Better Together: How Confluent’s Customer Success Team Collaborates Across Continents

Job Portraits
Oct 2, 2019 · 11 min read

Confluent’s customers are spread out all over the globe, so it only makes sense that the members of its Customer Success (CS) team — which encompasses customer support, training and certification, and professional services — are, too. Below, Mark Cox (Technical Account Manager), Sam Hecht (Senior Director, Customer Operations), Koelli Mungee (Customer Operations Manager), and Carol Patel (Head of Americas, Professional Services) discuss how their teams work together across time zones, explain the technical and growth-related challenges they face, and share what they look for in new team members.

First, what does Confluent do?

Carol: At its core, Confluent is like a central nervous system for moving data. Instead of using a legacy messaging bus, point-to-point data integration, or siloed datastores, our platform — which is based on Apache Kafka ® — provides a constant stream of real-time events. You don’t have to think up front about what data you need or the format you need it in, so it’s much more flexible and agile. Euronext, the European stock exchange and one of our customers, is a perfect example. For them, we’re able to support a high-speed, high-volume, event-driven trading infrastructure where traders are constantly accessing information.

Mark: For our customers, it’s a big competitive advantage over the old-school approach, where you might run a batch job every week to see what’s changed in your business. Confluent allows you to react to what’s happening right now. It’s like a neural network of events that you can process and analyze as they’re created.

What are your roles within the Customer Success team?

Koelli: I’m an engineering lead on the Customer Operations team. Mission-critical systems run on Confluent, so when a customer faces production degradation, we help them resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

Sam: I lead Customer Operations, or COPS, which includes reactive and proactive support — folks like Koelli as well as the technical account managers. COPS is one of three pillars under Customer Success; the other two are Professional Services and our Training team, which handles guided education for our customers. Day to day, I’m checking in with team members around the globe, helping grow our team, and getting on calls with customers. I also do a lot of strategic planning, because the team is growing fast.

“A lot of mission-critical systems run on Confluent, so it’s important we solve problems as quickly as possible.” — Koelli

Mark: I’m a technical account manager, or TAM, on the Customer Operations team. We make sure our customers are getting the greatest value out of their investment in Confluent, and we’re usually located as close as possible to our customers. We’re different from Carol’s team in that they might go on-site for a week or two to handle a specific task, while we usually work with a customer through their entire Kafka journey.

One of my goals is to avoid a scenario where a customer is coming to Koelli and her team with a production outage. It’s inevitable that things will go wrong sometimes, but if we can help our customers understand best practices ahead of time, they’re going to be much more successful in avoiding common pitfalls.

Above from left to right: Carol (on screen), Koelli, Sam, and Mark discuss their roles. Though based in Palo Alto, Carol is often on the road visiting customers.
“Our roles are highly technical…We’re diving into the code to see what’s wrong. Most of our team members have very technical backgrounds.”–Sam Hecht

What’s different about Customer Success at Confluent, compared to other places you’ve worked?

Sam: One difference is our roles are highly technical. We’re not helping people who placed the wrong order and need a refund — we’re drawing on deep Kafka experience and diving into the code to diagnose problems and quickly resolve issues in mission-critical data infrastructure. Most of our team members have very technical backgrounds, and we invest a lot in growing the skill sets of our engineers.

Like the rest of Confluent, we’re also extremely remote-friendly. In Customer Operations, for example, only 15% of the team is based at HQ. Being spread out around the world allows us to provide 24/7 support and, as Mark said, to be close to our customers. It also means we have to be more thoughtful about how we communicate and collaborate. We use lots of group Slack channels and video conference standups to make sure everyone stays connected to the rest of the team and has a voice in how we build the organization and serve our customers.

“Being spread out around the world allows us to provide 24/7 support and to be close to our customers.” — Sam

Mark: Yeah, group channels help keep us all in the loop — and they’re also part of a broader culture of transparency that I think sets Confluent apart. Coming from IBM, it was clear to me right away that this was a very different approach. I still remember my first all-hands meeting. We were openly informed about things like sales figures and given updates on what was happening with funding. The level of trust and transparency blew my mind.

VP of Customer Success Sarah Sproehnle, in town from her home base in Portland, OR, enjoys an office visit with (and an A+ photobomb from one of) her sons.

Why did you join the team?

Carol: One of Confluent’s core values is that we are all one team, and I remember asking about that when I interviewed. Lots of people say that, so I wanted to hear examples. And I did! There really is a lot of collaboration here. One of our Slack channels is for the whole company, where anyone can share anything. And we have a lot of cross-functional teams that work together from the beginning of projects.

What’s surprised me is how that’s remained true as we’ve grown. I was employee number 250, and now we have more than 800 people. But our leaders, from the CEO and CPO on down, still ask us for feedback on everything from our facilities to our product road map. No one’s ideas are disregarded.

“Our leaders, from the CEO and CPO on down, still ask us for feedback on everything from our facilities to our product road map. No one’s ideas are disregarded.” — Carol

Mark: I’m a techie at heart, and the first thing that attracted me to Confluent was Kafka itself. I worked in messaging and MQSeries at IBM and experienced the growth in that space firsthand — and when I first saw Kafka, I realized it was just as vital and pervasive, but it was built for the modern paradigm of event streaming data. That was something I wanted to be part of. And Confluent was clearly the place to be. The founders are some of the original authors of Kafka, and no one on the planet knows more about it than this team.

Then when I interviewed, everyone I spoke with was super friendly, cool, and humble. I came out of it feeling really good, and when an offer came my way, I didn’t hesitate.

Above and below: Mark, Koelli, and various Confluent team members enjoy lunch—which is catered daily—at HQ.

Koelli: The people were the biggest reason I joined, too. But even before I interviewed, I’d heard a lot about Kafka at my previous company, and I could see it was taking off. The commitment and leadership in the community was a big deal.

Sam: I joined three-and-a-half years ago as the first hire in Customer Success. There were a few key criteria I was looking for, and I’m glad to say Confluent still meets all three today. First, I wanted to find a company with a product that was mission-critical for its customers. Working in support for a product like ours gives you the opportunity to make a big difference for both businesses and individuals on a daily basis.

I also needed a role that would never be boring — one day I’m working on a payments platform, the next it’s health care. That’s exciting. And most importantly, I wanted to work with a quality team. It was clear early on that this was a very smart and very humble group, and that has stayed true even as we’ve scaled from 20 employees to over 800. It doesn’t matter if you’re the hottest open-source stream processing software development wizard on Twitter — no one here is too special to hop in when a colleague or customer needs help.

Colorful stickers, succulents, walls, and the Kafka bus make for cheerful office decoration.

What challenges does the Customer Success team face?

Mark: The scale of growth. It’s a nice problem to have; clearly people think Confluent is special and they want to be part of it. But the sheer volume of new accounts is phenomenal — and we have a very high bar for hiring, both in terms of technical skills and culture, so keeping up with that volume can be challenging at times. But it’s for the right reasons. We don’t want to rush bringing people on board just to hit a hiring quota.

Sam: The work itself can be inherently stressful, too. When a customer’s in the middle of a technical problem and having a terrible day, that’s exactly when we dive in and help. I think the key to managing that intensity is the “one team” mentality. We have each other’s backs and we take care of each other. When someone else needs help, you raise your hand. It’s much easier to handle because we’re all in it together, and we have processes to make sure no one is ever going it alone.

Members of the Customer Success team hard at work.

Tell us more about collaboration — within Customer Success and with other teams at Confluent.

Koelli: There’s a lot of mutual respect between our team and Engineering. When we hit a point where we’re out of ideas, they’re right there to support us. We work together to figure out the next step and how to get there.

Mark: Absolutely. Because we’re such a technical team, we’re not making our customers jump through hoops or asking, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” before they get to someone who can really dig deep on Kafka internals and help them. But when we can’t help, the Engineering team is there for us, day or night.

We also have a great relationship with Sales. It’s an open dialogue — they want to understand what’s happening with their accounts from the Customer Success point of view, and they keep us in the loop on what’s coming down the pipeline so we can get a plan in place together.

“There’s a lot of mutual respect between our team and Engineering. When we hit a point where we’re out of ideas, they’re right there to support us.” — Koelli

Sam: I like to think of us as the voice of the customer within Confluent. We try to bridge the gap between what our accounts need and what the developers are doing, which sometimes means pushing internally to make sure customers’ needs are met and priorities are addressed. We have a lot of formal processes to help ensure each Customer Operations Engineer or TAM can convey customer needs and feedback to our product development teams. And of course collaboration is essential within the Customer Success team, as well.

Carol: Right — especially because Confluent is relatively young, there’s so much we can learn from each other. When you work with a particular platform or feature or type of issue for the first time, you share what you learned across all of Customer Success. And one of the things I really like about Confluent is that unlike some other companies, Professional Services and Support are housed within Customer Success. So we’re all under the same charter. Whether a customer needs a quick fix or proactive support or training or consultative services, everyone’s working toward a common goal.

Left: New Hires get a tour of HQ during their first day. Right: Some comforting encouragement to go with your coffee.

What do you look for in new team members?

Mark: You don’t need a deep understanding of Kafka before you come on board. Experience in a distributed systems environment is helpful, but what’s most important is that you’re curious and driven to learn. There are a lot of parts in our ecosystem that could be part of a customer’s solution, so you need to be willing to dive in.

Carol: Right — as Mark and Sam have mentioned, humility is a core value here. No matter how skilled or tenured you are, there’s going to be a lot of learning because no two setups will be exactly the same. So you need to work within a structure but still be agile and flexible. We want people who are curious and motivated to try new things, not satisfied with the status quo.

Sam: And while there’s a lot of learning, there’s a lot of support, too. We bring every new hire to HQ for the first week of onboarding, to learn about our culture and the different functional teams. I think that’s especially valuable for remote team members, because they get to build camaraderie with a whole cohort of people across the company. When it comes to technical enablement, we invest a lot in making sure new team members are set up for success before we put them in front of customers. This means a mix of guided training, self-paced training materials like videos and hands-on lab work, and then a mix of shadowing and reverse-shadowing before we send you out on your own.

Want to learn more? Interested in joining the Confluent team?

Check out additional interviews with Koelli and Sam (conducted by the Confluent team), peruse open roles, or email Mike Murray.

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Job Portraits

Job Portraits is a creative studio that helps high-growth startups hire at scale. We are former journalists, founders, developers, and, yes, job seekers, working to improve the hiring experience from both sides of the table.

Job Portraits

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Job Portraits

Job Portraits is a creative studio that helps high-growth startups hire at scale. We are former journalists, founders, developers, and, yes, job seekers, working to improve the hiring experience from both sides of the table.

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