In this edition of CPQ Masters, we speak with Aesha Shah, who is currently Senior Architect, GTM Systems at Lacework, a cloud security services provider that automates cloud security at scale so customers can innovate with speed and safety. While Aesha recently started at Lacework, she spent five and half years before that working at Okta in Business Systems, where she saw the company grow 10x from $1B to $10B+ in market cap. (Aesha also joined us for a webinar where she discusses scaling RevOps at Okta.)

Outside of work, Aesha has a passion for the outdoors and enjoys traveling to visit national parks with her husband. They’ve been to national parks in 32 states already, and they plan to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park this summer. Aesha is based in Houston but recently moved there from California, where she says her favorite national park of all is – Yosemite. (We agree!) Read on to learn more about Aesha and her journey with CPQ.

In your own words, tell us about your roles and responsibilities at Lacework?

I am a Senior GTM Architect, and my primary responsibilities are to make sure things are well thought through before they go into the system. In the past, Lacework wasn’t as focused on building for scale, and as the company grew they were doing patch fixes or enhancements on their GTM systems. The setup eventually fell apart and we started seeing technical debt accumulated in the system. 

That’s where my role comes in because I make sure that we are thinking through evaluations. If you want a company to be enterprise-ready or sell to enterprise customers, you have to think like an enterprise company. And to act like an enterprise company, you have to make sure your system and your sales users are able to sell, because enterprise transactions are never straightforward. Complexity happens when dealing with enterprises so you need to make sure your team and system are enabled to do that.

How did you get started in Business Systems?

I started my career at Marketo as a Salesforce Admin back in 2015. I joined the company at the right time because that’s when they were evaluating CPQ tools. Back then, Marketo was evaluating SteelBrick and Apttus and asking questions around what business problems they faced and what problems may arise in the future. Eventually, I was pulled into the project of implementing CPQ. I worked closely with the SteelBrick product team to understand how the product works and explain our needs to them and how they can help with including those needs into their product roadmap. Ultimately, many of the approval-related functionalities in SteelBrick were driven off of Marketo’s use cases at the time. 

In 2017, I joined Okta as a CPQ Manager. At the time, Okta was migrating from Zuora CPQ to Salesforce, and I helped with the implementation and enhancements. Okta was a very interesting journey for me. I was there for five and a half years and, and four of those years were in Business Systems, and then I wanted to get closer to operations and our business, so I moved to the GTM operations team, where I was working directly with the field and understanding their pain points. 

It’s such a different experience when you’re hearing directly from an end user versus being in Business Systems and hearing from operational teams. Operational teams tend to think more technically, and sales teams think more from a user experience perspective about how we can make systems simpler and not add complications or roadblocks in their day-to-day workflow. 

After Okta, I got the opportunity to work at Lacework. Overall, I have been working in CPQ for more than eight years and it's been so interesting to see how the product and the need for the product has grown and evolved.

What do you like most about Business Systems?

What interests me most about Business Systems is its centrality, particularly with tools like CPQ. CPQ is the source transactional data, feeding into the ERP and data warehouse. Since everything is related to money in CPQ, it becomes a critical source for all transactions that feed into the ERP system. And since it’s central, you’re able to get visibility into how data is feeding into your CPQ, starting from leads and conversions to quotes, orders, invoices, and downstream activities. This level of visibility makes it an essential aspect of any organization's operations. 

I remember when I was moving from Business Systems to GTM Operations, the SVP of GTM operations interviewed me and asked if I aspired to be a COO or a CIO. Her question made me realize that I prefer being on the front end, strategizing how a company moves forward. However, working at a smaller company like Lacework, I get to do both by being involved in driving operational decisions and implementing them. It's fascinating to have visibility across the operations of a company, and that's something I love about working in a centra organization.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in your role?

The biggest challenge is that there is always a long list of things to do. Currently, I'm conducting discovery sessions to interview people about their pain points and perspectives on CPQ. I started with seven groups and now have conducted 18 different sessions. With so many perspectives, I end up with a list of 100-200 things to do, and prioritizing from that long list is challenging. Additionally, there's always a conflict of interest between teams, and it's important to keep the company's goals and ROI in mind when prioritizing tasks. As a member of the central team, I need to be empowered to make those decisions.

What best practices do you follow for successfully implementing, maintaining, and using a CPQ system?

I think the one thing that I usually follow is trying to do things the right way rather than the fast way. It is very tempting to do it quickly and deliver, but 90% of the time, you will have to revisit it in the future. Therefore, it's better to try and do it correctly in the first attempt instead of rushing to complete it.

The companies you’ve worked at are all very focused on the bottom line–generating sales, moving fast, and hitting revenue goals. How do you balance speed and building things the right way?

It's really hard to find the right balance. Sometimes you have to give in, but it's important to find that balance. Let me give you an example. Right before I joined Lacework, they launched a new product catalog. A few weeks later, they were already talking about a second version of that catalog. I was still learning and getting used to the first version, and introducing a new version so soon seemed unscalable. I was opposed to doing that and suggested that we continue with what we had. But because there was a third version in the pipeline and the company was focused on profitability, with price increases and tiered pricing, it was important to consider the ROI. 

Sometimes you have to measure what you're competing against. Are you competing against building a new thing or making the product more profitable? If profitability is the goal, it will always take priority over implementing something new. So it's important to consider what you're measuring and base your decisions on that. I try to prioritize doing things the right way, and if necessary, make adjustments accordingly.

What’s a mistake you see get made all the time with CPQ, even by smart people and smart companies?

I think the biggest mistake is not having a clean product catalog and a clear understanding of your own processes. Even at Lacework, if I ask three people in Sales Ops how a certain transaction should work from start to finish, I would likely get three different answers. Not having or following a standard process and customizing based on individual needs can lead to overcomplicated processes, which can be a problem with CPQ. It's easy to go down that route, especially with the ease of customization in CPQ. So, having a standard process and customization guidelines can help prevent this.

What’s a common complaint you’ve seen from the end user of a CPQ?

A common complaint I've heard is that CPQ is not intuitive enough. I think this happens because sales users are not always kept in mind when configuring CPQ. It's always Business Systems working with Operations, so technical teams are involved in building the tool, which is why the end result might seem complex. But if you keep your end users in mind, like how they would think or perceive a certain feature, it would make it very easy for them to handle. CPQ is a very powerful tool that should enable sales to do things easily. It's important to build it in a way that a non-technical person can use it and to guide your sales team through each and every step of the process so they know where to go and are given the right directions.

What do you see as the next big thing in the CPQ space?

I believe there are some upcoming developments that can be game-changers for CPQ, but they’re not quite there yet. For example, AI could be used to analyze the existing contract base to provide recommendations and guidance on pricing and products for future transactions.

Another potential game-changer is improving the user interface (UI) of CPQ. I've heard complaints from sales teams that they dislike using Salesforce due to the UI, especially in the classic version. However, there are many applications outside of Salesforce with very interactive UIs that are easy to use. CPQs with user-friendly UIs, drag-and-drop capabilities, and AI-powered data auto-population based on historical knowledge, could make the sales team's job much easier.

CPQ Masters is an ongoing interview series with experts in revenue operations, business systems, and business operations who have significant experience implementing, managing, and maintaining a CPQ system. CPQ Masters aims to highlight and share the unique perspectives, experiences, and knowledge of these SaaS industry experts in order to better educate other practitioners on CPQ best practices. Read more CPQ Masters interviews here.