Upskilling online: How Salesforce Trailhead helped IT pro transition to a tech career

Salesforce consultant Aaron McGriff shares his inspiring story of going from being unemployed to a tech career with skills learned on Trailhead, Salesforce's free, online learning platform.

Upskilling online: How Salesforce Trailhead helped IT pro transition to a tech career

Can online education and training tools help you learn the skills to start a career in tech? On this episode of Dynamic Developer, I speak with Aaron McGriff, a Salesforce Consultant at Slalom, about his journey into the tech field and how online training, specifically Salesforce's Trailhead platform, helped make the transition. The following is a transcript of our interview edited for readability.

Going from being laid-off twice in retail and operations management to a career in tech

Bill Detwiler: Let's start with your story of going from career in operations to a job in tech and specifically as a Salesforce consultant.

Aaron McGriff: I got into Salesforce because I was unemployed. I spent 12 years of my career in retail. More specifically, doing loss prevention. I spent a good amount of time catching shoplifters and it got to a point where I realized that that wasn't something that I wanted to do anymore. I knew that I wanted to do something different. I didn't know what that thing was yet, but I knew that this wasn't where I was supposed to be for the rest of my career. I started looking for other jobs and started looking for other things I could do to get out of that retail space and be able to live a more normal life. Got into operational management, got my first job out of retail. Everything is going really well. I have a team and I'm learning my new job and these are just really going good.

Then, eight months in, out of nowhere, I get laid off. For the first time in my career, I don't have a job. I just bought a house. I had a car note, all the other bills that grown people have. I was like, "Okay, I really need to do something now." It just so happened that while I was dealing with that unemployment, I had a niece born. My family came together to celebrate her being born. My cousin works for Salesforce and she told me about Salesforce and told me what it was all about and what the potential was and the things that I could do. It sounded great. It sounded honestly too good to be true when she was talking to me, I thought it was a pyramid scheme. I was just like, "Yeah, this is not something that I'm going to be able to do. I need to find a job right now."

I didn't necessarily take it seriously right then. A few months later I got another job in operational management again. I had a team, things are going well. On my 88th day, I got laid off again out of nowhere. That's me losing two jobs within a year. Now I'm like, "Okay, I'm in that same position again. What am I going to do?" Right before I got laid off the second time I'm sitting at my desk and I just had a moment of deep thought, like, "Am I living my life on my own [terms] right now? Or am I doing the same thing I was doing before, going with the flow and doing what I have to do to make sure I can pay my bills?" I realized that I wasn't doing what I wanted to do.

Aaron McGriff Salesforce

Credit: Salesforce

I was sitting there. I noticed that the company I was working for at the time actually had a link for Salesforce on their landing page because they were a Salesforce customer. I was sitting there like, "Okay, I can be the one that's actually building these things instead of being the end user." Then two days later I lost my job. I was like, "Okay, well maybe this is a sign that this is the direction that I need to go in. Let me look back into the Salesforce thing and let me take it more seriously." It was that moment where I decided that Salesforce is, excuse me. It was at that moment that I decided that Salesforce was going to be my future and it was what I wanted to do.

The cool thing about Salesforce is they have all their training material online for free. All you have to do is sign up for a profile on this program, excuse me, on this website called Trailhead. You can jump in and start learning about whatever you want. It was just that simple. I jumped on the Trailhead. I started learning. I started building things in the sandbox they gave me and I was enjoying the things that I was doing. I was surprising myself because I was able to do these things. We've all been on websites where we've had to do a live chat with a customer service representative. In my Trailhead, I was building these live chat integrations. I knew how to do these things. Every new thing I learned how to do, first of all, it made me laugh for some reason. Second of all, it just made me realize the potential I had and that I could break into this industry. I just really want it to keep going.

I think that the second greatest thing about the Salesforce ecosystem is the people that are in it. I started engaging with people in the Salesforce community and the outpouring of support, of motivation, of advice that I got was instantaneous. I have a lot of friends in ecosystem now and the majority of them I know simply because of Twitter. A lot of them I haven't met in person, some I have after going to a few events. Just the outpouring of support from the community was just the greatest motivating factor for me to keep going. I kept learning on Trailhead. I started studying for my first certification, took my first certification exam in October of 2017. I didn't pass, but the community motivated me more. I studied some more, buckled down some more, went back on Trailhead, started using some other online resources and then took the exam again a few weeks later.

I passed that time and I kid you not 24 hours later, I was sitting in a room at University of Michigan being talked to about a position that was opening soon that they thought about would be great for. A couple months later, I signed my offer letter and now I'm an employed Salesforce administrator. I did all this without going back to school, without spending any money, without going into any debt. I learned everything I knew online. I was only at University of Michigan for four months before I transitioned to another company for a bigger Salesforce role. I was there for 11 months before I made another transition. Now I'm in Salesforce consulting.

Earlier this year, I traveled down to Brazil and got to spend a week in Brazil, with users, rolling out a system that I built that is being used in Brazil and seven other countries in South America and Mexico. Just the fact that I got to watch them use something that I built, that I knew how to do, and that I learned how to do simply from going online and in, excuse me. That I learned how to do simply from going online and learning, it blows my mind to this day. The things that I'm able to do now, the places that I've been able to go, the conversations I have on a daily basis for my job, I learned how to do online, and I love what I do. I'm not living my life just to pay my bills right now. Yes, I'm paying my bills and that's awesome. I have a job and I can do that, but I can do that because of things that I learned online for free.

Aaron McGriff Salesforce Consultant

Salesforce Trailhead: Free, online learning tools made all the difference

Bill Detwiler: Is that something that was different from how you'd experienced education and learning in the past?

Aaron McGriff: Yeah. After going to school for all that time, getting those degrees, and spending so much time in one industry, you think one, I'll never be able to break into a new industry, or two, it's going to take a lot of time and a lot of money for me to do something else. As teenagers we go into college, planning out our whole lives and what direction we're going to go in with the courses we take. It can be akin to thinking you're about to start climbing a mountain, and this is the mountain that you're going to climb for the rest of your life. You're up there. You can see other things off in the distance, but they're not attainable to you because that's not where you started. That's how I felt. It seemed impossible to break into the tech industry for me without going back to school. Because when you hear about these technical jobs, you hear about coding and JavaScript and all this stuff, that's classes that you have to go and take and pay for it to be able to learn. It didn't seem like it was that attainable to me.

The cool thing I love about Trailhead is you go online and yes, you read and you learn how to do things, but then they give you a sandbox you can play in to actually build things yourself and to show you and to build that confidence that, "Hey, you're learning new things and you actually know what you're doing." Because they check the challenges to make sure that you're actually building things correctly.

Bill Detwiler: In this age of remote work was having those online resources all the difference? It sounds like it was.

Aaron McGriff: Absolutely. As a society and as a people, we go through several different transformational times. We know how impactful the steam engine was for the industrial revolution. Now we're in like this fourth industrial revolution where everything that you need in life, excuse me, everything that you need is online. Everything around us is run by tech. We all are tethered to our cell phones. We all have our laptops all the time. We're all always connected and business is being done majorily online now. All these new technologies and all these new businesses that are popping up are all running on tech. Someone has to be able to program these things and build these pages and build all these components, and all of the knowledge to be able to do that is online now. It used to be you had to go to college and sit in a classroom and learn about all these things and spend all this money. Now, if you want to learn how to code, you can literally jump online and take a class and learn how to code.

If you want to learn how to do anything in the tech industry, you can go online and find it. There are still times where I go to YouTube to find out how to do things that I don't know how to do right now. Having the ability to learn wherever you are, whether you're sitting on a train somewhere, trying to get to work, or whether you're sitting at home on your computer, the ability to learn new skills and to really skill yourself up for the job of the future is in your hands, no matter where you are. I think that's what makes things different these days is you don't have to worry about going to college or getting a new degree to learn these really marketable skills. You can be anywhere you are and have access to it.

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

Hands-on learning: Getting the skills to land that first tech 

Bill Detwiler: What would you say to people who are maybe a little skeptical? I mean, they hear stories like yours, which are amazing, transformational stories and hopefully empowering to people, but for people who say, "Oh, it won't work for me." Like you did early on, or who are like, "It sounds to me like the old book, How I Made a Million Dollars in Real Estate." It worked for you, but maybe for me, it won't. What do you say to those people?

Aaron McGriff: I'll say that you never know what you can truly accomplish until you actually go out there and do it. It's the easiest thing in the world to put limits on yourself and say that "This will never be me. This was a special case. He or she had special things that happened to them that enabled them to be successful." But no, I was unemployed for almost two years, you know? There were several times where I didn't think that this was going to work out for me. I was honestly a day away from, no, actually I wasn't even a day away. There was actually one moment while I was dealing with my unemployment where I was going to cut my beard off so I could get a job that I can ... I can say the real story.

There was one moment while I was unemployed, where I didn't think things were going to pan out for me. I had an interview to go be a bus driver. At this particular company, you couldn't have a beard. I'm standing in my bathroom with my clippers about to cut my beard off so I can go get this job that I really don't want. This beard is all I got because I lost my hair.

Bill Detwiler: You can't lose the beard man.

Aaron McGriff: No. Yeah. I'm like-

Bill Detwiler: Guys [like us], we can't lose the beard man.

Aaron McGriff: Exactly. It's all I have. It was those low moments where I didn't think that things were going to work out, that I really leaned on the people around me and really leaned on just positivity. I knew that I had a goal that I wanted to accomplish and I knew that I wasn't going to allow myself to quit. Just sticking it out and just staying committed to what I wanted to do and making sure I had the skills to get where I wanted to go made the difference, because I didn't cut my beard off and I got a job shortly thereafter.

Aaron McGriff Trailhead

Credit: Salesforce

The best things in life are right on the other side of fear. If you can take that first step, if you can step outside of your box and step outside of your comfort zone and do something that you've never done before, you can attain things that you never in your wildest dreams would think you would be able to. That's what I did. I stepped outside of my box. I stepped outside of my comfort zone. I learned something that I knew nothing about, and I found a lot of success in it.

Bill Detwiler: Given the experience that you had before in retail and logistics or operations, was there something different, I guess, about tech? I mean, I think a lot of people would have the same reservations that you do about maybe breaking in to tech or any new career, not just tech, because they see those barriers or they worry that there are all these barriers that they feel that others are putting on them, or maybe they're putting on themselves because of their perception of the industry. Was it hard for you to kind of break down those, I guess, barriers even if they weren't, or did you not find those barriers in your transition into the Salesforce community, or just tech in general?

Aaron McGriff: Yeah. The biggest barriers were really the ones that I set for myself because I said, "I know nothing about this. I'll never be able to be successful in this space. This stuff seems like it's really hard to do." Like I mentioned before when you're on Trailhead and you're learning, like you get a chance to learn about it and then do it to just showcase to yourself really that you have the skills to work in this industry. Even now I build things daily that I know I learned how to do on Trailhead. I didn't sit somewhere and somebody taught me how to do this. I learned how to do this online, for one. For two, in the tech space it's really about, well, what can you do? And what have you done? Of course when I'm going through my first set of interviews, "What's your experience?" "I have none in tech, but let me tell you about some things that I've built already." Or they'll give you a scenario and say, "Okay, what would you do?" If you can really articulate how to solve particular problems using technical solutions, that shows that even though you don't have actual on the job experience already, you can talk the talk and you know what you're doing.

In my first job, I had never had a technical role before, but I was given tasks to do. I knew how to do them. In my interview, I could talk through how to do them. I could talk through how to build certain resources and build some certain components and that's all things that I learned online. You're literally given the answers to the test. You just have to take the time to learn them.

More TrailheaDX 2020 interviews and developer resources

By Bill Detwiler

Bill Detwiler is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the ...