Salesforce’s TrailheaDX

Salesforce held TrailheaDX in San Francisco last week — its first event just for software developers. The company previously relied on special sessions at events such as Dreamforce to educate developers, but its declared intention to train up to 100 million of them in its Lightning development environment dictated taking additional action.

The numbers vary, but estimates of the number of professional developers working in the industry range from 100,000 to perhaps 20 million. Salesforce contends not only that the world needs more people skilled in the development arts, but also that anyone should be able to learn them.

The analogy it makes is to products like Excel and PowerPoint, specialized applications that enable workers to support their business efforts. In the future, application development will be as essential as being able to manipulate a spreadsheet.

The comparison is apt, provided that application development tools can be made as easy to use as Microsoft Office products — but therein lies the rub. Application development is orders of magnitude more complex than using Office products.

However, that fact must be balanced by the realization that not every Office user is a power user able to write spreadsheet macros or design slides with animation. That realization apparently led Salesforce to devise a three-level strategy for developing working apps without any coding, with some minimal code use, and with a highly customized approach to code.

No Experience, No Problem

Trailhead is a highly automated and self-paced education program that enables people with no IT experience to go as far as they want to achieve any of the three levels of application development proficiency. Within the program, users are rewarded with badges — much like you’d expect in any gamified process — when they acquire new skills. Gamification will be key to the program’s success, as well as to the success of the individuals receiving the training.

In addition to targeting traditional developers, Salesforce is aiming at people whose backgrounds are far afield from information technology. The company sees its role as empowering people to attain employment skills — for example, enable Salesforce administrators to customize their instances of CRM and also to build solutions that capture and manage important business data within specific processes.

Historically, a lot of this kind of development has been done in spreadsheets, or the data has been stored in paper files. With Trailhead training, Salesforce hopes to give many more people the skills to build such solutions.

The training is broken down into logical units focusing on things like defining objects and writing code, as well as using a series of drag-and-drop tools that serve to reduce the need to code to a minimum. Simple solutions based on existing or simple data structures can be defined using drag-and-drop tools, and as complexity increases so does the need to write a few lines of code.

Road to Commoditization

As I look at the offering, it occurs to me that greater complexity corresponds to inventing new business processes, which I believe is the whole point of having these tools in the first place.

Enabling business users in this way means providing them with the agility to innovate with existing business processes, or to develop new ones. It’s often the ability to innovate around information that provides differentiation, so I see this capability as becoming essential.

Salesforce no doubt sees things in a similar way, because the company also announced a new US$50 million venture fund for its investment arm, Salesforce Ventures. Its previously announced $100 million fund has been well subscribed. However, it sees more opportunities for people who acquire programming skills through Trailhead not only to develop apps, but also to start companies.

As a strategy, this is impressive. Salesforce is willing not only to train people in app development — for free — but also to help found new companies. Salesforce has given revenue guidance for its current fiscal year at more than $8 billion.

For the company to continue its growth, it will need to sell more generic seats of its platform services in addition to selling its conventional CRM — i.e., Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud and Service Cloud (there are other clouds, like Wave Analytics, but I’m not naming all of them here).

Training more developers is a logical way to make that happen. Already, selling development seats is Salesforce’s third most successful business, garnering well over $1 billion in revenue.

Trailhead is a new approach. Using e-learning, students can train at their own pace in their own spaces without needing to attend formal classes. The ability to take an online test to certify a particular skill level and receive badges (there are about 130 badges to earn) lends credibility to the training rigor and makes graduates employable.

My only reservation about this approach and the goal of 100 million trained developers is that it will lead to the Uber-ization of software development. When code is so easy to write that anyone can do it, we’ll see a commoditizing effect and a gradual decline in wages for developers.

That won’t happen for a while but it can’t be helped, because commoditization is a natural part of a successful economic trend. Right now, there’s money to be made in application build-out, and this condition will last for many years. It’s always best to be early in a trend.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can't Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. He can be reached at [email protected].

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