Tips

All About Getting Certified as a Salesforce Professional

So you are thinking about certifications as a Salesforce professional. Here is everything you need to know about the four most common questions I get:

1) How do you make time to get certifications? 🕐
2) How important are certifications really? ✍️
3) How should I prepare to take a certification exam? 🙇‍♀️
4) How much do certifications cost? 💰

How important are certifications really?

I believe they are very important, with some caveats. Why they are important: 1) they give you confidence and authority when making tough decisions, 2) they ensure you are exposed to key concepts and principles, 3) they help other people understand and assess your competence.

  1. It is normal and in my opinion healthy to have a proper dose of self doubt when designing technology solutions. Extreme confidence leads to oversights and will likely blow up in your face over time. There is too much to know and learn, and so the question is not whether your solution perfectly anticipates all future variables. The question is does your solution put the odds in your favor moving forward by following sound design principles, making proper use of standard features and functions, and setting up the business for success against the requirements. You can’t prepare for every eventuality and most solutions will look stupid at some point because people looking at them won’t have full visibility into the constraints that dictated the solution, where the technology was at the time, etc. Additionally, perfect is the enemy of good, and can result in paralysis that slows down the delivery of a solution that could be delivering value in the short term. One component to having confidence that you are properly considering intended uses of standard features, is being certified on the product and functionality in question.

  2. Certifications require you to get exposed to things that you would likely not be exposed to otherwise. For example, I never even heard about some of the features that Salesforce offers exclusively through their support team around large data volumes until I was taking the data management and architecture certification. That same week I was able to start helping coworkers deliver better solutions for their client’s go-live. Experience is a great teacher, but to experience some things you have to first be exposed to them. Certifications provide that exposure as you study. This is especially true fo admins at end-user companies that might not be aware of key features they could recommend that would really improve efficiency for their company, and in many cases would avoid custom building features that already exist.

  3. Certifications signal competence to your employer, clients, and coworkers. Certainly they are not and should not be thought of as the only indication of competence, but they are one indicator. Salesforce in particular has written their certifications in a way that I feel makes that a pretty good indicator of competence. If someone has a certain certification, I can be certain about what they have been exposed to in terms of features and functions of salesforce. Now comes the caveats. There are certainly people who use cheats to get their certifications, making those certifications less valuable. So when assessing someones competence for hiring or other purposes, the best practice is to ask them questions about specific experience they have putting that certification to use, and to understand how many projects and how many years have been spent putting that knowledge into practice. The combination of certification with experience in an area is a much more reliable indicator that certification alone. If you are thinking about getting a bunch of certifications to appear valuable, when you haven’t been an actual practitioner, understand you will be quickly exposed, fired, and you will only hurt your reputation in the tight knit Salesforce ohana.

How do you make time to get certifications?

This is a question about time management and prioritization. What people are really saying is that they have too many higher priorities during work hours to get certified. So my recommendation is to take the following series of steps to make the time for your certification.

  1. Build a business case. For some reason, people often look at jobs as a place where others dictate to them what needs to happen, and they take those orders and act on them. In truth, the most valuable employees are those who push back on leadership by building an intelligent business case and convincing their leaders to get on board. If you ever want to have any influence in an organization, don’t wait for a title. Start practicing your ability to create change through organic influence and managing up and down the chain of command. This will prepare you to be a very effective leader, that relies on persuasion of authority or force. Leadership aside, this is how you get things you want in life - you negotiate for them. The best resource I can recommend if you are intimidated by negotiation is the book “Never Split the Difference” which is what I consider to be my negotiation Bible. The other book I would read is “Thank you for arguing”, which is all about rhetoric. When you can make a compelling business case, your leaders will create time for you and actively defend that time to ensure you get your certification. They will see it as mission critical. If you need help with this, reach out and I am glad to give you ideas and suggestions, or share a sample pitch deck that you can customize and use to present your business case.

  2. There is really no way that step one should fail. With enough time and focus, I believe you can build a compelling business case in any organization. But let’s say it is going to take a lot of time in your organization and you don’t want to wait - then let me suggest option 2. Create the time in your personal life. Even if you work long hours (let’s say 12 hours a day), you still have about 5 hours a day to work with. Now, your brain is going to be fried after 12 hours of work, so I do NOT recommend coming home and studying. Do the opposite and study first. I recommend getting up very early, and getting 4 hours of study in before work. Let me explain. Your brain operates at peak performance at cool temperatures, like a computer, and that occurs in the early hours of the morning. So if you get up and study before work, you are actually going to get better performance in less time than studying after work. Much better in fact. Now what about family, and kids, and other commitments? The answer is you need to ask them to support your goal. Build the case for why this certification will help them and your family earn more money, be happier, etc. and ask them to support the goal. Commit to them that it will be only one week that you need them to pick up the slack (more on exactly what to do for that week in my methodology below). I would be that as long as you choose a week that works for them, they will be glad to support you.

  3. If option 2 is not possible because you are say, a single parent with children too young to mostly self-govern for a week, well then option 3 is the way to go. Take paid time off (PTO). Yes seriously. Take two days of PTO. Now to avoid needing to do this in the future, I recommend explaining to your boss what you are doing. If you have failed to build the business case, because they need you so bad and there are urgent priorities, etc. Then you taking PTO will likely be painful for them. So explain to them that you are essentially putting your money where your mouth is, and that you believe so passionately that it is in your and the business’s best interest, that you are going to take personal time to do it. A few things might happen. 1) they may just give you the work time to do it. 2) they respect you more next time when you present an idea. 3) you can use this experience to prove you are right, and build credibility for your next business case, decreasing the likelihood of needing to do this again. The best part? You will get a positive ROI on this time. Let’s say you make 50 dollars an hour (roughly a 100k salary). Those two days cost you 800 dollars. I guarantee you will be able to ask for more than that in your raise when you point out you used two days personal time to add value to the company. And if they don’t give it to you, you know it’s time to move on because other employers will. This is the nuclear option, but it works. Two days off are all you should need, and it should be a Thursday and Friday (more on this in part three).

Let me know what works for you! And if you still feel that there are obstacles preventing you from getting certified, let me know and I will help you brainstorm ways to overcome those obstacles. There is always a way.

How should I prepare to take a certification exam?

My first certification was the admin 201 certification. I had recently started working at my first job as a consultant in the Salesforce world, and they had many materials including practice questions that were almost identical to the test. So I memorized those, studied and past it. That gave me confidence 💯, so I quickly tried the same approach for Sales Cloud. I studied any practice questions I could find, and tried to practice hands on the features mentioned in the questions in a dev org. (this was before trailhead was the resource it is today). I took the test, and failed miserably 😭. I knew it just minutes into the test. There was no way I was making it out alive on this one. The questions really tried to trick you, and the answers were less right and wrong and more good, better, best. So I waited a couple weeks, kept studying and practicing, and tried again. Fail. I started to really get frustrated. I was not going to let this keep happening. So I stopped trying. I waited for months and just focused on project work, which was getting me a lot of good experience and exposure. When I came back to it again, I studied harder than I had before, for a few weeks. Finally I took the test and passed. But I was not going to take more of the consultant exams any time soon. That had put the fear of god in me, and I didn’t like failing. So instead I added a couple more basic certifications like dev 401 that I was less intimidated by.

It would be a few years later when I felt like I had so much experience that I could and should tackle the hard certs again. But I needed a structure to make sure I didn’t fail. The landscape had shifted significantly, with trailhead becoming a very good resource. Every certification I sat for from that point on I passed on the first try. So here is the methodology that I refined and that I now follow religiously given all the tools available today:

  1. Get experience with the functionality. I try to avoid taking any certification that I have not had at least one meaningful experience with. This means I look for and take projects that are outside of my past experience every chance I get. They allow me to tackle new challenges and grow, which I love.

  2. Set up your schedule. I plan for 4 hours a day for a week (Monday-Friday) for preparation (or two ten hour days if you have to take PTO to prepare on Thursday and Friday). Then I expect to take the certification on Saturday if I am ready. If not, I continue studying Saturday and get good rest before taking the certification Sunday. But that is my deadline. Come hell or high water, I will take the certification Sunday. Some people find it useful to schedule their test in advance to create this pressure. I self impose this pressure, and wait until the moment I want to take the exam to schedule it. I have never had trouble getting a time slot for an online proctored exam within 15 minutes of wanting to take the exam, which allows me to get to peak confidence and then schedule and take the exam right then. I love that flexibility and control.

  3. Review the guide and highlight the areas where you are least confident. The guide explains what the exam will cover, and so I like to use my iPad pro to mark up the pdf and highlight the things I am least knowledgeable or experienced with. I ask myself the question - if I had two hours to prepare to take this exam, what would I have to spend my time studying to give myself the best shot at hopefully passing (this came from a time when I actually did give myself 2 hours to prep for an exam, and successfully passed it. Different story for a different day.) You can get the guide for your certification by going to this page on trailhead. Then click on the role and the certification you want to take. Next click on the trailmix under "Study and Prepare". The guide is the first link in the trailmix. Screenshots above.

  4. Monday-Tuesday: Use trailhead to get more experience and fill in gaps. I go to the trailmix for the certification and look through the various types in the mix. You will find modules, trails, projects, super badges, reading materials, links, etc. I start by doing all of the modules and trails. Every hands on exercise available will be completed, and I make sure to really read and study the explanations they give in those modules, because they hit on key concepts that you will be tested on. If there are too many to complete them all in the 8 hours scheduled for these first two days, I start with the concepts I have the least experience with, and work on those first, then go on to more familiar modules.

  5. Wednesday-Thursday: I look at the projects and super badges and ask myself if there are any that I have even a slight doubt about being able to complete with ease. If there are, I focus on those and complete them to get more experience in the weakest areas. If not, I will spend additional time on modules I didn’t complete yet, or if I am done with them all I will move ahead to the next steps.

  6. Friday: Today is reading and research. There are likely going to be some things on the exam that you haven’t been able to get experience on through the prep work up to now. Maybe they are features that don’t have trailhead content, or they are special features that you can’t access in a dev org, or something along those lines. So now is when you go through the trailmix pdfs, links, and reading materials and take notes/highlight your mind out. Study these like they are a text book. Make sure you understand the key concepts, and try thinking of what test questions you would write if you wanted to see if someone had read the link or not. As with everything else, start with the concepts you are least familiar with, and move towards more familiar topics later (seeing a pattern here? This concept is at the core of success, deliberately practicing the hardest and least familiar concepts and prioritizing your limited time).

  7. Saturday: Now comes quizlet. Many people start here which I very fervently recommend you do not do. One of the reasons I failed sales cloud multiple times was because I had gone through so many questions that I got wrong (or quizlet had the wrong answer) and so as I was deliberating which answer to pick I couldn’t tell if an answer sounded familiar because the concept was right, or because I had got it wrong on a practice test, etc. This noise will cripple you. So DO NOT try to use question banks to prepare until you have followed steps 1-6. Now that your brain is full of good data from salesforce sources, you will test that knowledge by making only two passes through the best question bank you can find on Quizlet. I look for question banks that look and feel like the questions I recognize from exams, not because I want to memorize them, but because if they happen to be actual questions then they will ensure I have studied the right things. So I make one pass through the question set and for each question I get wrong OR a question I got right but felt I was guessing a little and not 100% sure, I star that card. At the end of the question bank, I then measure my percent correct, to see how I scored on questions I was absolutely certain about. This tells me how close I am to taking the exam. If I was certain on 80% or more of the questions, I am taking the exam today. If it is lower, I will likely end up taking it tomorrow. Either way the last part of this step is doing the research. For every question I starred, I go back through and look at each answer and research it until I can show with 100% certainty why that answer was wrong or right, using salesforce’s documentation sources. This is an arduous process, but often it's where I learn the absolute most. Being able to explain each answer and why it was not the right answer, or the right answer, cements my understanding in the areas where it might have been insufficient. Once I have done this for all the starred questions, I go through the question bank a second time and retest. I should get 100% correct. I expect it, and I deliver on it. That gives me the confidence that I am ready for the test.

  8. Saturday-Sunday: As soon as I finish step 6, I go online to web assessor and schedule an online exam for 15 minutes out. During that 15 minutes, I go to the bathroom, get a drink, and set up my webcam so I am ready to go. I make sure my family knows not to interrupt, and lock my office door. 90 mins or less later, I have the certification in hand. ✅ 🎉

This methodology is undefeated for me, and I am certain it will work for you. Pick a week, and plan to take your next certification and follow this methodology. I want to hear from you when you pass, so post to LinkedIn and tag me so I can see your shiny new certification.

If for some reason you are the first person that this methodology fails, make sure to copy your results of how you did in each section so you know how to focus your efforts to prepare for a retake. Then follow the same process, with a laser focus on the categories you were weak on.

🔥 Good luck! YOU CAN DO THIS! 🔥

How much do certifications cost?

The basic certifications like Salesforce Administrator start at $100 to take the exam, with the consultant level exams being $200 and the architect exams costing $400. If you fail, the retake will cost you half of the first fee. So follow my methodology above to make sure you pass on your first attempt.

It is important to note that most employers will pay for these exams. If your employer doesn't offer that, ask them to pay for it! You would be surprised how often you can get this taken care of by simply building a business case, as described above. This is a good investment for your employer and you should work with them so you don't have to incur the expense. However, if your employer doesn't cover the expense I still think the value is worth paying for it yourself.

Once certified, you should expect to take maintenance exams 1-3 times a year for each certification you pass. Once a year, there is a renewal fee for most certifications that is about $100 dollars. While that cost can add up, Salesforce rewards people that are highly invested in their ecosystem by capping your expense on this once you reach a certain threshold. I believe it was somewhere between certification 8-10 that Salesforce told me that going forward I would pay a flat $300 annually to cover all my maintenance exams. Thus, I recommend that if you are paying yourself, you should move from certification 3 up to 8 or so within the same year to minimize your future expense. Salesforce will email you once you qualify for the reduced renewal expense. If you have good experience under your belt already, and you follow my methodology above, this is a very attainable goal. If you are newer to the Salesforce platform, get 3-5 years experience before trying to make that kind of a jump. It is certainly possible to do earlier, but you will retain and understand less, which will hurt the overall value for you going forward. In a world constantly looking for shortcuts, if you focus on actually learning, developing, and becoming something over time, you will have a huge competitive advantage due to your depth of expertise.


5 Tips to get started fast with Salesforce (or any project)

Salesforce Project Mobilization

The period after a budget decision has been made and before work starts is critical to a project, and I like to call that period mobilization. Here are 5 things you can do to nail mobilization, that will allow you to hit the ground running with your System Integrator (SI) or implementation partner.

1. Project Vision Statement

At a minimum, you need a project vision statement that says in no uncertain terms what you want to get done, when exactly it must be done by, and most importantly why you are doing it. If you can’t state this in 24 words or less (seriously, 24 words), then your vision isn’t clear enough yet, so spend a little time and get down to a statement that will serve as a northern star for your team as they trek through the details of the journey. This must come from the executive level, where the budget decision was made and the original objectives were clearly understood (or should have been).

Example: On Sept. 1, 2019 at 8 am, Salesforce will be our source of truth for Sales and Marketing, in order to increase customer retention.

If I am reading that as an employee, I can easily understand the executive expectations, how it might impact me, and can avoid asking the common speculative questions such as “Are they trying to eliminate my job?” because I can clearly see the why of the project as increasing customer retention. If you are actually hoping to cut costs as part of the why for your project, be transparent about it in your vision statement. But understand the implications of people getting fearful and potentially undermining the project - you will need to address this head-on, and explain a plan for how hiring will slow while growth continues, and over time the cost reduction will be achieved. Don’t leave any room for speculation about your intentions or the plans to achieve those intentions.

2. Team charter

Your project team should be 4-7 people that will represent all stakeholders of the project. Get them together now, before the project starts, and make sure that they all know the constituencies they represent. Ensure they have the time to dedicate to the project each week, so that they can do a good job. Then document the team with the Name of each team member, their role, and the constituencies they represent. This charter should be sent out internally to everyone even remotely touched by the project, so that they know who to go to if they have questions about the project, want to provide important feedback, or need to raise a concern. Ideally, on the team you have one project manager, that is not a member of a specific SI (either someone on your team or a third party) that will own the project. You also have an SI lead for the project on the team. This leaves 3-5 slots to be filled with whoever can best represent the various business units and their needs. The executive sponsor is not a member of this project team, but the project manager reports back to them for any decisions on scope/schedule/budget.

3. Scope Discovery

What do you mean no one planned an integration for us? Turns out marketing has been using a different system to manage leads than the rest of the company. Whoops. Does that need to be integrated? How did we miss this? The answer is no one asked. So how do you avoid this? Good mobilization. You have a project vision statement, so now your project manager needs to ensure all stakeholders hear that vision statement, understand it, and provide feedback on what they believe that means in terms of scope. For example, “On Sept. 1, 2019 at 8 am, Salesforce will be our source of truth for Sales and Marketing, in order to increase retention.” is a pretty clear vision statement. The project manager should ensure all stakeholders hear this, and provide their thoughts on scope. For example, customer service might want to highlight that they play a big role in customer retention and if customer data is in a new location, they will need to be in that system as well or have an integration to the customer support system. The clear vision allows stakeholders to talk about the future state and its implications with the PM, which means when the SI gets involved the PM already has questions to ask them in order to make key business decisions. What is the impact of integrating customer service vs moving them to the new platform? The project manager can then take multiple options back to the executive sponsor and they can decide if they want to increase the scope of the project to include customer service, tell customer service that they will have to live in a silo and ask them to start planning for that reality, etc. But the executive sponsor has the data to make a decision up front about the direction of the project and there will be no surprise later when that decision impacts the project. So many gotchas can be avoided with this simple exercise in good project management discipline, during mobilization.

4. Get your docs in a row

Most companies outside of very early startups have some form of documentation. Even many startups have something. You need to ask all the stakeholders if they have any documents that cover the processes that will be affected by your project, and/or any examples of how it is being done today. So much time is consumed by expensive consultants going around and collecting this information themselves, and if you can provide it up front, consultants can use their costly time to provide much greater value. What documents should you ask for? Process diagrams, schemas from any databases you are using today, training documents that explain how salespeople should work and update leads customer information, slide presentations from an executive retreat where a new commission structure was decided, google docs where a customer service manager has been taking notes on inefficiencies of the current support model, and so on. On most projects, I find these documents after hearing from various parties they don’t exist. Look harder. There is often far more already documented than you realize so ask clearly for any artifacts that will allow your partner to see into the current state of these processes and organize that info by process and stakeholder group. For example, your file should have a folder for “Sales Process” and inside that folder you would have folders for the different stakeholder groups that provided you documentation, with the documents in each group. This way, it is easy to get a picture of the various perspectives on a given process and understand where there are holes that need to be filled. Sales might have on view of the sales cycle, while sales ops might have a very different perspective on what it takes to close a deal. Your SI needs these perspectives, and the less legwork they do collecting that information up front, the more value they can provide.

5. System Access

When you purchase licenses from Salesforce you get a welcome email. You need to use that email to log into the system, and create a user for your partner to access your org. Alternatively, you can ask your partner to create a free trial org and start work there while you finish up the last negotiations with the AE and get everything signed (pro-tip, this can save you a month of subscription cost, just make sure the AE has the org ID for your trial org so they can activate it once you purchase). But not having access to the system will be an immediate roadblock for your team as you try to get the project up and running. Another thing to think about is getting your partner access to legacy systems so that they can see old processes and data structures. You might keep this to a limited permissions structure, but it’s another way to get things rolling fast.

Conclusion

If the above items sound like absolute basics of project management, it’s because they are. And yet through hundreds of implementations I have rarely seen a company execute on these items effectively, even after being asked to do so. Ideas are praised, but execution is worshipped. Companies that execute on the above items, and don’t disregard them as mere “good ideas” will see vast benefits throughout the rest of the project.