Growing Business, Shaping Culture: What It’s Like to Work on Confluent’s Sales Team

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Five years in, Confluent is one of the fastest-growing enterprise companies in history — and with more than half of a massive market still unaddressed, the Sales team is just getting started. Below, Marie Gassée (VP, Growth and Revenue), Erica Schultz (President, Field Operations), Dani Traphagen (Senior Systems Engineer), and Sona Vohra (Account Executive) share why they joined the company, what’s challenging about their work, and how Confluent’s growth-centric culture supports team members at every level.

For those who aren’t familiar, what is Confluent?

Dani: Confluent provides an event streaming platform that enables enterprises to build a new class of applications that can leverage real-time data from anywhere in the organization. We make the platform available as both customer-managed software and a fully managed cloud service, and we complement it with expertise in the form of professional services, expert training, and enterprise support. Our platform is based on the open source project Apache Kafka®, which was originally developed at LinkedIn by the founders of Confluent.

From left to right: Sona, Erica, Marie, and Dani.

What are your roles on the team?

Sona: I’m an account executive on the Commercial Sales Team, which means I help companies that have revenue of up to $1 billion strategize how to best leverage Confluent.

Erica: I’m the new president of Field Operations — just four months in and still figuring it all out, while executing on a strategy tied to the themes of building for scale, winning in the cloud, and earning our customers’ love. There are more than 500 people in my org, including account executives, systems engineers (SEs), folks in business development and alliances, and then post-sales, including customer support, services, education, and customer success. We have teams in the Americas, EMEA, and APAC, and in a range of markets — everything from commercial to Global 2000 enterprise accounts.

Marie: I’m VP of Growth and Revenue, which is a heavily data-driven role within our marketing org. I look after our digital and lifecycle marketing efforts to maximize revenue and ROI, as well as our entire sales development org. Our sales development representatives (SDRs) are junior salespeople who often graduate into inside sales or field sales, or become account executives.

Dani: I’m a senior systems engineer, which is really a composite role. Part of our job is pre-sales evaluation, scoping, and qualifying customers. Then we work with account executives like Sona to offer technical support throughout the process toward getting a subscription. I’m based in the L.A. area, working mostly with customers in media, entertainment, and gaming.

Above: Marie’s occasional desk mate, Tapa (furbaby of teammate Tara Rohar).
Left: Sona at her desk. Right: Based in Los Angeles, Dani (center) enjoys the opportunity for an in-person lunch with Bay Area team members.

Why did each of you choose to join Confluent?

Marie: To me, it felt like the best of both worlds. It’s a high-growth company, and one person can have a massive impact. We have over 1,000 employees now, but it doesn’t feel that way — we still know people by name, and my team and I are empowered to make decisions and drive things forward in a way you wouldn’t expect at a company of this size. So in some ways we function like a startup.

At the same time, we have the resources of a larger company — and the product-market fit. People clearly see the value in the product. They love the technology. That makes our job much easier and way more compelling.

Sona: Right. As far as why I joined, I re-entered the workforce a few years ago when my kids went off to college. I had previously worked for a company based on open source technology and loved the culture and widespread adoption associated with it. I was excited when I discovered Confluent was founded by the original co-creators of Kafka. On top of that, Confluent was already being leveraged by companies like Lyft, Capital One, etc.

“We have the resources of a larger company — and the product-market fit. People clearly see the value in the product. They love the technology.” — Marie

Erica: I’ve been in enterprise tech for 25 years now, and what I enjoy most is being a really strategic partner to companies — helping them play offense with software. What I saw here was a technology that is super disruptive in the industry. Event streaming is a completely new architecture. And it’s already proving to be incredibly valuable for Confluent’s customers.

Dani: This is actually my third time working on an Apache-based project, so I was already pretty familiar with the technical side and sales process built around open source, and I’d been interested in Confluent for a while. I enjoy building relationships and working within the context of a larger business, but I’m also really lit up by the nitty-gritty details. So the systems engineering role felt like a perfect fit.

Confluent frequently graces “Top” and “Best Of” lists, most recently landing in the top 20 of Forbes’ 2019 Best Companies for Corporate Culture.
The Cloud Cafe, where lunch is catered four days a week.

Tell us about the company culture.

Sona: Something that stood out to me right away was the transparency. I remember my first day here. I met our CFO and CPO (Chief People Officer) Cheryl Dalrymple. She was amazingly open about the current state of the company finances and where we were headed. Our co-founders are really accessible to employees, too. On numerous occasions, they have been willing to speak to my customers and help champion my projects.

Erica: I’m asked a lot whether we have a culture that values sales, and I always tell people that, for a salesperson, a product-led company is the best place you can be, because you want to take great products to market. So I love that we’re super product focused and that our co-founders are the original co-creators of Kafka.

I’d also say that there’s an opportunity right now for people to get their fingerprints not just on the business of Confluent but the culture as well. The bones of that culture are already in place, and it’s one of the things that drew me here. We’re a values-driven company. But at the same time, I think Confluent’s culture is still emerging. There’s room for every person who joins our team to come in and help shape it.

Erica meets with senior leadership, including Confluent CEO and Co-founder Jay Kreps (far left), and VP of Engineering & Product Ganesh Srinivasan (second from left) to discuss improving efficiencies in Confluent’s enterprise sales cycle.
Left: Team members Caroline Staudenraus, Lan Hoang, and Tim Kirby on their way out the door for lunch. Every Thursday, employees are encouraged to grab lunch from the many surrounding eateries on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View. Right: Tapa gets some head scratches while members of the Sales Team discuss role definition within the organization.

How does Confluent support individual growth?

Marie: I’ve only been here about ten months, and I’ve already seen us put in much more structure in terms of SDR career development. We have a really strong onboarding program, and then there are specific milestones SDRs can move through to make sure they get the experience and training they need for the next step. It’s something we must and will definitely continue investing in.

Erica: Absolutely. I started my own career as an SDR at Oracle, where it was very much the approach to grow people through the ranks. As we build a bigger sales organization, I aspire for us to get even better at doing that here. In the early years, when Confluent was smaller, we could bring in people like Dani, who had already been working with Kafka for years. But as we scale, that’s going to get harder to find , which means we need to put a ton of resources and focus into training and enabling our team. Confluent is certainly a technical product, and I do think you need to be interested in and curious about that. A growth mindset is key. But I’m not a technologist myself — I was a Spanish major! A background in Kafka isn’t required for every role.

“We really do have a fantastic promote-from-within culture…I’ve seen us create new roles and custom opportunities that are helping people grow.” — Dani

Dani: We really do have a fantastic promote-from-within culture. I’ve seen several colleagues step into leadership roles and really deliver, and I’ve seen us create new roles and custom opportunities that are helping people grow. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach.

And it’s been such a pleasure to watch people grow. I was given the honor of mentoring Leslie Kurt when she joined as a fellow SE, and I have to say that she has definitely eclipsed me. She’s a powerhouse, both on the technical side and with business relationships. Today, she’s a product manager for Confluent Cloud and helps shape the direction of our fully managed Apache Kafka as a service.

Left: Dani meets with her mentee Leslie Kurt. Right: Marie (center) gets a surprise hug from Raquel Buendia (right) mid-chat with Tore Olsen (left).

What’s challenging about your work?

Dani: There’s a lot to do. As an SE, you’re supporting more than one person — and they’re all excited and very eager to learn about Kafka. But I will say, I think I’ve really matured since I joined Confluent in terms of setting good boundaries. Asking for help used to be really hard for me, but I’ve learned to reach out when I need it. I’ve also learned that I’m much more effective when I keep myself healthy and well rested, and actually take a vacation once in a while!

Sona: Right; we sell software that sits at the heart of our customer’s business. This means that our customers are running our product 24/7, 365 days a year. As an account executive, I’m always focused on ensuring my customers are supported, but if I’m checking my email before the sun comes up, that’s on me. It’s not an expectation of leadership, it’s just who I am. It’s important to me to build trusted relationships with my customers.

Erica: I agree. Confluent is a hardworking place, and we’re certainly driven by the opportunity we see. But to Dani’s point, there’s space to take care of yourself and set your own boundaries, and we do have a lot of flexibility in terms of when and where you do your work.

“There’s space to take care of yourself and set your own boundaries, and we do have a lot of flexibility in terms of when and where you do your work.” — Erica

We also have very empathetic, supportive leaders, and I think the people on the team, including the women in this room, are able to help shape Confluent’s policies. I’m a working mom myself, and I get the importance of being explicit about supporting people in their lives outside work.

Marie: I think one of the key parts of that is bringing on more people from underrepresented groups; policies tend to reflect the people they cover. Candidly, this is something I need to work on myself, because while our SDR team is relatively gender diverse, I think we can do better on other dimensions. I’m thinking a lot about how I can walk the walk and help us become more diverse.

We did recently bring on two people who are parents, which is less common at the SDR level, so I’m really excited about that. And I think we’re already starting to see progress on the policy front. We have a mother’s room in the office, and we just started a partnership with Milk Stork, so Confluent will cover the cost of shipping breast milk for moms who are traveling.

Marie deep in thought about quarterly targets.
Auspicious goals. Sales calls. Deal gong.

What are you most excited about right now?

Marie: What’s most exciting to me is that we’re almost equally focused on both generating pipeline and growing the next generation of sales leaders. Of course, we want our team to produce for the business, but it’s also great for Confluent if an SDR becomes one of our highest-performing sales reps in just a few years. So we’re genuinely invested in people’s growth, and that’s a nice position to be in.

Erica: The company is also at such a fun stage right now. We’re not a startup. Joining the team isn’t too risky. But we still have that opportunity to make an impact, and there’s so much raw clay to mold, so much for us to go do. This is a target-rich environment, and our customers teach us about new use cases every day — ways they’re using Confluent to deliver new digital experiences or accelerate migrations to the cloud. We’re getting into new verticals, and making alliances with new partners. We have this incredible base technology with so many applications, and there’s a lot of room to play and grow.

Interested in joining the Confluent team?

Check out open roles.

Your moment of Zen: Concept-art banana for scale.

*A version of this story first appeared on Confluent’s blog on March 9th, 2020.



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