Dreamforce 2018 - How Trailhead puts Salesforce admins at the heart of its future

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 27, 2018
With its quirky hiking park iconography, Trailhead reaches out to a new generation of Salesforce admins and developers to stave off a looming skills crisis

Dreamforce 2018 Trailhead park 370px by @philww
Three years ago, it became evident that Salesforce was facing a skills crisis. At the time, it seemed the only solution was a massive expansion in its partner ecosystem. But Salesforce had another plan up its sleeve  —  a plan that would see its annual Dreamforce conference turned into a massive, make-believe hiking park, all to promote a new interactive skills development platform called Trailhead.

Rip Gerber, CMO of Salesforce ISV partner Vlocity and a 20-year CRM industry veteran, recalls his bewilderment two years ago when he arrived at Dreamforce 2016 to see model goats grazing amidst artificial grass and tree stumps, promoting the new Trailhead theme. It wasn't what he was used to seeing at a business technology conference, he says:

At first I didn’t understand why they were doing it. Goats at Dreamforce? Then I got it. They’re not targeting big enterprise CIOs or the rest of the software industry. They’re targeting the next generation, the millennials. That’s where they’re going to find the millions they need to deliver this.

At this year's Dreamforce, the quirky Trailhead iconography dominates the sprawling event campus, welcoming the army of Trailblazers — Salesforce's name for those who accumulate Trailhead badges as they journey through the online learning program. It all marks a huge change from just a few years ago, when Salesforce seemed to be relying on its traditional SI partners stepping up to fill the skills gap.

Would partner growth be enough?

Research that Salesforce had first commissioned from IDC in 2015 indicated the scale of the challenge it faced. This found that its systems integrators alone generated $20 billion in annual revenues, at a time when the vendor's own revenues were barely a third of that figure. To sustain its own meteoric growth, it would need the SI channel to grow even faster, as Tyler Prince, then EVP alliances and go-to-market innovation, told the 2016 partner keynote:

We’re going to need [by 2020] ten times the number of consultants we have in the market today.

At the time, it seemed those extra bodies would have to come mainly through SI staffers repurposing their existing skills in traditional IT products to the Salesforce environment. Salesforce was also working with universities to acquaint a new generation of developers with its platform. And finally there was the newly launched Trailhead, through which people could manage their own learning on the Salesforce platform — but at the time, it wasn't clear how much impact this would have.

Today it's all about admins on Trailhead

Fast forward two years to 2018, and the entire picture has changed. Whereas partners had been visibly courted back in 2015, today the focus is all about getting admins and developers to train themselves up using Trailhead. The Salesforce admin keynote, led by Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris, is bigger than ever. And with initiatives such as Customer 360 and the introduction of new low-code tools, Salesforce is increasingly using prepackaged automation to hand over tasks to admins that previously could only be done by developers or SIs.

Salesforce still faces a skills crisis, but the success of Trailhead in appealing directly to a new cohort of recruits to the platform has given it breathing space that it didn’t have two years ago. The race is on now to grow the community of Trailblazers at the same time as expanding the scope of prepackaged automation to allow them to take on more tasks that used to be the preserve of specialist IT professionals.

Demand for talent still outstrips supply

That doesn’t mean demand’s going to fall off any time soon for the services of the SI ecosystem. Research commissioned by 10k Advisors, which specializes in connecting Salesforce professionals with projects in need of their skills, finds that demand for Salesforce talent still vastly exceeds supply:

In North America, openings for Salesforce Developer jobs outpace available talent by more than 4:1 and Technical Architect jobs outpace available talent by an astounding 10:1.

Global demand for Salesforce administrators also outruns supply, by a margin of 70%, the research finds. And administrator skills are essential, even for developers, as Hamm tells me:

Developers need experience of the administrator role so they understand how configuration works in the Salesforce environment. We find that if developers don’t have that background, they code more than they need to, which makes projects less effective.

My take

What Trailhead does is provide a new route that simply didn't exist four years ago for developing those much-needed skills . In the war for talent, it's turned out to have been a masterstroke. As Vlocity's Gerber points out, the Trailhead branding bypasses the older set and appeals to a new generation that doesn't share their preconceived notions of how technology should work. With Trailhead, Salesforce has reached over the heads of the established industry and gone direct to the new generation of admins and developers that will shape its future.

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