Episode 19: Salesforce Military with Alex Sutherland

Salesforce is committed to upskilling the military community with high demand technology skills and providing our partners with a diverse and trained talent pipeline. Today, Alex Sutherland, Air Force Veteran and Salesforce Practice Director at Liberty IT Solutions joins us. Together we talk about some of his time with Salesforce, experiences with the military, and the intersection of the two worlds.

Show Highlights:

  • Hear how Alex got his start as an IT Professional and about his first introduction to Salesforce
  • Alex’s enlistment into the Air Force at 17, going overseas, supporting contingency operations, and learning the limits of Ethernet cables
  • Getting reacquainted with Salesforce following his military duty and discovering the intersections with the Salesforce ecosystem and being overseas 
  • Supporting veterans in the exploration of opportunities in the Salesforce ecosystem
  • Salesforce Military’s partnership with Hiring Our Heroes 
  • The launch of the Philadelphia User Group

 

Resources:

Episode Transcript

 

Alex: Earliest memory I have is sitting up in the loft of our house and my dad had hired me to format floppy disk old five and a quarter inch really floppy floppy disks on old Tandy at 86 or something like that.

 

 

Josh: That’s Alex Sutherland, a Salesforce practice director with Liberty IT solutions. I’m Josh Birk, a developer evangelist with Salesforce. And here on the Salesforce developer podcast, you will hear stories and insights for developers from developers. Now that was a little bit of insight into Alex’s entrepreneurial spirit. We’re also going to talk about some of his time with Salesforce and experiences with the military. But to continue on with that thread. He also had a little bit of an interaction with something you might remember as the Y2K bug…

 

 

Alex: Gah!, no, Y2K is coming! We got to replace all the computers and so I had learned enough about networking and servers and workstations and stuff for building computers back in the day was just kind of really got my start. Yeah, so I was As a high schooler, kind of a dream job run around building computers and replacing them and stuff. So that’s that’s kind of what really made me a professional IT guy you know, it was doing that like for y2k.

 

 

Josh: Now, mind you, Alex, at this point had just gotten his driver’s license, which I think at that point in time, I was probably playing a lot of Wolfenstein 3d, or maybe do might have been to the time but anyway, Alex has now has this it internship behind him, and he goes on to college, in order to take things a little bit past the theoretical.

 

 

Alex: I had a hard time making the connection between what we learned in the classroom and how will be applied in the real world. And so that was something I was kind of still I felt a gap there. And I’d always been in business and entrepreneurship, as you mentioned. And so I thought, well, let me get a Bachelor’s in Business Administration. So I completed that program and then transferred to a bachelor’s program, but minor deny it so I could, you know, kind of keep the credit for all those Information Sciences courses I took in my bachelor’s program and the filling out Some of the it minor program requirements, I took a database design course when I was doing this small business, IT consulting, one of our clients said, hey, we’ve got this spreadsheet or something that needs to get turned into a database. And I was like, Oh, yeah, I can do that. I can figure that out. Well, unfortunately, I didn’t know the first thing about normalization or object modeling or anything like that. So unfortunately, I had made a pretty big mess trying to make the database and my boss had to hire a guy to come in and untangle it and do it the right way. So that was a painful lesson that I really didn’t know what I was doing. So then I took the database design course. And it was like, you know, oh, you know, enlightenment, Eureka, I was like, oh, there’s a science to this. And I was really fascinated by the science of database design data, modeling data structures, and really excited about it and wanted to kind of ignited a passion to learn more about it, but I really didn’t like Microsoft Access, which was where he learned how to do that, you know, and all the other database, things I knew about were, you know, Oracle or SQL Server, and they were expensive. And so I thought, you know, well, I don’t know if I’ll get to do this or not, but that was Kind of my, you know, some of the formative things in my college years that planted some seeds, you know, in my mind about what software development, application development, things like that might consist of.

 

 

Josh: like so many people in our ecosystem that I talked to … Alex, his earliest experiences with Salesforce evolved out of kind of bad experiences with databases and spreadsheets.

 

 

Alex: Another experience, it was formative, it was temping after college and I got hired an attempt job was copying data from a green screen into a spreadsheet every day, that was pretty much my whole job was copy paste from the green screen to the spreadsheets at the spreadsheet and rinse repeat every day. So yeah, that was another formative thing of like, I know this can be so much better. I turned out Yeah, somebody’s like, Hey, can I look into writing a script to do this? Because I bet I could kind of automate myself out of a job here. And they were like, Yeah, thanks. Anyway, thankfully, I once again, some folks that I knew were working for a small startup company that was doing a multi tenant enterprise application at the turn of the time was application service provider. We didn’t really have SAS popularized yet but they knew about Salesforce We’re kind of trying to emulate Salesforce. This was back in 2005. And they desperately needed customer service folks to join the team and I was looking for a job. So it was it was a good fit. It was very technology, you know, kind of merged my worlds pretty well. And they were using Salesforce for CRM, not very well at all at the time, but they added at least his accountant contact repository.

 

Josh: Okay, so we’ve gotten to the point where Alex is getting engaged with Salesforce, but this episode is a lot about how various aspects of Alex’s life have kind of become intertwined. And so in order to reflect that, we have to actually roll back time a little bit, go back to that floppy disk story, and talk a little bit about the military…

 

 

Alex: that floppy disk formatting, frustrating experience. I saw some Air National Guard airplanes flying training routes over our house and was kind of fascinated and enamored with it and wanted to pursue. It was interested in you know, maybe someday pursuing the Air Force, but I kind of you know, I didn’t I wasn’t sure about it, but when we moved down to Pennsylvania, we moved very close to an international base that flew one of my favorite airplanes in the world the A10 warthog. So when I was coming towards you in high school, I realized I would need some help paying for college and I was already in the Civil Air Patrol, which is a kind of an auxiliary, like Junior ROTC kind of thing. People familiar with that. And I decided to go and talk to them and see, you know, there are some opportunities and help get college paid for and, you know, pursue that passion that I had for for aviation and the Air Force and do something a little different as well, because I was already doing a lot of computer work and office work. So I sort of enlisted a little sooner than I expected to had to get my mom to come sign the papers, the age of 17 to enlist, but yeah, so that was in the year 2000 that I enlisted and went off to boot camp and I chose a job that was more aviation oriented kind of aircraft maintenance and very hands on very mechanical, because I wanted to do something kind of did broaden my horizons a bit as well. And so that was Yeah, that was in the year. 2000 right before things changed a lot in terms of world events.

 

Josh: First of all, Alex is completely right, the A10 Warthog is an amazing piece of machinery. My dad’s a pilot, he’s taking me up in planes a couple of times and so a little bit of an aviation nut myself. Second of all, what Alex is referring to here is the ship from the National Guard being mostly a domestic service to what it is now in a post 911 world.

 

 

Alex: Certainly, yeah, so as I was just wrapping up my initial training days when September 11 happened and the demand for support from military and from the reserve components in particular which the National Guard is one really that kind of exploded after that so my head the the opportunity in the in the duty to go overseas and support contingency operations around the world, primarily in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. So I’ve been over there five times so far my career and I share some some funny it stories over there helped, you know, make Ethernet cables and I discovered the limits of Ethernet cables, the length of them, trying to stretch them custom ones a little bit too far and things like that. No really I’m glad to have had an opportunity because it’s opened my eyes so much and broaden my horizons to see those parts of the world and a lot of places in between traveling there and back. And then also to see the evolution of technology over that time and how it’s helped me increasingly stay better and better connected with family and friends back home. And actually, some some interesting stories about intersections with the Salesforce ecosystem from being overseas as well. It had been pretty, pretty poignant.

 

 

Josh: And here we get to kind of the crux of the episode talking about how Alex’s life has these overlapping themes. So I pressed him for a more specific example.

 

Alex: It’s kind of fast forwarding a little bit, but in 2008, I had only been consulting in the Salesforce space for a little while, but I was deployed for a few months overseas or something 2007 missed Dreamforce in 2007, just barely, I was on my way back. And I had posted the idea for Salesforce on the iPhone just because I happen to be the first guy to raise it up there and post it and then I got a shout out in the keynote for posting that idea and all my colleagues were their email. me like, Hey, we just saw you mentioned in the keynote at Dreamforce I was sitting overseas getting those emails like, Oh man, I wish it was there. But it was nice to know, you know, and be able to hear from them that was happening. And then especially in more recent years, I’ve been able to have video coaching sessions with folks from the Salesforce Military program and, you know, log in and knock out trailhead badges from from deployed locations overseas, they keep my certifications, current and things like that. So it’s really fascinating to see how far it’s come since the early days of my career.

 

Josh: He said the title, okay, sorry, Homer Simpson joke. But anyway, yes. So they’ve now kind of collapse the sine wave down to Alex’s involvement with Salesforce military formerly known as Vetforce. So let’s go into a little bit more detail on that…

 

 

Alex: idea and vision of you know, some of the employees at Salesforce that had military experience and served in the military. And it was at a time when there were a lot of folks getting out of the military and we also had tremendous obviously, if perennial demand for Salesforce professionals but who was getting particularly acute in the early 2000s 2010s. And that was right around the time. So I, in my military career, I had kind of restarted it pursuing career as an aviator on cargo aircraft. So I’d gone away for about two and a half years for training for that position and career. So I just come back from a couple of years in active duty, which had given me a real taste for a lot of the career transition challenges that active duty military folks experienced. And I was really blessed because I had already been in a civilian career for a long time. And I knew I wasn’t worried about kind of picking up where I left off when I came back. Other than that, they’re going to be a lot of Salesforce released knows to catch up on when I got back to two and a half years of not paying too close attention to them. And certainly a lot did change in that time. But my employer, you know, very graciously plugged me right back in when I got back. And as I was getting reconnected in the ecosystem, I saw that this bet force program had been launched. And so I was excited to kind of see these two rather separate parts of my life up until that point, we’re intersecting in this way. So I was I was able to add Some of the early Salesforce military sessions that four sessions at the time at dreamforce. And even some of the folks that I work with in the past that contribute help getting it started, who had not experienced Glenn Weinstein from a CTO at a period that I’d worked with, he was helpful to kind of executive sponsor and getting it going on with Dan streetman at Salesforce at the time. And so it’s great because I already had some relationships with these folks and was able to become an advocate from the very early days of the program and see it grow and evolve over time. So I’ve been able to continue to be involved as a as a coach and advocate and mentor for folks in the program. Since you know, I’ve been blessed to be in this ecosystem for a long time. I want to help other veterans I’ve been talking about it for until a lot of veterans before the program started saying, Hey, you know, working in cloud computing is great because you can do it from pretty much everywhere, even overseas where we are so nice to have this program created that provide these training resources and community career development opportunities, things like that was really exciting for me to make it just easier to present to a military colleague and say, hey, look Here, just sign up for this community. And you know, I’ll see you there. But you know, I’m not the only person then that is supporting them in this exploration of opportunities in the Salesforce ecosystem. There’s this whole community, other folks who are various points in the journey can can encourage them and coach them and be their wingman as they explore it.

 

 

Josh: Alex’s advice for people transitioning out of the military into civilian life is very similar to things we’ve heard on other episodes of the podcast. For instance, if you go back to Julie’s episode, where she’s talking about just having the willingness to go and experiment with code in order to gain a developer certification on top of her admin skills, Alex sees a similar thing when it comes to people coming out of the military.

 

 

Alex: Oh, yeah, there’s there’s so much and thankfully, there’s so many people involved in the sailors military program and in other career transition programs like Hiring Our Heroes that Salesforce military is partnering with. But really the biggest thing is just to be bold and to reach out for help and don’t inhibit yourself and what you pursue. You can’t wait for Buddy to tell you exactly what to do is kind of explore and be curious. That’s the best thing you can do for yourself and for your career is to set goals and pursue them. But to be curious and explore things and try things in the military for good reason, you know, we have very rigorous training and procedures that we have to follow to make sure that were safe and effective. But technology is much often a much more creative space. And so you have to be creative in how you approach solving problems and how you interact with customers to figure out you know, what their needs are and then translate those into solutions. And so that’s something that I think military folks just need to experience and learn how to be more creative in solving problems and learning things and become more self directed in learning because the military careers have been often a lot of structure already built any you don’t have to discover it. You’re kind of very guided in your military career. And for a while the you know, the Salesforce ecosystem was a bit murkier in terms of how you Have that career path but you know is the Salesforce certification paths have gotten more defined and broadened. And certainly, you know, the advent of trailhead has been so fantastic to give folks a map and guidances. They’re exploring this incredible platform to build applications on. There’s so much that’s being built and delivered to help folks do that. But there’s still a lot where they have to explore for themselves to figure out what it is that they want to do for themselves.

 

 

Josh: And we would be remiss if we finish the show without talking about another thing that Alex has been deeply involved in the creation of Phillyforce.

 

 

Alex: In my journey in the Salesforce ecosystem. And I really should go back and give a shout out to the original Philadelphia Salesforce user group. That was how I got into really, you know, original Salesforce development and architecture work, integration work and finding other passionate Salesforce community members and thankfully they met like right next door to the company. I was working where I learned Salesforce, it’s always I will just walk across the parking lot and Linda Johnson and Mark Kelly, some of my my oldest friends in the Salesforce ecosystem and gotten that started and so was like maybe seven or eight of us that met a little conference room for the first Philadelphia user group and user groups are hard work and they wax and wane and, and Evan flow and so really enjoyed that. But then after a while it kind of dwindled, and so long about 2010 or so after, you know, my various steps in my journey as a Salesforce professional, I was trying to find and recruit people who knew something about developing custom code in and around Salesforce, we were just getting the advent of Apex was just a couple years old, and the Customer Portal was even called communities yet was just coming online Visualforce. And so there was, you know, the Salesforce platform was just beginning to turn into a very rich application development platform.

 

So I wanted I was like, I know that there’s a handful of us around here in the Philadelphia area that could get together and talk about this stuff and share lessons and ideas and things like that and other developers who are just starting spring up around the country. I think Luca shanigan just started the one up in New York and a couple other major cities had one and I was like, Well, hey, let’s let’s see, we can get going here in Philly. So kind of put the word out through my Salesforce Friends network and the admin group was kind of dormant at the time. But we launched the Philadelphia developer user group. And I wasn’t really sure you know how many people would show up. But I got the word out as best I could. And I was like, hey, if I get like between 10 and 20 people, I’ll be really happy. Like, that’s great. And I think we had like 25 people show up for the first meeting. So it was really exciting and had Fraser Rankin, who’s now he has done a lot to build the architecture program at Salesforce. He’s local and came and presented to us and it was a great start to the developer user group. And it was really exciting because we’re able to be involved in the development of the developer user group program from the very early days and had some great folks helping get that launched and grow it over the years.

 

 

Josh: Now over those years Philly force has grown in size and scope and it’s become more regional and they actually launched their own community events, also previously called Philly force this year being rebranded into Mid Atlantic dreaming. When Alex and I talked he had just learned that Julian Bruce and Samantha ready will be keynoting to people I highly recommend you see on stage Now before we go, I did ask Alex what his favorite non technical hobby was.

 

 

Alex: I think getting out in nature. This may sound cliche with, you know, trailhead and all that. But um, but it really is, yeah, I grew up in the mountains and hiking and I kind of had gotten away from that a bit just with the business of life and everything and But recently, I’ve had a desire to get back into into nature more and do more hiking with my kids in life and get out there and explore nature. So that’s something that I have enjoyed getting back into.

 

 

Josh: And that’s our show. Thank you for listening. If you’d like to learn more about this podcast, head on over to developer.salesforce.com/podcast, where you can hear old episodes, transcripts of episodes and see links to your favorite podcasting service of choice to like and subscribe.

 

I’ll talk to you next week.