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Customer Support at Confluent: Good People, Rapid Growth

What’s it really like to spend your days helping Confluent customers? Below, Alex Altman (Senior Director of Americas Support), Sam Hecht (VP, Global Support and Success Engineering), and Anna McDonald (Principal Customer Success Technical Architect) explain how they and their Customer Support (CS) colleagues work together, reflect on the opportunities and challenges of the team’s rapid evolution, and share what they’re excited to do next.

Alex Altman, Sam Hecht, Anna McDonald
From left to right: Alex Altman, Sam Hecht, and Anna McDonald

First, what do each of you do at Confluent?

Alex: I’m in charge of reactive support for the Americas—it’s my team’s job to help our customers, whether they’re just getting started with Confluent or are fully in production and mission-critical for them. Beyond that, I’m looking ahead to how we can scale our processes, training, and enablement as we grow. It’s a mix of thinking tactically about today, and strategically about tomorrow.

Anna: I work on the proactive support side. We jump in when issues come up, but it’s also our job to help prevent those incidents from happening at all. One thing I like about my job is that it’s never the same day-to-day. We meet with customers for everything from roadmap planning for major upgrades and new feature requests, to moving them into the cloud, to figuring out how they can save money by using things like tiered storage. Right now those conversations happen remotely, but pre-pandemic we did go on-site frequently; I was usually in New York a couple times a week. I also work with partners, which is one of my favorite parts of the job. We recently got Confluent certified to run in VMWare, for example. That was really fun.

Sam: I run our Global Support team, which is based here in San Francisco but highly distributed—about half of us are spread out across the U.S., and we have people in Australia, APAC, and all over Europe, too. My typical day includes calls with team members and customers around the world. I’m also working on growing the team, and on our overall strategy. Confluent is growing super fast, so we’re constantly learning, both from what’s going well and from the friction points. We try to keep improving everything, from our processes and structures to how we interact with other teams.

How do you collaborate, within Customer Support and with the rest of the company?

Anna: My team works with Reactive Support every day, and they are my favorite humans in the entire world. Alex, you’ve been with us for a few months now, and you’ll eventually find out that I occasionally poach your people, because they’re amazing and fabulous and I love them so much. I’m sorry about that! Our customers would not be nearly as successful without them, and neither would we. I think they are the number one reason people stick with Confluent.

We also collaborate a lot with Engineering—if a retail chain were to run into a problem on Black Friday, for example, Reactive Support would take point but all three of us will be on that call. Because CSTAs—that’s Customer Support Technical Architects—stay with accounts for years and years, we have a lot of trust built up, and I think that’s very valuable as we bring other team members in.

There are times I work directly with Sam, as well; if a customer is asking for something that’s out of scope, for instance, I’d bring him in. Beyond that, I try not to bother him too much. He has enough on his plate.

Sam: No, don’t say that!

Anna: You do, bud.

Sam: I appreciate it. But I do think it’s important to say that asking questions isn’t just okay—it’s expected. Our team has always been remote-friendly, so we’ve had to be very intentional about baking in a collaborative culture. We never want someone sitting alone in Phoenix or wherever they are, thinking, “Gosh, I could really use help, but Sam’s so busy.” The great thing is that by nature, Support tends to attract highly collaborative, empathetic people. When there’s a fire, we’re the ones to run toward it. It’s our job to make people’s days better, and that includes each other’s.

Alex: Absolutely. It goes beyond the CS organization, as well—something I’ve noticed this team does well is highlight our customers’ needs to other parts of the business. We have data we can bring into those conversations, and we hear feedback someone else might not. We see how they’re going to interact with a new feature, how a change might impact them, what we should add. When we share that, it extends that empathy and helps the rest of the company keep the customer perspective in mind.

How has the team evolved over time?

Sam: It’s definitely changed a lot since I joined six years ago—back then, Customer Support was just me! We’re close to 150 people now. So scale is obviously the biggest driver; we’ve needed to reevaluate processes every six months or so. Plus, we often feel the effects when other teams make adjustments. If Sales makes a change, for example, that makes a difference in terms of customer expectations.

The platform has evolved, too. We decided a few years ago to focus on the cloud and move away from on-premise software distribution to a SaaS model, and that’s a big shift—we’re running infrastructure for our customers, versus just being here when they need help. The level of responsibility is humbling. We’re handling information that can affect people’s finances, even their health. We want to scale in a way that allows us to rise to that occasion.

I will say, one thing that hasn’t changed in the past six years is our values. Even before we made them official, the early team radiated “smart, humble, and empathetic” and the “one team” mentality of always being willing to help out. And that’s still true today. I remember thinking early on, “Wow, there really are no jerks here—but when we get to 500 people, a few will sneak in.” But here we are six years later, and that never happened.

Alex: Being new to the team, I was really shocked by how good the humans are here. They’re smart, but also kind, funny, and patient. And they share their lives—there’s a richness that isn’t just one-dimensional, all about work.

I’ve also already felt welcomed to weigh in on where we’re heading, and how we’ll continue to evolve. I’m seeing not just the reactive, tactical side, one quarter at a time—but the larger roadmap. I appreciate that we’re thinking about what we’re really trying to solve and bringing in different levels of perspective.

Anna: I came in a couple years ago, just as we were about to hit 1,000 people, and it was interesting to see us transition to an organization with more structure and formal processes. My favorite success story has been adding the role of customer success manager (CSM). Wherever we have them—mostly large accounts—they’ve been incredibly successful, and it’s allowed the CSTAs to focus on what we’re best at. I think it’s easy for people to get defensive with an evolution like that, and feel like their toes are being stepped on. But here, it’s worked out so well. I joke with one CSM I’ve been working with that he’s never leaving me. Wherever we go and whatever we do, I want him on my team.

What’s challenging about your jobs?

Anna: As Sam mentioned, unifying on-prem and cloud is an interesting one. Our roadmap is cloud-first, which I definitely support. But the reality is that for regulatory reasons, some things still need to be on-prem right now. Sometimes, that means having to go scrape data to get all the insights we need. But Product is working with us to make that easier; they’re going to start pulling information directly from usage objects, which will reduce friction.

Alex: Yes—we have great data to leverage, but it’s critical that we use it in the right way. The raw information isn’t going to do it; we need to put thought into the filters and flow so it’s structured and clear.

Fundamentally, a lot of the challenges we’re working on are scaling problems. When you’re a team of 30, you can communicate through notes. At 70 and counting, Slacks and text fields in Zendesk don’t work—you need a real-time dashboard, with full visibility for everyone on the team. It’s about going from well-intentioned but ad-hoc processes to a more structured approach that is bulletproof and repeatable.

Sam: Something I’ve been thinking about is balancing the high-quality support and deep expertise our customers come to us for with minimizing support friction that can get in the way of them using the product. What should we surface to customers directly in the UI, so they don’t even need to file a ticket? How can we optimize their experience? Those seem like simple conversations, but at this scale, they require a lot of process, system, and cultural alignment.

Can one of you share a favorite customer story?

Sam: Anna, talk about the CDC!

Anna: Sure. Kafka runs the pipeline for the CDC’s testing and vaccination data, and working with them has been incredibly rewarding—as I’ve told Sam, I feel like it saved my mental health during the pandemic. When you’re sitting there feeling like it’s never going to end, being able to actually help just meant the world to me. It wasn’t always easy. I don’t usually get stressed about work, but this was so important. People’s lives were on the line. So I got a little stressed—but it has to be the most meaningful work I’ve done here at Confluent.

Let’s talk about Confluent’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Sam, you’re one of the executive sponsors for Queerfluent.

Sam: I am—along with Stephanie Buscemi, our CMO. Each ERG has members who volunteer as leads, and Stephanie and I meet with the people heading up Queerfluent regularly, to see how we can help and make sure they’re getting the support they need from the broader organization. I really like the sponsorship model, because it ensures these groups are top-of-mind for execs.

Queerfluent is just one of several ERGs—there’s also Asians @ Confluent; Blackfluent; Conmigos, our group for Latinx and Hispanic employees and allies; Veterans Network, and Women’s Inclusion Network; and we’re just starting groups for people with disabilities and for parents.

Alex: I’ve had a chance to participate in the parent group, and it was such a vulnerable, safe, rich conversation. Does it solve everything? No. But it absolutely helps. Just having a community, knowing I’m not alone, made me feel so much better. It’s so important that we create environments where people feel supported, loved, and encouraged, so that everyone can be their authentic selves.

Anna: The work the ERGs are doing really is critical, including from a business perspective. One of the biggest risks to any company is churn; it’s so much easier to keep an awesome person who is already here happy, rather than trying to hire another one. So building an inclusive culture isn’t optional, to me. It’s what makes us strong. And you can’t do it unintentionally. You attract a diverse workforce by hiring people from diverse backgrounds, listening to them, and figuring out what we can do to make this a better place to work for them and the people in their networks.

What are each of you looking forward to right now?

Anna: Honestly, I’m most excited about the idea of multiregion clusters with Confluent for Kubernetes. Right now, there’s no federation in the actual K8, so we’re adding guidance and a path that will allow people to deploy in a public cloud or their private Kubernetes ops—OpenShift or whatever. It’s going to be amazing.

Oh, I’m also looking forward to defending my crown as reigning champion of Apache Kafka Jeopardy. Our Community Catalysts are running a competition, and we’re thinking about having a tournament of champions after that—so whoever wins from their group will have the privilege of getting beat by me.

Sam: She’s a formidable opponent.

I’m excited about our roadmap in 2022 and the potential to improve our tooling. The SaaS model has given our support engineers and CSTAs visibility into far more information, and I think that access will make us far more efficient going forward.

I’m also cautiously optimistic about getting to see each other more. I was able to meet with the Europe team in person in Barcelona a few months ago, and there was something really special about that after so long on Zooms.

Alex: I did the same thing! We have a good number of people here in Portland, and we got together for a happy hour. It was so wonderful to socialize and laugh and just connect, especially as a new member of the team.

Sam: Absolutely. A lot of our team members haven’t met yet, because so many of us joined over the last couple of years. We’re looking forward to getting more face-to-face time whenever we can.

Mari Cross is the Senior Vice President of Confluent’s Global Strategy, Support, and Services team. Her team delivers prescriptive guidance to accelerate our customers’ success while supporting technical innovation, success motions at scale, and operational excellence.

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