Salesforce CMO Sarah Franklin and the Trailblazers building new careers in tech

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 11, 2023
We spoke to Sarah Franklin, Salesforce CMO, at last month's TrailblazerDX conference about the impact of the company's Trailhead skills program.

Flo the Flying Squirrel debuts at TDX23 © 2022 Chloe Jackman Studios LLC
Flo the Flying Squirrel (© 2022 Chloe Jackman Studios LLC)

To most outsiders, the Salesforce brand is just a friendly blue cloud. But conference attendees over the past seven years have been greeted by an entire landscape full of bushes, trees and friendly woodland creatures playing in a make-believe national park. This is the iconography of Trailhead, the company's interactive online learning platform, which was introduced in 2014 and rapidly became an integral part of the company's branding at the instigation of CEO Marc Benioff. As Sarah Franklin, now CMO and who oversaw the creation of Trailhead, recalls:

Marc completely pivoted Salesforce from being a blue cloud, to being an outdoor wonderland with waterfalls and log flumes.

From its beginnings as an inspired tactical response to a looming skills shortage, Trailhead quickly became core to the company's mission, largely because of its success in making the Salesforce ecosystem more accessible as a career choice, by reaching people who had never previously considered working in tech. One example among the many attendees at last month's TrailblazerDX conference for Salesforce developers and admins is Sima Samara. That week she had just started a new job as Senior Salesforce Consultant at digital consultancy Valtech, but four years ago she was a refugee freshly arrived in the Netherlands, unable to use her years of training as a pharmacist because local rules didn't recognize her qualification. Introduced to Trailhead while working as a cleaner, within two months she had landed a job as a Salesforce admin. She recalls:

I created my Trailhead account, and bit by bit I started to feel addicted to it. Because you finish with that, you get 100 points — and you keep going. Within two months I was created a Ranger [with] 100,000 points. Wow, this is a lot — and I was addicted to it. And then after two months, I got a proper job as a Salesforce admin ...

It feels a little bit like a map, you can travel whenever you want. I started as an admin. I wanted to get more inside development. I managed via Trailhead because all the learning is accessible. That's how I ended up now, after four years.

The story illustrates the basic premise of Trailhead, that making the learning fun and approachable brings people into Salesforce that wouldn't normally think of themselves as technologists. Franklin tells the story of a music graduate who worked as a receptionist at one of Salesforce's San Francisco offices and used Trailhead to teach himself how to create an app to track visitors to the building — an app that she says is still used for guest services today. She says:

A passion I have and we share at Salesforce is to change ratios in tech, to provide people these pathways to make it possible for people to do something they didn't think they could. And they don't have to be people that don't have college degrees. You can have people with a college degree in psychology, in music.

Salesforce partner ATG Cognizant has found similar results from a 12-week Trailhead-based training program called Aim Higher that it runs in partnership with the University of Montana. Kym Corwin, the program's Executive Director, says:

You do not require a technical background, you don't require a college education for that matter. We require people to be strong communicators, have a passion for learning and want to actually invest in themselves.

Every time we get someone in there at the Trailhead, and they say, 'I'm probably going to be a project manager.' Next thing you know, we've got a senior lead developer. I can tell you stories of people that have gone from CrossFit gym manager, and are now leading the B2B practice within Cognizant, in three and a half years.

A safe space to explore new paths

The thinking behind Trailhead's national park theme is to create a safe space where people can leave behind their preconceptions and explore new paths. Franklin explains:

[It's] entering into a cartoon land where the laws of gravity and the myopia that you think that you need to operate in is gone. That's the mindset that people come to when they get here. It's a magical land of code and clicks and automation. People can feel safe and explore and learn. It's fun, it's fanciful, and interesting and weird ...

The whole national park thing is that you go with your family to take time away from the regular run of the day, and be outside and have time together and enjoy nature. That's what it is. It really is to get you to that feeling of like you're on a family vacation, a family reunion with your friends and family.

The name Trailhead itself evokes the start of a journey, and those who get started earn points and badges as they complete courses and modules, which in turn helps them climb through different ranks, from a novice Hiker or Explorer to an accomplished Ranger. Course material covers the full gamut of the Salesforce product family and beyond, with partners and customers encouraged to add content related to their own apps and processes. A range of friendly woodland creatures correspond to the various personas in the Trailhead universe, from Codey the Bear, who represents developers, to Max the Mule, for those who work with the MuleSoft integration platform. Last month's TrailblazerDX conference saw the arrival of a new cast member, Flo the Flying Squirrel, dedicated to workflow automation. Franklin says:

The characters do represent the people. So Codey the Bear codes, and Cloudy the Goat clicks, like our admins. People love having a character that represents them, and they can see their personality in it. So Flo the Flying Squirrel does all these little things and can be acrobatic and nifty and it's in the flow.

But despite all the homely cartoon characters and make-believe landscape, Trailhead is practically rooted in learning that translates to the real world, and Salesforce is working with government and employers to raise awareness of its role in cultivating digital skills. Franklin says:

Something which is very special about our Certifications, and our Superbadges, is that you really do have hands-on work that you're doing in the technology. There's education that we can do with employers, so they understand that these are the closest that you can get to a capstone kind of project at a college, in terms of doing these certs and these Superbadges. We have also done work with government to work on alternative education getting accreditation, so you get that checkmark.

This is not just a matter of opening up new pathways into technology jobs for those who've not had the chance to get the right college degree. She believes today's fast-moving technology landscape means that people entering the workforce have to be ready to continue to develop new skills throughout their working life. She adds:

The more that we get together and work together so that skills-based education can qualify you for jobs, people are willing to take chances on people from non-traditional education backgrounds, and we flip it so that actually skills base becomes more the norm than it is now. And I say this as a mother of a daughter, that's a freshman in college right now. I'm very proud that she's getting a degree, but she also needs to round herself out, while she's getting that degree, with this skills-based learning — because she's not going to get hired with just a basic business degree.

My take

I've written in the past about the growing need to constantly learn new skills throughout your working life. Most of us can no longer rely on the old pattern of going to college, gaining a professional qualification, and then having a job for life — if this ever was valid in the first place*. Today, technology is moving so fast that many professions will be transformed several times during one person's career and there's a constant need to refresh learning and develop new skills. Traditional education and training cannot keep pace — people have to find new ways to learn on the job and in their spare time.

As a vendor whose technologies are contributing to the fast pace of change, Salesforce needed to create Trailhead to help fill that gap and meet the growing demand for skills in its fast-expanding customer base. In line with the company's culture, it was created to have broad appeal and encourage those who are under-represented in the tech world to come on board. The results are now becoming visible in the stories of those who have built careers they would never have dreamed of without the springboard it offered. There's more the company still wants to do to persuade employers to recognize Trailhead qualifications as well as taking the program out to under-served communities. But it's an important demonstration of the role that technology vendors can and should play in helping their customers and the broader workforce adapt to the impact of their products.

*By the way, my own career history is far from the traditional linear model, having majored in English Literature and then entered the workforce as a teacher before finding a job in the then-nascent PC industry. The phenomenon of careers changed by technology is far from new. I told Franklin my story and she responded in kind:

I started as a developer, an engineer, did sales, pre-sales work, then I did technical marketing, and I've built products. Now I'm CMO here at Salesforce. My mother asks me every day what my degree of Chemical Engineering has to do with my job!

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