Back in April, I passed the Salesforce Administrator Certification exam on my first try. I am quite proud of my accomplishment, and I know that it’s an exam that some people struggle with. So, I want to share the secrets of my success. Read on for the longest life hack on the internet.
TL;DR: Hire people from the arts. They can do all the things.
Salesforce officially recommends 6 months of real-world experience administering Salesforce before taking the exam and, according to forums, it is pretty common to fail on the first try. None of that turned out to apply for me. I began learning Salesforce administration and development from scratch about in October 20201 (about 6 months before I took the exam). I passed the exam with very little real-world experience administering Salesforce. I went down the Salesforce learning rabbit hole for a mix of reasons including professional development, pandemic boredom, and the fun of the Trailhead platform. (I admit it – I cannot resist badges and points and ranks.) I didn’t start taking exam prep seriously until I scheduled the exam, about a week and a half before the exam date. And yet, I still passed.
Has the difficulty of the exam been oversold? Nope. Is there a fool-proof trick I used to succeed? Also nope. Did I literally hack the scoring server? Heck no. Am I an evil genius? I’m not telling.
When I say I began learning Salesforce from scratch, that’s not entirely true. I occasionally built FileMaker databases in the 90s and early 2000s, used various CRMs over the last 20 years, and became an expert in Airtable, Zapier, and various no code automation platforms over the last few years. So, I came to this project with an understanding of what relational databases are, how CRMs work for end users, and the current state of automation technology in general. All of that background knowledge certainly helped, since it gave me categories into which to put new knowledge. From what I can tell, this is a pretty common amount of starting knowledge and experience.
Here is the real secret weapon that enabled me to learn a whole new set of skills and get certified in 6 months on my own while working full-time: a lifetime in the arts and training as a performer. It’s a life hack that only took 40 years or so.
Some background about me: I have been a musician pretty much my whole life, having begun violin lessons around age 3. I began training to be a conductor (at least in my own mind) the moment I entered college and completed a Master’s degree in conducting in 2005. From 2005 to 2018, I was a professional conductor of various kinds. During those 13 years, I earned a Doctorate in Orchestral Conducting, was a conductor/music professor at various types of colleges, conducted community and professional groups, founded ensembles and music festivals, and was usually both performer and event promoter/presenter. In 2018, I shifted gears to focus on developing and presenting cultural programming and, since the beginning of 2022, I’ve been a full-time consultant focusing on nonprofit tech. My career has been fairly wide-ranging, but I have spent 34 of my 41 years involved in either giving or receiving musical training. So, musical skills are pretty foundational to how I think.
Here are the specific skills that I learned in my musical performance training that enabled me to make this happen:
Learning. Performer training involves a lot of learning about learning both in general and specifically for oneself. You learn about how memories get formed, how to purposefully form long-term/muscle memory, how to deliberately connect new information to what you already know, and how all of that works best for you specifically. This was hugely helpful for me as I navigated Trailhead and the Salesforce training world. I know a lot about how I learn best – when to work in focused environments and when to allow in some distraction, when to consolidate what I know and when to learn new things. I also know how much detail I need in order to feel like I understand a topic and how to recognize when I need more detail. All of that makes any learning project a lot easier.
Growth mindset. At the age of 81, Pablo Casals, one of the best and most famous cellists ever, was filming a short documentary about his life. Filmmaker Robert Snyder asked why still practiced four or five hours a day. Casals replied “Because I think I am making progress.” For most performers, there is never a point at which you stop trying to get better. Especially when you start your training young, it quickly becomes obvious that your abilities and skills are not fixed – they improve with practice and training. I cannot remember ever thinking that I might be incapable of learning something. That kind of mindset, where you unquestioningly assume that you are able to learn new things and improve your skills, is hugely important to your ability to learn and it becomes even more important as you get older. I know that it’s pretty common for adults to get to a point in their lives or careers where they become disinclined towards learning new things. But, as a musician, I find that hard to actually envision.
Consistency and practice. Performers get in the habit of practicing every day (or at least regularly) pretty young. So, we know how dedicate some time to a learning project consistently over long periods of time. We also know how to look to the horizon towards a far away goal (like a concert or an audition) and make a plan for getting ready for it. Though I began my Salesforce journey more or less for fun, I soon set myself the goal of getting certified. Though I didn’t have a date in mind, Trailhead gave me a framework for the journey with the Admin Certification Trailmix. Without even really intentionally doing so, I was soon in the habit of doing a badge or two most evenings and spending a weekend afternoon on a Superbadge here and there. Consistent learning and practice is a comfortable habit for me, not something I had to build just for this process. Purposefully learning new skills and working on a big project in my spare time also felt so normal to me that it rarely occurred to me to tell people I was doing it. In fact, having Salesforce learning as a background thing that I could always do more of when I had free time felt exactly like my life as a musician, when there was always more practicing/studying to be done.
Pattern recognition. A lot of people with serious musical training end up in medicine, science, tech, linguistics, and similar fields. Why? Because pattern recognition is essential to making music and also a lot of logic-based fields. Learning a piece of music is a process of analyzing and understanding patterns and relationships big and small. Performing is the act of making those patterns and relationships obvious to the listener. A performance that lacks clarity of pattern will feel disjointed and boring, like a series of movie stills when you were expecting a movie. Skill at recognizing patterns and relationships between bits of information is hugely beneficial in learning almost anything new. But, I believe that the way that musicians learn to understand and map patterns is especially helpful in learning about databases specifically and new technologies in general. Which leads me to….
Mental mapping and multi-thinking. In order to present the patterns of a piece of music coherently to an audience, musicians have to be able to build a mental map of those patterns and hold it in their head while performing. (Actors do a similar thing in order to ensure that the emotional arc of a performance works.) Most large-scale relationships are not literally visible on the page. So, a performer has to constantly orient themselves relative to an internal map of a piece, while also doing whatever complex technical wizardry is required of them at the moment. This ability to create mental maps and constantly reorient myself around them while simultaneously doing and thinking about something else that might be also complex has been exceptionally helpful to me in learning new structures and technologies of all kinds. It was especially useful to me in deepening my understanding of relational databases in general, how Salesforce operates specifically as a database, and how the Salesforce exam sometimes applies multiple layers of logic at the same time.
Performance prep. Every musician knows that you loose 10-20% of your abilities the minute you walk on stage. That means that your live performance will be 80%-90% as good as your average performance in a practice room. Even if you don’t feel nervous, adrenaline will change how your body works in ways that are not entirely predictable. Wind players may not get the deep breath they need at a critical moment, string players may have too much tension in their fingers which slows them down, and everyone is fair game for a random memory lapse. So, when I started doing serious exam prep, I knew that I wanted to be getting scores consistently in the 80% range on practice exams before test day. That way, I could loose a good chunk of accuracy and still pass. Every performer also knows, in excruciating detail, how they react both mentally and physically to the stress of needing to perform. We know how to use breathing to calm a racing pulse, how to focus our minds when they start going in too many directions at once, and how to not let the fact of physical stress responses happening effect our emotional state. Like most musicians, I am so used to being in high-pressure situations where I have to do complex mental gymnastics that I knew how to get my best work out of myself during the actual exam. And, I didn’t have to figure that out for the exam or plan it. It’s a skills set I just knew I could rely on. As it turned out, the practice exams I was taking (focusonforce.com, highly recommended) were a lot harder than the actual exam, so that also helped.
What can we take away from all this – that I’m super smart? That may be true, but it’s not the point. My point is that pretty much anyone with performance training is likely to be good at these things. Having these underlying skills enables you to be good at a lot of different things and to be continually finding new things to be good at. So, hire people with performance degrees, arts degrees, and a background in performing. Not only will they be excellent at what they do, but they’ll bring a whole new perspective to what you thought you needed.