Ahead of its virtual TrailheaDX 2020 developer event, Salesforce announced that they will be embedding the company’s Einstein AI software into Trailhead, its online learning platform. Einstein Recommendations for Trailhead will provide “tailored recommendations” to help learners pick the right skills to complete and badges to earn. I spoke with Sandeep Bhanot, SVP of Trailhead Product at Salesforce, about how the system will work, what it means for Trailhead and how AI will shape the future of online learning. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

SEE: Highlights: Salesforce TrailheaDX 2020 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: So let’s start with Trailhead and what it means to integrate Einstein into the platform. What can trail users expect?

Sandeep Bhanot, SVP of Trailhead Product at Salesforce
Credit: Salesforce

Sandeep Bhanot: So we’re really excited, Bill, that now learners in Trailhead can see the full power of our industry leading AI technology, Einstein. And so what that specifically means is when learners now log into Trailhead, whether through the desktop or amazing Trailhead Go mobile app, they will see extremely personalized and intelligent recommendations for them, for the skills and the badges to complete based on their activity, their role, their career aspirations, and their specific needs to skill up. These would be extremely customized and personalized recommendations powered by Einstein.

Bill Detwiler: And will this change over time as people earn certifications, earn badges? As they change the ranking within Trailhead, how will Einstein adapt to that and change its recommendations?

Sandeep Bhanot: Yeah, that’s a great question. And in fact, that’s the real beauty and power of AI driven technology like Einstein, is our recommendations are absolutely based on the learner’s prior activity on the platform. So the AI algorithm and the engine learns what types of badges and skills that our learner is interested in acquiring. And just like wine, it gets better with age. The more data that the Einstein and AI algorithm gets about a learner, the more personalized these recommendations become because we really get to know the specific details of that learner’s career choices, their role, what kind of badges they like, whether it’s beginner type of badges or advanced or intermediate, et cetera. So all that activity about a learner goes into making these recommendations that are much more personalized over time.

Bill Detwiler: And what about a new user? So if you don’t have a lot of data on me … So I’ll give you a really good example. I registered for Trailhead today, created my own account so that I could-

Sandeep Bhanot: Congratulations.

Bill Detwiler: … attend TDX. When I’ve gone in the past, when it’s a live event, Salesforce has been able to handle that for me, but because it’s a virtual event, I had to do that. So I created actually a Trailhead account because that’s what we use to register for the event. And you don’t have a lot of data on me as a new user. How is Einstein reacting to that, to new people that come in to Trailhead?

Sandeep Bhanot: That’s a great question. In fact, onboarding new users, such as yourself, Bill, is actually one of the most important use cases for us, for Einstein recommendations. And you’re right, when a new user signs up to the platform, we don’t know much about you, but we do know something. When you sign up for Trailhead, for example, you get to select your role, whether you’re a developer or an admin or a business user or a sales rep, service agent, et cetera. So that is a one important signal for Einstein and our AI algorithm to know what type of skills and badges you might be interested in. Right?

And so based on your geography and based on the role you’ve selected, we make some initial recommendations. And of course, with AI and Einstein, we compare that with other people in similar roles, what kind of badges do they typically tend to get started with? And those are the badges that would be initially recommended. But as you start engaging more with Trailhead and you start to earn more badges, those recommendations, as I said before, will get more and more personalized and get better over time because we’ll get to know your preferences and your learning habits and your career aspirations that much more better.

Salesforce Einstein Recommendations for Trailhead
Credit: Salesforce

Bill Detwiler: So it’s not just about what I’m doing, but it’s also what the Salesforce community as a whole is doing. And are there mechanisms in place to help me be, I guess, as successful or the most successful that I can be in terms of which badges I go for first? Saying, for example, like, well, 1,000 people who came in, who did this certification, did this badge, took this lesson, they tended to progress more quickly. They tended to gain more badges more quickly, or for whatever reason they had a better outcome. Is that something that Einstein will be able to do within Trailhead?

Sandeep Bhanot: Yes, absolutely. So as I said, any learner is kind of matched to the appropriate cohort if you will, of other learners such as themselves, but based on role or beginner, intermediate, advanced learning requirements, et cetera. And the learning activity of that larger cohort does drive the recommendations that get surfaced to the learner. So absolutely, that goes into what makes for these personalized recommendations for a learner.

Bill Detwiler: Now, Trailhead was started to teach people about Salesforce, but Salesforce has also been expanding the platform to allow third parties to use it, maybe to build their customized training programs for what they want to train their staff for. Is Einstein just for the Trailhead platform that Salesforce is using? Are there plans maybe to expand that if this goes well? What’s your thinking there?

Sandeep Bhanot: Yeah. It’s a big question and you’re absolutely right. The vision for Trailhead, while initially it started with Salesforce and letting anybody in the world be able to learn the skills for their tomorrow, our vision is absolutely to be able to expand it beyond just the Salesforce ecosystem. And so we’re really excited to partner with strategic partners like AWS and Apple and Google and many others, to be able to bring in their content and their learning onto Trailhead. And we announced exciting new partnership with AWS at Dreamforce last year, as an example. And we’re really excited about that partnership and we continue to invest in partner with AWS on adding their learning to Trailhead.

And the Einstein recommendations absolutely apply to those … Any badge available on public Trailhead, including AWS and our strategic partner badges, those are absolutely included in the AI and Einstein recommendations that a learner sees. Again, depending on the learner’s interests and their career aspirations and their re-skilling and up-skilling requirements, if a strategic partner skill or a badge is relevant to them, that will absolutely be recommended to them.

SEE: How Salesforce plans to make virtual TrailheaDX 2020 a better, more meaningful tech conference

Online learning is critical for the new “all digital, work-from-anywhere world”

Bill Detwiler: You know, when we were talking about how important it is to help people with that re-skilling, with the up-skilling. And we were talking a little bit before the show about that, especially now in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, in the wake of so many people being furloughed, being laid off, looking to change careers, talk a little bit about Salesforce’s thinking about Trailhead and how features like this will help that population of people who are kind of looking to make a career change? Whether they’re developers, admins, in IT now or not.

Credit: Salesforce

Sandeep Bhanot: Absolutely. I think that’s a great question and you’re absolutely right. COVID-19 has fundamentally changed our entire world and economy. And, if you think about it, for our customers, for many of them digital transformation initiatives, the timelines for them have gone from years to matter of months, sometimes even weeks just based on the sudden and incredible impact of COVID. And on top of that, we have obviously an incredible economic crisis and a huge workforce displacement, as you mentioned, with millions of people unemployed in the US and worldwide.

And so in this environment, we believe that the ability for anyone to be able to learn the skills, the new skills, that are needed for this new, all digital, work-from-anywhere world that we’re all living in, that ability is extremely important, more relevant than ever. And that has always been the mission of Trailhead. Our mission has always been to democratize education and allow anyone in the world to be able to learn these skills, these new skills, for the new normal. And so we’re also really excited to see that our … If you look at the data and the traffic on Trailhead since about March, when the COVID impact truly started to hit us, the numbers back up that assertion.

We’ve seen 37% increase in our signups since March. We’ve seen four times the traffic on our amazing Trailhead Live platform, which is the live streaming and on-demand video platform that we launched last year. We’ve seen over 50% increase in overall engagement on the platform, meaning how many badges a given learner completes. So across the board, we have seen amazing interest in Trailhead, and it’s all driven, as you said, in the post-COVID world, the ability to learn these new skills for the new normal are more important, relevant than ever. And so we’re very proud and happy that Trailhead can play an important part in that with our mission.

Bill Detwiler: Thinking more broadly too, how do you believe artificial intelligence and machine learning will affect online education over the next, say five or 10 years? Especially, as you put it and as we’ve talked a lot about on TechRepublic, we are in this new normal, this area of remote work, of telecommuting, of work not having to be connected to a geographic location and how that’s probably going to continue during our timeframe. Talk a little bit about that.

Sandeep Bhanot: Yeah, absolutely. Number one, I think you’re a hundred percent right. This new world is an all-digital, work-from-anywhere world that we live in. And I think maybe initially, maybe some of us might’ve thought, “Oh, it’s a temporary … We’ll get over COVID and we’ll get back to normal.” The reality is this is the new normal. Once you get used to ordering groceries online and getting it delivered to your home, you’re probably not going back to the old world. So I think it’s safe to say we truly are living in the new normal, and it’s not going back. There is no going back to the old normal, if you will.

And so, as I said before, being able to be skilled and up-skill and learn the new skills that are needed … For example, you might need to learn how to build an Einstein bot, to be able to service your customers better. You may need to learn how to automate manual business processes if you’re a company being forced to live in this new normal. The ability to learn all these new skills is absolutely critical, and you can do that on Trailhead. In terms of my view of the longer term learning market, I really believe that across all learning platforms, we will all have to sort of force ourselves to think about what are the new skills that learners need to be able to succeed in this new normal?

Some of them might be the same skills as before, but there are many new skills that I think people will need to acquire. As one small example, like contact tracing. If you think about that, while that discipline has existed for many, many years before, but the need for that talent right now, for manual contact tracers to be able to allow our economy and offices to reopen safely, that is a whole new level of jobs that are needed, and talent that is needed around contact tracing. So that’s a new skill that people have to learn up and skill up for.

And so on Trailhead as an example, we’ve added a contact tracing career path page, so people can understand what a contract tracer does, how to skill up the content from sources like the CDC. So that’s just one example of this new normal does need new skills, and I think that’s going to be a huge driver for the industry going forward.