Damien Wong began his career by studying computing science in London, obtaining an MBA in Australia, and grinding in the tech consulting world in the 1990’s. Today, he is a demonstrated global leader in enterprise open source after successful tenures at HP and Red Hat, and in his current role as Vice-President, Asia Pacific and Japan at Confluent. Wong’s career has focused on leading teams in the Asia-Pacific region, during an era when the region has gone from “emerging marketplace” to “essential pillar” for any B2B business.

We caught up with Damien in Singapore in the midst of an epic year of transition: navigating the challenges of a global pandemic, the ongoing revolution in “always-on” data, and the shifting needs of his customers. 

What path did you take to become a sales leader?

Over 25 years ago, I started my career in a consulting role at Andersen Consulting (ed note: now Accenture). My focus there was on designing, building, and deploying mission critical IT systems for financial institutions. Having a technical background helps me get a grasp of the current technology that I work with, and having actually built IT systems makes it easier for me to relate to the challenges that our customers face in applying these technologies to real-world problems.

I’ve been a buyer and a vendor. This helps enormously in my empathy with our customers at Confluent. Many salespeople focus on getting a sale in and regarding that sale as the “win.” But when you’ve been on the buy-side, you’ll know that awarding an IT project to a vendor is just the start of a long process. Success for the customer is when the project has been delivered, when it’s gone live, and most importantly, when the business outcomes that were used to justify the project are realized.

I’ve cut my teeth in a number of software and services organizations, and I’ve grown to appreciate what management styles and techniques would work for different types of salespeople. Eventually, I got opportunities in sales leadership. With a lot of personal sacrifice and sheer refusal to fail, I was able to deliver positive results, which subsequently allowed me to become a manager of sales managers, and then beyond sales management into general management roles.

My current role is Vice President for APAC at Confluent, which was founded by the team that originally created Apache Kafka. Confluent pioneered the platform for data in motion that re-imagines data as a continuous stream flowing throughout organizations. By harnessing the full power of data in motion, organizations in every industry can thrive in the modern world by delivering transformative customer experiences and data-driven operations. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job? And what is your biggest frustration?

Very early in my career, at an all-hands meeting, a senior leader of my company asked us a question: “How many of you here are in Sales?” About half the room raised their hands. This senior executive replied, “Those who didn’t raise your hands should not be working here, because we are ALL in Sales.” The memory has stuck with me.

It is frustrating that prospects sometimes show some disdain when contacted by salespeople, but I also understand it.  Like you, I also hate to be “sold” to. It immediately conjures up images of a shady character who would tell you just about anything to get your signature on a contract. 

While sales is an important part of my remit, I’d take it one step further: Everyone in a company is in the business of making its customers successful. It’s about keeping our customers front and center in everything we do, regardless of whether we work for engineering, finance, or sales. 

Damien Wong, Vice-President, Asia Pacific and Japan at Confluent

When I started my career building software and IT systems, I realized that it’s not really about building a better mousetrap. Instead: “How are we addressing the needs of our customers better than anyone else can?” Can you be a coach or advisor to help shape solutions that meet customer needs across many different facets — technical, functional and commercial — to fix fundamental issues for our customers and make them successful?

Thus it’s very rewarding when we get acknowledged by our customers for making a positive difference in their business. It might be counterintuitive, but escalations from our customers give us an opportunity to differentiate ourselves as trusted partners. 

In the case of an issue with a software feature, or a project delay, it can be stressful for all involved.Mediocre sales teams shy away from such situations, but great sales teams rally the organization to find workarounds or solutions. When we truly make our customers feel that we are there with them every step of the way, and that we will not leave them in the lurch, they remember and respond accordingly. And they come forward to speak on your behalf and serve as reference customers for you. 

Those “thank you” messages we receive following these challenging situations are the ones that I find most rewarding. Often the difference between a good project and a failed one lies in whether we’ve actively listened to the customer. 

How has the pandemic affected how you manage your teams?

Like most, we had to pivot from physical in-person meetings to virtual ones almost overnight. Because we couldn’t travel, we weren’t able to bring geographically-dispersed teams together for events and meetings like Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs), team meetings, training sessions, and kickoffs. 

While there were benefits such as saving time and expenses on travel, it brought with it a whole different set of challenges. For example, in APAC we have teams spanning multiple timezones from India through Australia and New Zealand, which means we effectively only have 3.5 work hours that overlap. Global training sessions were also difficult given that with a team spanning the globe, some team members were always going to be at the short end. As APAC is the youngest and smallest of the theaters globally, we always have to work a little harder to remind our colleagues that a 9AM start in Pacific time might translate to 1AM in Singapore or 3AM in Sydney.

Our team members had significant new work-from-home challenges. How do we make space? There are children, pets, not to mention other family members also having to work from home. These are all the stresses. So we have to be more mindful about these additional challenges, and be more understanding and empathetic. At Confluent, we’ve ensured that we give our employees additional time off for wellness days that are coordinated so that everyone truly gets some time to recharge. We’ve allocated budgets for equipment to make home offices more effective. We also send out little gifts we call Wellness Packs, but most importantly we try to inculcate a culture that is supportive. 

In what areas of your daily or weekly work do you use People.ai?

Our sales leaders use People.ai on a regular basis. It helps us get a better understanding of the activities that our sales professionals engage in and the time spent on them. With this, we get a view on how our top performers are spending their time, and formulate tactics as to how we might be able to replicate this more broadly across the team. Furthermore, it’s great to automate getting contacts and activities populated directly into our CRM system to improve sales productivity in the field as well. It helps us make sure that nothing falls through the cracks, and we get a good look at some leading indicators. 

What are the core data points you use to decide how to manage your book of business?

I look at all the usual lagging indicators for success such as renewal rates, new business revenue, and a healthy portfolio mix across our cloud business, as well as ensuring that we are keeping an eye on training and professional services to help keep our customers successful.

Of course, measuring lagging indicators alone is like driving a car using a rearview mirror. So we also look at leading indicators such as pipeline generation, and the number of new customer references we generate.

What is your favorite accomplishment?

I’ll quote Nelson Mandela first: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Then Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I like these quotes because they capture the essence of what I’ve tried to do over the last decade or so. 

When I first started working with enterprise open source, Asia was significantly behind in awareness and adoption trends here. I was told by many that I was wasting my time, that open source was not safe and not viable for serious enterprises, and why would anyone pay for anything that was essentially freely available to download? This of course wasn’t surprising given that many in the IT industry had grown up in an environment where source code was closed, IP was fiercely patented and protected, and sharing was considered bad. The paradigm shift towards open innovation and open source business models was disruptive, but that didn’t mean it was bad or it was wrong, no matter how many naysayers I encountered then. 

So today, it gives me great satisfaction speaking to Asian customers and seeing them acknowledge that open source is not only viable for them, but in many cases the de facto source of innovation for their digital transformation initiatives. 

At Confluent, we’re at another paradigm shift in the industry, where organizations need to evolve from legacy batch approaches to harnessing the full power of data in motion. I’m glad to see that many have already embraced this notion and are incorporating event streaming into their technology landscape. Our mission is to build the platform for data in motion and make it the central nervous system of every organization.