When I was interviewed a few weeks back for the Button Click Admin Podcast, hosts Mike Gerholdt and Jared Miller asked what was harder to learn – Salesforce or consulting? I answered that I thought Salesforce was easier to learn than consulting, and that might surprise a few of you. I think it even surprised me as the next day as I reflected on my answer and weeks later I’m writing this blog post. Being a good Salesforce consultant is a rare and strong mix of Salesforce technical expertise, business savvy and people skills. But which is harder to master?
It’s been pointed out by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, that it can take 10,000 hours of effort and practice to master a skill (or at least be very proficient). The big take away being that talent is not enough – it takes hard work and perseverance. If there is approximately 2,000 working hours in a year and you’re a Salesforce consultant working with a variety of clients with different needs, there is a good chance you’ll be very proficient in 3-5 years.
So based on observations from Malcome Gladwell, you could argue that one could learn Salesforce just as easily as consulting with enough time and practice. If we assume that to be true, let’s look at how difficult it would be to amass 10,000 hours of experience.
Can Salesforce Be Taught?
There are classes available to provide structured learning on Salesforce, both foundational and advanced technical content. That being said, "book knowledge" is not enough. It’s the application of that knowledge over many use cases that helps make us proficient. For example, I’ve dabbled with the Salesforce Flow Designer but I would never claim to be proficient. In contrast, I’ve made hundreds of Workflow rules and feel confident on when Workflow is the best solution and how to implement it.
Can Consulting Be Taught?
If we consider consulting is a combination of people and project management skills in combination with business knowledge, then you should be able to learn business as a subject (that’s why people become MBAs – right?). However like Salesforce, you need to be exposed to real business problems and apply that knowledge to gain experience (which I would argue is the path to proficiency).
If you’ve been involved in a few large IT initiatives does that make you versed in managing IT Projects? If you’ve once worked in a warehouse does that make you a master of logistics? Probably not. I’m not saying that a good Salesforce Consultant needs to be proficient in all areas of business, but a strong background in the business world allows them to appreciate, understand and converse with business leaders and managers more readily.
Clients know that business knowledge is important – they don’t want to add time to a project ($$$) to teach you about what they do, who their customers are or how they work. To that point, occasionally potential new clients will interview us to establish that we have some expertise in their industry. They’ll ask: "do you have and experience in ___________?" (e.g. aviation, banking, hospitality, healthcare, advertising, etc). They are looking for people that speak their language, understand their processes and can add value. Think that is not important? Stop and consider for a moment all the three letter acronyms used by a current or past employer. If the consultant already has the secret decoder ring for your business, it makes the conversation much more efficient for everyone.
As I’ve said before, certification is a great start, but it is no guarantee of proficiency. I’ve met more than a few "Certified" Administrators and Consultants that are far from proficient. That’s not to say they weren’t smart people – they had passed the certification test, they just lacked the experience to be solid or fluent on the platform.
Case in point, back around the year 2000 I had an intense year of business travel and logged over a 100 flights on Southwest airlines in a single year (needless to say, I’ve eaten more than my share of peanuts). Since those were the days before inflight Internet, I used the time to read IT certification books and study to feel productive. In a year or two I picked up about a half dozen low-level certifications: A+, iNet+, Network+, eBiz+, IT Project+, MCIWD, MCP. I never attended a class or used this knowledge at my day job, but I was "book smart" enough to take and pass the certification tests. I had an appreciation of some of the technology and concepts, but I wasn’t an expert because I never got to apply what I had studied.
Certification is important first step to proficiency, but beware the "Paper Certified" individual – one that studied and knew enough to pass the test but has never gotten their hands dirty (so to speak) and configured Salesforce. In our industry we see a lot of "Certified Consultants." Ones that have been taught or coached on how to pass the test, but have little experience running a consulting engagement or implementing Salesforce. As we like to say, these consultants are "fresh off the school bus." When looking for a consultant, I feel that experience is just as, if not more, important than certification.
Diversity Is A Teacher
I believe that we are the sum of our experiences and that the diversity of life teaches us new things (I’m probably paraphrasing someone here – so my apologies as I suspect this is not an original thought). For some Admins working at a single company, they never get the opportunity to try new areas of the platform (e.g. create a Community, Web-to-Case, Territory Management, Assignment Rules, etc). The same holds true for Salesforce Consultants. You may do 25 or more implementations of Salesforce and still never get a chance to setup a Knowledge Base or a Site.
That being said, with enough time, emersion and opportunities to use the platform across different companies, most can become good Salesforce Consultants and Administrators. Time, diversity and experience are things you cannot study, but are the vehicles you use to become proficient.
Solving the same problem over and over isn’t teaching you anything new. I’m sure Steve Molis on the Salesforce Answers Community will tell you working to solve the multitude of problems on the forum was his path to proficiency.
And to that point, if someone tells you they know everything about Salesforce – run away (or at least try not to laugh out loud). I highly doubt they could have had the good fortune to try out ever facet of Salesforce multiple times to mastery. And because of this, I’ll always say there are folks out there that know a heck of a lot more than me about Salesforce and that I truly learn something new about the platform almost every week.
Consulting As A Virtual MBA
On the podcast I said that you needed "time in the saddle" to have enough life and business experiences to be able to manage and facilitate conversations with C-level executives. I think what this boils down to is that you can probably create more opportunities to learn Salesforce on your own than you can control your exposure to business scenarios and leadership. You can learn the skills of running an IT project (gathering requirements, documentation, communication, etc), but it’s hard to get the face time with business mentors and owners to learn what’s important and their perspective on business.
That’s probably why I love consulting so much. It’s almost a virtual MBA program – you’re constantly being exposed to business problems across multiple industries and interacting with different functional groups (sales, marketing, support, operations, accounting, etc). I know personally that I’ve taken away huge amounts of information from these experiences over the years that I’ve recycled to bring value to my clients.
Good Salesforce Consultants Add Value
One of the great tipping points in becoming a good Salesforce Consultant is that you don’t just replicate a process (or a problem) from a current system into Salesforce, but you use the migration into the cloud as an opportunity to streamline and enhance the process and the experience for the user. That’s when a consultant really delivers value – when they can find possibilities to create a better design and implement it.
To be able to do that the consultant has to draw upon all the hard-earned experiences that I’ve harped on earlier and apply it in the context of that particular business situation. If the consultant already has the business acumen they are likely able to solve the equation faster with less questioning (i.e. I’ve seen this before and know the best way to solve for X).
In conclusion, I think learning consulting versus Salesforce is probably even. If I have a bias I would say it is probably be more difficult in life to get exposed to a variety of business situations from which to learn. Through my long diatribe above I hope I’ve given you some things to think about – most importantly that book knowledge is not enough. Proficiency comes from the experiences gained when we apply what we know over a multitude of diverse contexts.