each position he was in and everybody looked to him as kind of a great expert adviser.
So in three different ways, those individuals helped form the foundations that I then used at two smaller companies, because when I got to Mercury and then Red Hat there wasn’t a lot of people here for me to lean on. Now, I have a lot of great colleagues that I continue to learn from every day so they’re kind of countless. In fact, Lynne who you mentioned who was a podcast a couple times ago, she’s been an amazing source of leadership and career advice for me but I do hope I beat her in terms of podcast listenership.
Fred Diamond: We’ll definitely let you know, we’ll be keeping a close eye on that. Do you still keep in touch with Steve, Aileen and Caroline?
Nathan Jones: Yes, they’re all busy, they’re all still in this field. I think it’s a field that when you get into it – we were talking about this before, but – you become an expert in this field and it becomes a focus area for you and I think once you become a focused expert, so to listeners who are from outside federal, you want to continue to help those customers because it’s a unique challenge. It’s almost an extra sale cycle when you think about you have the technical win with customers in federal but then you have the whole procurement cycle that you have to be a master of.
So how do you help your customers actually get to the technical solution they want? Once you learn all that, you really want to continue in this market because you can add tremendous value. You can go really deep in this market and create, I believe, a lifelong career which is what I’m in so far in this market. It’s just a great place to be and you have a unique expertise and a unique focus and those 3 individuals are still doing that today and I look to them as probably what I’ll continue doing for my career.
Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you about the federal marketplace which you just started talking about: what is it about the federal customer or the federal market that has attracted you? Again, you’ve devoted your career to serving that particular marketplace. A lot of the people that we interview in the Sales Game Changers podcast have done that, they’re servicing a market, maybe there’s one or two throughout their career. You’re the vice president of federal for Red Hat, what is it about the federal marketplace that has attracted you?
Nathan Jones: The way I get into federal was accidental because I wanted to stay in the DC area so I got assigned to Caroline and her group as a junior sales associate. Then I was enamored with the dot com space and what my friends were doing and looked into that and did a little bit of that but came back to understand that if you’re going to live in the DC area, this is the market to be in and also I think it is a more sophisticated market, no offense to my commercial colleagues.
There’s a whole element of big program mission impact that you’re doing on a day to day basis. You’re helping the nation with its biggest challenges and you’re also helping the customers. It’s not just – again, like I said before – a technical decision. They have to then figure out their way through the procurement maze and if you can help them do that, you truly are not only just helping the customer get to their technical win, you’re helping the customer, meaning the agency, get to their mission objective and that’s just exciting. So once you kind of get hooked on that – and again, my part time job with AFCEA, the industry association for the DOD here in DC, you end up wanting to do it more than just in your day job but helping bring other partners and the community together with the DOD to brainstorm on things and that’s really what I do in my AFCEA job is in a non-profit way bring together my competitors and my colleagues to think about big picture challenges that the DOD has and brainstorm with the customer in a safe environment and where they go next, with big IT challenges.
I love federal for those reasons and I think it becomes, it’s certainly a passion right now and I think it becomes a lifelong mission.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Let’s get back to general sales in general. What are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Nathan Jones: Red Hat’s grown in amazing ways over the past 15 years so the way we went to market when I first got here on a necessity was with a very small team – two guys and a dog as sometimes we talk about. Today, we have many solutions, we’re in many different categories and impacting many different parts of the customer. Today’s challenges are really around, in my organization and so in how I lead the group at Red Hat, is how do we orchestrate better? How do we, in a more sophisticated way, use all the talented people we have and truly make it incremental to more sales? When we get back to the sales results. But really more impact to the customer. With many people all helping the same customer, you have to have different talents, you have to hire differently because we have to hire some folks that really know how to orchestrate, that know how to lead their teams.
Then we have to hire other folks who are experts in a certain product and are very good at focus and very good at adding value to a particular part of a customer. Then technologists and business developers and contract specialists. So how do we pull all of them together to understand the customer’s challenge, understand the customer’s mission, map out a plan for how we help the customer. That is a whole different level of sales excellence that I’m learning on the job today and having fun with because it’s just so different then when it’s David and Goliath and you’re trying to just run from one customer to another, quickly tell your story which is what it was in the early days. I’m evolving with our customer opportunity and that’s the most fun I think challenge I have today.
Fred Diamond: Nathan, let’s go back to one of the big successes of your career. What’s the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of? Why don’t you take us back to that moment?
Nathan Jones: I had to think about this question. It’s fun to go back and think about lots of deals so I picked one where I had to pull together early in my Red Hat career at one of the science agencies, I’ll say, where we had to pull together a lot of different stake holders. This is a distributed agency with a lot of different folks who were doing scientific work and they all wanted to use Red Hat in some way, shape or form but the ability for them to come together and create a deal was a challenge. I had to get in front of the CIO council, we had to both sell from the technical level up as well as from the top down, we had to cover a lot of geographic ground and eventually we pulled it together. It was in a way that they all bought separately but they bought against one big agreement.
It was a fun example of herding cats and at the end it just felt like you were impacting so many different small customers with one big deal. That’s the one I think I thought of, but I really do enjoy so many deals, in every quarter there’s always some – there’s the most fun transaction and then there’s also the one that just wears you down so I always try to remember back to the really fun one where we had just an amazing win that maybe was against all odds and the team rallied together and we performed at our best on our best day. Those are the ones I think about, but that one that I talked about with one of the scientific agencies was probably my best from 13, 14 years ago. It was just such an early success and one of the first big deals for Red Hat.
Fred Diamond: You’ve mentioned a couple of times how when you started with Red Hat in federal it was a very small group. You mentioned two guys in a garage type of thing which of course was bigger than that but how do you classify Red Hat in federal right now? Are you a large player, are you still a niche player? Help us understand where Red Hat fits into the federal scheme.
Nathan Jones: The really fun thing about our position today is we are a big player, now. When you look at our Linux portfolio or our platform portfolio, our Jboss app server portfolio in Middleware, we are the standard in a lot of agencies. Every CIO knows Red Hat and the impact we make. However, we have a bunch of small startup portfolios within this corporation and so we have – this is where the go to market becomes sophisticated because in some places people don’t realize the solutions we have when it comes to platform as a service and cloud and container and infrastructure service and storage, and we have to get out there with a startup mentality to go after those markets despite the fact that they may know us as a great partner overall.
The government definitely leans on us for their security posture for cyber and knows us in that way but there are many things that are a well-kept secret that we’re trying to get out. It’s fun that in one part of my day I’m working in startup initiatives for one of our product lines and then in a different part of our day I’m talking about how the government relies on us or mission critical security patches and cyber posture and balancing that with different team members, different personalities and putting those different hats on throughout the day is, again, an amazing source of inspiration.
Fred Diamond: Nathan, you’ve given us a lot of great stories and examples of what it means to be a sales professional, but did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Nathan Jones: There are moments where I’m not having fun, there are moments where I think when you become a manager leader of a larger team, you can get caught up in the spreadsheets. You can get caught up in the business planning and if you do too much of that and too little customer facing, that certainly drains the energy for me. Every time I find myself doing too much in the computer, in the spreadsheets, in the analysis, I try to make sure I’m balancing my time to get in front of a fun customer and absolutely tackle some mission challenge they have.
I am proactive about doing that on my calendar, I have actually a list of all when new folks are joining our team, I try to get out with them in the first quarter, I try to get out with the reps and team members that have been around for a long time once a quarter and if I’m prescriptive about that, I actually manage my time to balance it. Again, the only time I don’t love my job is when I’m back office and stuck in my office doing spreadsheets but they’re important to the planning. You can’t execute in the field without doing planning so it’s about balancing that.
But no, I’ve never reconsidered the profession I’m in or the job I’m in because it absolutely is an amazing source of inspiration for me and I love it but there are parts of it – and there’s parts of every job – that you have to avoid and balance and refocus.
Fred Diamond: Nathan, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Nathan Jones: It goes back to my journey and I’ll just advise that they do what I did which is go the extra mile, double down and dedicate yourself to the position you’re in today. Don’t talk about, “I want to be this next” or “I want this next opportunity, where is it? What is it? Lay it out for me.” Which I do have folks come and ask me about. If you absolutely excel in what you’re doing, you will find opportunities to shine and folks like me will say, “That is absolutely the person we need in that next role.”
I encourage them to do that and that means also doing it outside of their day job, so in things like my passion which is AFCEA right now, go and volunteer. Go and do these things on your free time that get you access to more government customers. Help them solve problems and get you off of the phones and outside touching customers and understanding their challenges. There are lots of volunteer opportunities around the DC area where you can do that. I try to help mentor the folks that come to me by connecting them with those opportunities, especially in AFCEA.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things you do today to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Nathan Jones: I talked about it a little while ago too, where I definitely make it a consorted effort to get out with reps on a daily and weekly basis and really go to all types of customer meetings, not just the CIO but also in the trenches so that I can continue to be smart in our technologies, I can continue to understand the grass through its challenges and opportunities that we have.
In that context, I also stretch myself from an AFCEA perspective being out there in the industry talking about things that are even outside the solution portfolio that Red Hat has and then I continue to read up on all the products. Red Hat every year I’ve been here has acquired something or launched a new solution in a new area so every time that happens I dedicate myself to understanding what’s going on in the storage space, in the mobile space, in the infrastructure as a service platform, as a service base. These are things that we never had when I started and yet I need to become a thought leader on it to help my customers navigate.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Nathan Jones: I think it’s all around team development where it used to be about execution and sales execution excellence. Now, it’s about how do I develop a team that can go to market in a sophisticated way and so this is where I talked about the orchestration, this is where I talked about strength finders and finding the right people for the right job because we have a lot of different roles and positions now and a lot of different challenges to tackle.
When you look at how all the players and the team can provide value, there’s an art and a science, I think, to this team development and team leadership, team management. That’s a lot of the focus area so we’re bringing in different training opportunities for the teams, we’re bringing in a lot of recognition for the best practices we see, so that’s where I’m dedicating myself these days to helping Red Hat succeed.
Fred Diamond: Sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your emails. Why have you continued? Especially in the federal space. Obviously, Red Hat being in a preferred vendor you’re going to get a lot of access but you have to have high level security to even get in the buildings these days. What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Nathan Jones: When I started at Red Hat, we didn’t have any brand access so nobody knew us. Sales is something you have to dedicate yourself to, I don’t call it hard because to me it’s felt natural and I think there are certain people that end up in this career and end up in a career that is really about business partnership with the customer. Yes, the title is sales but we are really trying to help the customer figure out new ways to solve problems that exist in their organizations. New ways to hone their efficiencies. When you think about that mission, I think it energizes you to keep going back to the pieces where you do get obstacles so yes, you have to do cold calling. Yes, you have to go into customers that may be already very entrenched with your competition.
For me, I enjoy those opportunities even when there’s push back because I learn from them and I really am excited to learn from my losses because I put it in my playbook of the next strategy. Again, as a champion debater in college and high school and how I got into this career, I don’t mind some push back. It’s fun. I guess that helps me in terms of the personality but it requires sophistication. It’s not something that you just work hard at and you’re good at it, no, when you do get push back you have to learn why did that push back come, what can I do differently and what’s a new technique because once you get through and then you really impact the customer and then impact revenue, you absolutely feel even better about that win because the easy wins are not as fun as the hard wins.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Nathan Jones: The profession we’ve chosen is a very important one and it is a profession. Sales sometimes gets a bad reputation but I like to think about it as we’re running our own businesses. We’re impacting the customer mission and bring it back to that level of sophistication. I think the more we remember that we’re providing them with a service, that we’re adding value to the customer, we’re not just convincing them to buy something for our own revenue generation, the only reason that corporations exist like mine is because we provide a valuable service to the customer.
So remembering that you are on par with the customer as a business partner and that you’re out there for the long term win, not the short term deal win, and you will set yourself up for a very good career and you will be respected as a business partner, not disrespected as just somebody who came to try to sell them something. I think that’s important to me because I want everybody in our profession to understand that this is something that deserves respect and it’s something that is absolutely essential.
No matter what kind of big data and algorithms we have, the art of this profession we’re in is something that’s a human job. It takes humans to convince other humans on how to drive these organizations. It’s not something that any spreadsheet or computer or an online marketplace is going to do. I hope that the listeners out there bring that same level of respect to our industry and continue to add value to their customers so that they help elevate the game of all of ours.