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Thought Leader Talks: Salesforce Architect, CTA, Certifications With Gemma Blezard
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Salesforce Architect Training by Gemma Blezard

Protecting business-critical Salesforce, MS 365 (Office 365), Google Workspace (G Suite), Box, and Dropbox data requires an in-depth understanding of each of these SaaS products, compliance laws, and cybersecurity best practices. In this series, we reach out to experienced thought leaders – admins and architects, cybersecurity gurus, and compliance experts. Their insights are ingenious yet practical, and incredibly helpful. We hope you benefit from them, as much as we have. Today, I talk with Gemma Blezard, founder and CEO of The Architech Club, a 17x certified Salesforce Architect MVP with 500+ badges as a Salesforce Trailhead ranger, and a Salesforce Solution Architect. Read her perceptive inputs on Salesforce data protection, the journey to becoming a Salesforce Certified Technical Architect (CTA), and Salesforce training and certification pointers for administrators and architects.

Gemma Blezard: CEO at Architech Club, Salesforce Trailhead Ranger, Salesforce Solution Architect

Gemma Blezard is a true Salesforce Trailblazer, keenly imbibing the Ohana spirit in every way. Apart from being the CEO and Solution Architect at The Architech Club and a Salesforce Architect MVP, Gemma founded Ladies Be Architects, a community initiative that aims to build confidence in women who want to be Salesforce Certified Architects. Gemma also volunteers with Salesforce Supermums that aims to retrain women in SF administration. A frequent speaker at Dreamforce, Gemma has inspiringly cataloged her journey to becoming a Salesforce CTA and looks forward to re-attempting the exam in the coming year. 

Salesforce Support for GDPR

Hi Gemma, we’re delighted to have you on our Thought Leader Talks. To start off, we’d like to get your insights on Salesforce support for various data privacy laws. What would your recommendations be to Salesforce architects implementing a Compliance Program for GDPR or another regulatory law?

There are many countries in the world that have data regulatory laws – Australia, California CCPA in the U.S., and then the GDPR in Europe. I have experienced it during project work, how these privacy laws are actually changing culture and mindset. People now know the value of their data. While organizations are aware of data laws, as an architect, you do sometimes have to gently remind them of the implications. 

The best advice for architects is to continue to push “privacy by design”. Remind customers that if they transact business with states or countries that have stricter privacy laws, they are also subject to compliance with those laws as data processors. This is particularly true for ISV (independent software vendor) partners, because even though it’s not your data, your application is processing it for them. So if the customer gets hit by a complaint or a fine, chances are they’ll pass it on to you. Always consider the privacy of data. Start with everything locked down by default in your mind. Then raise conversations about data access, explain the pros and cons, and enable the customer to make an informed decision.

Synergy Between Administrators, Developers, and Architects

You’ve worked extensively in a range of Salesforce implementations over the past twelve years. Can you suggest practical pointers for better synergy between Salesforce admins, developers, and architects? 

These three roles are a result of the way that Salesforce has expertly positioned its personas. If you look at the Trailhead side,  there is tailored content for admins, developers, and now architects. I don’t see them hierarchically, I see them as complementary skill sets. The architect persona fits alongside the developer and admin streams, and both of those streams feed back into architecture. As a Salesforce architect, your role is to harmonize and be the glue that holds it all together. I think the best way all three roles can synergize is to continue to be open-minded about your contributions and how you want to specialize.

Salesforce Administrator Certification Path

Gemma, you began your Salesforce journey with the Salesforce Administrator certification. What Salesforce certification path do you recommend for Salesforce admins? 

The demand in the market currently veers towards hiring people with proven skillsets. Salesforce is addressing that through a variety of talent initiatives. By signing up for these initiatives, businesses are always on the lookout for new talent with an appetite to learn. 

To make a good start, invest your time in learning Salesforce aspects that align with your project work. There are fantastic online Salesforce training courses on Trailhead, Udemy, and Pluralsight. There are heaps of resources and blogs to help you with the five most popular Salesforce certifications: Administrator, Advanced Administrator, Sales Cloud, Service Cloud, and Platform App Builder. You can also check out Ladies Be Architects for helpful pointers. Finally, during lockdown, I delivered an online Salesforce training course for the unemployed, which covers enough material in 36 hours to learn Salesforce from scratch and study for the five core certifications.  

Salesforce training and certifications aside, it is important that you stand out as an admin. Showcase people and listening skills. Demonstrate empathy, leadership, and enthusiasm to learn. These skills grow from dissecting a business problem, getting to the root of it, and creating solutions that are focused on people rather than process and technology. Salesforce is a people-focused system. If you exude drive and determination to help your customers (even if those happen to be Salesforce users), you’ll stand out at interviews. Your prospective employer will appreciate that you’ve invested your free time to learn Salesforce. Your enthusiasm to drive a difference and take ownership of your work will pay dividends for them, as well as for you.  

Salesforce Solution Architect Training

As you evolved into a Salesforce solution architect, how did you map your trail in terms of Trailhead Ranger badges and Salesforce certifications? Was it a mix of planned ones and ad hoc Salesforce training based on the client’s project?

You’ve touched upon something I talk about quite a lot about, which is about avoiding the Pokemon style way of learning. There’s no rush to catch ‘em all. In 2012, I failed the Service Cloud exam, and instead of cramming hard and retaking straight away, I waited till I had the right project so I could contextualize it. When I started twelve years ago, there was no Trailhead. I learned on the job looking after users on the Sales floor. As I moved out of end-user administration to consultancy as a Salesforce partner, I worked on getting certifications. I did this to build credibility and strength as a consultant – even more so as a woman. I passed the Administrator and Advanced Administrator exams, the now-expired Consultant, and Force.com Developer exams. As credentials got divided, I achieved the  Sales and Service Cloud certifications too. 

I stopped at five certifications; I had no intention of learning to code. Salesforce released more advanced and specialist certifications, but I was very busy working on projects so it became less of a priority for me. When I changed jobs, my new boss at Bluewolf, who happened to be a Salesforce CTA, saw potential in me and suggested that I might really benefit from the process of becoming a CTA. Apprehensive at first, I focused on areas I was confident in. Each exam taught me so much, and I used the revision material daily in my work as a Salesforce Solution Architect. I wanted to share what I’d learned, so I used my revision notes to craft blog posts. As I gained more confidence (and free certification vouchers!), I decided to try the Application Architect level. This level entails passing four prerequisite exams to be awarded the credential. By that point, the flywheel was going and I was competing with myself. I was getting so much out of the experience of doing each exam. I applied that knowledge to client meetings, and it helped me hold my own during technical conversations with system, security, and enterprise architects from IBM. Certifications were hugely helpful in building my position, as a Salesforce architect, and particularly as a woman, to break any glass ceiling.

So while there was no direct pre-planned path it was a mix of doing certifications that align with my projects, good mentorship, and a way to fortify my position as an expert.

Salesforce CTA Journey

Gemma, you’ve written extensively, and remarkably honestly, about your Salesforce CTA journey. What would be your advice for aspiring Salesforce CTAs?

The Salesforce CTA is an incredibly tough exam. Preparing for it is an intense experience,  with a notoriously high failure rate. Whilst I’m very proud of the demand we have created for Salesforce architects, and the spotlight we have put on the CTA certification, I am passionate to show that it’s not CTA-or-bust. It’s true that those who have passed the review board have demonstrable excellence. If you’ve ever met one of their seniority; the composure, logical mind, and concise communication skills are plain to see.  Passing the review board is a fantastic goal. If it’s one of yours, I would urge you to remember that it is an exam, not a status. You’ve proven your excellence in passing the exam and there are talented architects out there who haven’t passed it. It’s a tough but rewarding journey that could take a few years. 

CTA is all about communicating the practical application of your Salesforce knowledge. I’ve been studying for my CTA for three years. Though I’m not actively working towards the review board right now, I put myself into situations to practice applying my knowledge concisely. Conversations about program structure, governance, and enterprise-level project delivery all expose us to the right environments that we need to prepare for the review board. Then as you read through the exam scenario your mind strays back to real-life project experiences and solutioning becomes easier. Developing the ability to solve problems quickly. And well, that isn’t something you can learn from a textbook. 

Salesforce Dreamforce 2019 and 2020

Gemma, you presented at Dreamforce ‘19 – an incredible conference that had Obama as one of the keynote speakers. What would your key takeaways be from Dreamforce ‘19 and what are you looking forward to in the virtual Dreamforce 2020?

We opened and closed the brand new Architect area that Salesforce created for the first time in the Trailhead camp. We loved it, because for the first time we delivered practical, community-led workouts. . This was an area for people who wanted to grow architecture skills, with a beautiful big blackboard and glass whiteboards. Humbling for us, was knowing we had built the demand as Ladies Be Architects, and Salesforce was responding and investing in supplying it. It was an amazing experience. We had a lot of laughs with people; we hosted an OAuth session where people acted out an analogy of Single Sign-On and it was absolutely hilarious. 

Another highlight for me was the privilege of speaking with Susannah St-Germain and Charly Prinsloo. We spoke about the role of an architect in an enterprise Salesforce environment and discussed our work experiences. It was awesome getting an understanding of Susannah and Charly’s working lives; seeing their knowledge and experience come through. I really loved that.

Aren’t we all fed up with another video call? There’s no substitution for the connections that you can make in person. I have friendships with people I know from Twitter, but I’ve never met in person, and it’s just lovely to meet them at Dreamforce. But given the constraints of Covid-19, I’m sure Salesforce will do a great job with a reimagined, virtual Dreamforce To You in 2020

Salesforce Winter ‘21 Release

What are the key features that you’re looking forward to in the Salesforce Winter ‘21 Release?

I’m most interested in dynamic forms, and the opportunity scoring model. It also looks like Salesforce is putting tooltips in as well for opportunity list views, which will indicate when records have been changed. That’s something that my customers ask for a lot, and I have to build creative solutions to show them that. So it’s nice that Salesforce is building it into the platform.

Practical Pointers as a Salesforce Solution Architect

Gemma, Salesforce offers extensive implementation options. However, projects are often stuck in a labyrinth. How do you’ll at The Architech Club tackle project purgatory?

Firstly, think about why you’re in project purgatory. It’s rarely because of the technology. Escaping it sometimes means telling some uncomfortable truths. But that can’t happen unless everyone is invested in re-alignment, and ready to acknowledge changing environments. 

Alongside SCRUM-style Agile retrospective workshops, we use Marc Benioff’s V2MOM alignment framework at The Architech Club. The V2MOM  is a living plan that defines the Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures of any initiative. It works well for your personal life too! In shaping this, we spend time getting to know customers, and we produce a V2MOM document for every single project that we do. We adopted that model because it fits really well with our own model. We don’t follow a traditional milestone or time and materials model, but a “right price” model. The idea is that you have a Salesforce solution architect to help you with anything on the project, and no requirement is out of scope. I believe that fixing scope can limit customers’ thinking about requirements because they want to minimize the estimated level of effort when they’re paying consultancies by the hour. Take away that thought, create a space for the customer to think openly, and spend time preparing for a well-executed Salesforce implementation that lasts.

Migrating to Salesforce

In your experience, what are some of the teething pains customers face when migrating to Salesforce?

Teething pains are often caused by a lack of testing and a lack of attention to risk. The pains I see are usually to do with people. Program governance, design standards, testing, rules of engagement, change management, and training – as we are swept along with the implementation, we all know these elements are important, yet somehow we de-prioritize them. They are often the first estimates to be cut down in a consultancy Statement of Work. Yet, the most needed!

Chaos ensues when there’s not enough attention paid to the “people” side of Salesforce. It’s a People tool, not just a management tool. It’s crucial to involve stakeholders representing multiple levels and areas of the business as requirements are shaped so that the outcome is a system that really gives the bigger picture.

Apart from Salesforce training, employee communication, and change management, stakeholder buy-in is crucial. Ask executives to actually lead the deployment and set a good example that they’re relying on  Salesforce, therefore everyone should be using it. Build stakeholder champions. You could instruct your executives to make sure that all company updates are made in Chatter. So employees not using Salesforce realize they’re missing out when the entire office is abuzz with an update or news on Chatter. 

Salesforce Backup and Recovery

Gemma, with Salesforce retiring its Data Recovery Service, what best practices would you recommend for Salesforce backup and recovery? 

Having a disaster recovery strategy and Business Continuity Plan would be a good start. Don’t ignore it; data security is often neglected on projects. It becomes an afterthought. It’s important to raise those conversations upfront in your discovery and not delay. 

As an architect, it is your job to gather the facts and paint the bigger picture, which means asking a lot of questions and challenging legacy thinking. I make a mental checklist that goes around the Salesforce Architect certifications pyramid – it’s a graphic produced by Salesforce. Backup and recovery come up in both the integration and data architecture Designer exams. Think through it, frame your questions, and make them business-focused. What’s your backup strategy? Do you have a disaster recovery policy? What data backup tools do you have in place? Do you have a data warehouse or a data lake? What’s your strategy if your data center got hit by a nuclear bomb? Ask about integration, data architecture, data stewardship, governance, and data ownership. These questions are really important to address early on. Formulate a solid disaster recovery and business continuity plan and execute on the commitments you make in it. 

Companies like CloudAlly are trying to prevent data loss before it happens, by raising awareness of Salesforce backup and recovery. Salesforce’s Data Recovery Service has been recently terminated. As architects, we need to remind our customers of this upfront and be ready to recommend strategies that best suit our customer’s needs.

Gemma Blezard: A True Salesforce Trailblazer

Thank you, Gemma. I had a lovely chat with you – very insightful and informative. I really enjoyed talking to you and wish you all the best on your Salesforce journey. Thank you!

We hope you benefitted from Gemma’s pointers and tips on training and certifications for Salesforce solution architects and administrators, the journey to Salesforce CTA, data recovery, migrating to Salesforce, and remediating stuck projects. Stay tuned for more valuable inputs from another thought leader…

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