Learning to code and writing your first line of Apex with Zabou Nicoul

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This month’s guest, techno-functional Salesforce Platform Manager, Zabou Nicoul, joins Ben on the sofa to share her Salesforce journey and shares her learnings on learning how to code in Apex. She shares her story, and her tips for anyone considering learning how to code in their Salesforce role. As a self-taught coder, she discusses Apex tutorials for point-and-click admins, persistance and determination when writing your first few lines of Apex, and how you’ll find that your code continually improves.

Ben: Zabou, thank you for coming on the show.

Zabou: Thanks for having me.

Ben: Our pleasure. So, I’m really keen to talk to you, because you’ve got quite an interesting background and your career in the Salesforce ecosystem has been different to a lot of people that we speak to day-to-day, so I think we’ll go through a lot of different things, but starting right back before Salesforce, and looking at kind of, education, and your early career, so I guess the question; “what did you want to be when you were growing up?” Is probably a good place to start?

Zabou: Yeah, that’s a funny one. I don’t have any interesting story around what I wanted to do when I was a little girl. I, so, funny enough, my background has absolutely nothing to do with Salesforce, or even with tech really. I have a degree in Political Science.

Ben: Yeah?

Zabou: And I did love it. I enjoyed that a lot. I started my career really, actually working with European institutions. Again, so nothing to do with that. And then when I moved to Sydney, I just made a complete u-turn and found something else, and then, working in Sydney in a software company. This is how I got in touch with Salesforce for the first time, and I had never seen any CRM before.

Ben: So although you hadn’t kind of gone down the tech path with studying or your early career, had you always been interested in technology? Were you one of those people that wanted to fix computers, or understand how they work?

Zabou: So no, actually. I grew up in a house where my dad was a bit of a geek, so we always had computers around. But apart from that, he did it as a hobby, and apart from that, I really had no exposure to technology at all. No, I think it’s just a personality thing, and I just wasn’t aware of anything like that. But then later on, again, I get in touch with Salesforce, saying get in that universe of sales processes and all these things, then this is when I just discovered that I just like to know how things work.

Ben: Yeah?

Zabou: And yeah, I have a compulsion or passion to, you know, make things work better or faster. But yeah, again, before that, I just had no idea that it was kind of my destiny.

Ben: Yeah. So you came to Sydney, you ended up working for a software company, but what was the role there?

Zabou: So I did a number of things. I worked as a support agent, which was great. I definitely recommend it. It’s a great thing to do, because I used Salesforce as a user, as a support user. The best way to get in contact with the software obviously. But also, the best way to run into the frustrations of being a user. And then after that, I also worked kind of a sales-ops role which was yet another side of it, where you can have a, more like an overview of processes, but the same, like run into the frustrations like “oh, there’s got to be a better way to do this” and then doing these things then, I worked myself with massive help and support from the Salesforce team at the time. They really, really helped me in transitioning, and become part of the team full-time.

Ben: So how did that transition come about? Because a lot of people that we speak to, are trying to make that transition. They might be working in a support role, or, you know, just looking to move from one team to another in the company. So did you put your hand up and say “can I make this move?” And how did you, kind of, how would you advise other people go about that if they’re looking to do something similar?

Zabou: So yeah, most definitely. So, indeed, obviously it’s better if you have favorable conditions, like the ones that I had. And by that, I mean the company as an environment was definitely encouraging that sort of behaviour. The the spirit was, if you can show that you can bring value then go for it. We will support it. I also, again, had a lot of support from the Salesforce team themselves. They are the ones who encouraged me, they you know, gave me a sandbox, told me about Trailhead, and just really pushed me to put the work in. That was very helpful, but for anyone who would like to make that transition, one thing I would say is, advertise it. Make it known that this is what you’re after, because, for a number of reasons. First of all, help will come from places that you don’t expect. So as much as you say it, the more you say it, you discuss with people who may not, you know, look like they have anything to do with it, but they may say, “oh this is what you want?” “Well, I have a friend who… something” or “you should talk to you this person”. So that will definitely help. The second thing I would advise is, indeed put your hand up and put in the effort, because people will trust you to do it, if you can showcase that you’ve done it. So, take real-life cases, like Trailhead is great, theory is great, but it’s even better, if you can find an example, like a real life example, whatever company you’re working in, and then you see a problem to solve in your own context, take that, go to a sandbox, work something out, showcase it. This is the best way but people to see what you’re capable of, and then trust you with the actual responsibility. What else would I say? Be patient. Because it will take time. It’s a massive learning curve, you may not always have these favorable conditions, and even when you do, so the way that my transition went, I actually had to work two jobs for about six to nine months. I was at some point, I was doing the half time, like half of my days in one team and then half of my days in the Salesforce team. Then, you may feel that it’s not moving as fast as you would like to. You have to be patient. It’s normal for it not to happen overnight.

Ben: Sure. Yeah, that makes sense. And I think, you know, if you are in the company, it’s so much easier to showcase that you are passionate, and what you can do, because you can understand and see the business challenges. So, it’s actually easier to do that than if you’re not working for a company, right, to showcase your own ideas.

Zabou: Yeah, absolutely.

Ben: So then, when you’ve made that transition into Salesforce, what did the early Salesforce days look like for you, from a role perspective?

Zabou: It was your normal Salesforce Admin role, I would say, so, you know, anything user provisioning, user management, or the tasks to keep the lights on, data management, a little bit of security, that sort of thing and then solving little problems. I was also interested with anything config because that falls completely under the responsibilities of administration, so, you know, fields, validation rules, process builder, all the config was part of it.

Ben: Yeah. Okay cool. And you did that for a while but then the interest  in development came up. So where did that come from? Where did you get that spike of interest?

Zabou: Well, very Salesforce Admin will also then face the frustration of being limited by the configuration. There’s a lot of really cool things that we can do with config, but the moment, again, I feel it depends what instance you’re working with, and what kind of problems the business is trying to solve but obviously configuration in Salesforce cannot do everything. Then you find yourself, you know facing that wall of I can’t get over, what I’m trying to do actually cannot be solved with config. So there’s also, and I’m not super proud of it, but sometimes something that I would write in configuration was breaking the code, but because I had no awareness of the code, then it just got really awkward. “Oh, there’s these errors, so you’d better go and have a look, and fix it. So, I wasn’t told to fix the errors in code because everyone knew that that’s not, but it gave me that first exposure to be like, what you do in configuration has consequences elsewhere that you may not see. And then I did actually try to, I went to the code and read it and I didn’t quite understand it. But it’s always good to have that exposure. And after a while, you start to piece it all together. So that’s kind of how I got the first exposure to code, and then I moved to another company where things were different, because it was a smaller entity. So I was alone, in charge of the Salesforce instance. So same thing, some of the problems cannot be solved in configuration, so you have to start looking at the code, and then I again, like there was not really anyone else to solve these problems. So that’s how I sort of, yeah, I started to make the jump, and there again I had extremely favorable conditions where I had the support of my CTO who, again, encouraged me. I was intimidated because I had no software development background but he trusted me. And said like “that’s ok, start small. Start with this little piece and I’m sure you work it out”. And before I knew it, I was writing code.

Ben: Yeah? So if you look back at your code now, in the period of time, can you see how far you’ve come, from a relatively small period of time?

Zabou: Massively

Ben: Because when we saw David Liu at the Brisbane Down Under Dreaming, and he always refers to the first trigger he wrote, and I think it took like eight hours, and it was like a really basic trigger. So it must be interesting, looking back and seeing how far you’ve come?

Zabou: Yeah, exactly the same, not even that long,  you know, I think about six months to nine months down the track, the same thing, looking at stuff that I had written six or nine months before, I barely recognized it. How in hell did you think if writing this way? It’s a journey. Constant improvement. You learn along the way, and then, which is the beauty of it, you can go back to code that you’ve written before, and refactor it a little bit, make it better. It’s a journey.

Ben: So from having realized that configuration has an impact on code, looking a piece of code, and not understanding it, to now being able to code, how did you make that transition in terms of what you did. How did you approach it?

Zabou: So again, I was in this situation where I was trying to read my colleagues code, I had no clue, so they said “that’s okay. You can start with reading about Java”, so for listeners who would not be aware, Salesforce has its own native language that’s called Apex, but it’s very close to Java. So I actually did go and read about Java, to, you know, get familiarized with the basic concepts, how, you know, because a coding language, it’s a language. So it has its own grammar, its own vocabulary. So reading about this really, really helped, to get the basic concepts in. So that really helped, then Trailhead, obviously, is also really, really helpful. It’s a little bit theoretical, they will actually fast-track it, because they give you the code and say like, copy, paste it, which gets you there, but it’s harder. It’s probably more helpful to actually start from there, and when you actually are alone with your keyboard and you have to type it in you just learn much faster. What else is there? Obviously the Salesforce success platform, Stack Exchange, any question or problem that you would be facing in Salesforce, because the community is so big and has been around for so long, very likely someone will have asked that question before. So definitely using your, tapping into that, definitely helps, and then again, the best is also to get some sort of mentor wherever you are. Someone who can help you through some of the problems, because you can try all of this, what I’ve said, but sometimes you’ll just end up spinning your wheels, and it’s just helpful to have someone who will say, “you’re not headed in the right direction, you should look that way, because obviously when you’re starting you don’t know, what you don’t know.”

Ben: Sure. So what do you think is the biggest challenge for someone looking to learn code? What’s the hardest part about it?

Zabou: Again, it’s a huge learning curve. David Liu’s example is true, mine’s true as well, same thing to write something extremely simple, but again when you’re alone with your keyboard, it’s really hard. And then you have to go through the journey of hitting every possible error. And you have to face that frustration. Being a developer is really an emotional roller coaster. You write something, you have this great idea, and then you write it, and then it doesn’t work, so you run into that first error, you solve it, and then you go “Yeah! Yeah! It’s going to work, it’s going to work, and then you run into the second. And it’s just like that, up and down. “Yes! Oh no. Oh, yes. It’s working! Oh no, wait..” That is definitely a challenge. So you have to be, kind of mentally and emotionally prepared as well, to go through this, you have to persevere, be extremely patient. It’s so worth it though.

Ben: Yeah? Have you ever thought, throughout the process, that you weren’t going to get it? Did you ever think this isn’t for me?

Zabou: Not to that point. There definitely are days where it just does not agree with you. And you know, you start spinning your wheels, and you get nowhere. But very likely, you’ll get it tomorrow. With fresh eyes in the morning, a fresh mind in the morning. And, you know, suddenly you’ll think of something that you hadn’t thought of before, or again then you get to speak to your mentor or whoever else is on your team that can help you out, and eventually, you’ll get it.

Ben: Sure. Okay, cool. So again, I’m going to ask you for a piece of advice you would give to someone looking to make the transition, like the best thing that you’ve done, in order to make that transition, what was it from Admin to Developer?

Zabou: Yeah, look, I think the best way to learn is to face real-life problems. You can read the theory, you can do the hands-on in Trailhead, but nothing beats having that problem to solve that will, you know, make your life easier and then the life of whoever’s using your instance, and then if you can bring that to the business, you know, you’ll get that that pride, and just, you know, being very helpful, because that’s why we do what we do. Helping people, so yeah, that would be the best. Find an actual problem to solve, and then again, be prepared to not get it the first try, or even the second or maybe even the third.

Ben: Stay with it.

Zabou: Yes.

Ben: So since since you have picked up coding, what kind of benefits have you seen in your career? From when you didn’t know how to code?

Zabou: Game changer

Ben: Yeah?

Zabou: Yeah, really. Well first of all, again, just as a professional of, you know, being that person who is in charge of making the team’s life easier and making the business improve and scale, and all these things, there are so many more problems you can solve, so just that, just for that reason it’s worth it. And then after that, obviously there’s a lot of other options in terms of career, that become open to you. Because of that, with configuration, you can go down, the Business Analyst route, kind of Operations route, which are great, but I feel like at some point, you may plateau. Because if you want to have a real, holistic view of the Salesforce instance and potentially anything else and maybe plugin, you know, third-party packages and maybe other platforms that plug in, you will have to get into the nitty-gritty of the very technical details. If you don’t end up coding yourself and have other people around you to do it, that’s fine, but you will not be able to, again, make the right choices when it comes to overall architecture, when it comes, you know, if you are in charge of a big instance, and you have the whole business waiting on you, or starting a big project and you know, “how much time is it going to take? How much effort is it going to take? Do we need more resources? Is it even possible?” So if you don’t have that technical knowledge, you will at some point become limited.

Ben: Sure. Okay, cool. And then looking forward, you’ve made the jump and you’ve obviously been successful in what you’ve done so far, but what’s coming next in terms of your career, and the the path you want to take?

Zabou: Obviously becoming a full-time Developer could be an option, but personally, I would hate to give up the business side of things, the beauty of Salesforce is that it really is that bridge, between the business and the technical side, and you can go full-technical, but again, I think I would miss out on the rest, which is helping the business as a whole. Losing touch with the actual teams I would hate to do that as well, because eventually that’s that’s what we’re here for, and, you know, when you see a Salesperson smile, and they say ” wow, you actually made my life easier.” There’s nothing like that. So yeah, and again, if you really go down the technical path, you will lose the opportunity to have influence on the upstream process, which is designing the processes, making decisions, such as, you know, which technical tool are we going with or, again, like a lot of it, eventually with Salesforce, and being Salesforce professionals, yes, we’re in touch with the technical side of it. But what we’re really trying to do most of the time is also changing behaviours. So going full technical, you will lose influence on that.

Ben: Sure. So kind of the architecture path is your goal?

Zabou: Yes.

Ben: And that kind of ties everything together.

Zabou: Exactly

Ben: Cool, well I think there’s a lot of value in there, because we get this question a lot around, how can I become a Developer and, you know, what does that mean if I do become a Developer? So I think you’ve answered a lot of those questions for us today. If anyone that wants to reach out and ask you any further questions, what’s the best way to do that, LinkedIn? Is that your thing?

Zabou: Yes. Absolutely. LinkedIn, is the best option

Ben: So we’ll make sure we’ve shared that the handle as well. So thank you very much, and yeah, all the best in the future endeavors.

Zabou: Thanks, very much

Make sure you’re following Zabou on LinkedIn and feel free to reach out to her with any questions regarding the topics covered in the podcast episode.

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