This series highlights women developers in our community, as a way to raise their visibility and hopefully break down some of the unconscious biases that block the path of women and people of color when it comes to technology jobs. This week, I take a look inside salesforce.com at someone who is sculpting #awesome Force.com developers each week in her training classes. I encourage you to share these stories, and your own, with someone who doesn’t “fit” the stereotype of a programmer. In this small way, we can change the ratio.

Leah McGowen-Hare was introduced to programming at an early age, but grew up wanting to be a dancer, not a programmer, and certainly not a teacher like her parents. Fate had other plans, and she found her niche as a technical trainer. She still dances in her off hours, and she also spends her time volunteering her skills to help others find their niche on the Salesforce1 Platform.

When did you learn to code? What do you love about it?

At 12, I started on a Commodore PET computer coding in BASIC. I created a computer program that printed out big signs on a dot matrix printer. My freshman year in boarding school, everyone came to me to get signs for their parties. I was too young to go to the parties, but everyone came to me.

I started coding because my father pushed me in that direction. He was not in computers, he was a Professor of Education at a local state college, but he always tried to stay abreast of progressive learning strategies. At that time he was partnering with folks in the technology departments, and they were studying new ways of learning using computer games. Sometimes he would let me loose on the computer. I think I was his study subject without knowing it. I would be playing on the computer for hours: coding, and looking at what was inside that big box. Also, I think it was a way to keep me quiet.

(Author’s Note: Reminds me of Carolina Ruiz-Medina’s grandparents…maybe we should market “teach your kids to code” as “keep your kids quiet”?)

Coding draws you in. There is nothing else that matters. You don’t know the time of day. You don’t know if it’s raining or sunny outside. Your world is right there. It’s very engaging for me. It’s problem solving. It’s like figuring your way out of a maze. If you like puzzles or problem solving, you will like programming.

How long have you been at salesforce.com? How did you get started?

My twins were one at the time, so … five years. When I started, I knew nothing about cloud computing. I had been doing some Java projects at home, and before the twins I was working at PeopleSoft, so I had been doing on-premise client-server ERP development.

I learned as much as possible about salesforce.com before my interviews. It was a grueling day, and I was sure I didn’t get the job, but I did. I spent my first six months with my head down, learning about cloud computing. It was so foreign to me. I was such a hard-core on-premise ERP systems person that I just didn’t understand it. Especially from a development standpoint, it truly is different coding in the cloud than the old on-premise way.

What was your role at PeopleSoft?

I started off at PeopleSoft as a developer. I was a developer for years, and while I was pretty good at it, I was too talkative. You literally had an office and you sat in it, and you coded all day. That didn’t feed my spirit. I used to walk around with tech specs in my hand, but it was just an excuse to go talk to people.

My manager was sweet about it. She said, “We’re not tapping into your natural skills. You have great people skills, don’t you want to manage?” I said no. I had done that at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), and it took me away from the technology, so I didn’t want to do it again. Then I came across a PeopleSoft University opening for a technical trainer. At first I thought, “No way – you guys don’t even have any women trainers over here, why would I join the boys club?” But I interviewed, and I just kinda fell into my niche. You’ve got to be open to the opportunities the universe puts in front of you. You never know. If I had said no to that interview, I would have never known that training was my gift and talent. Who knows what my path would have been?

Being a technical trainer at PeopleSoft was the best job I’d ever had: I loved what I was doing, I consistently received the top scores from my classes, and I traveled the world for years (Africa, Brazil, Argentina, anywhere and everywhere teaching PeopleCode). Everything was perfect, it was awesome, my life was complete! Then came the big bear hug from Oracle…I remember distinctively thinking, “I’m so glad I had a job that I loved because I know what it felt like. If I never experience that again, I’m ok with that because it’s better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.”

I can now say that I loved PeopleSoft, but salesforce.com trumps it. It has taken it to another level. Once again, I love what I do, I’m a top trainer, and I travel the world. It’s a reminder to always remain open. When you let that energy and passion flow from you, things seem to fall in place. Of course, it’s not without its own trouble or issues. Yes, all of my coworkers are men.  I am the only woman who is a developer trainer for salesforce.com, in any of our offices, globally. Does that deter me? No. Does it inspire me? Yes. Do I try to recruit more women? Absolutely.

How does being the only woman impact your day-to-day?

I don’t see it as a huge issue. My co-workers are men, but my management chain is all women. Also, I work closely with the curriculum development team, which is mostly women. Really, at the end of the day, being a trainer is a one person job: it’s you traveling, it’s you walking into the classroom, not a team.

Walking into a classroom that is all men — now that is my day-to-day. And that, I’ve gotten used to. I’m used to them often being surprised to see me come in. Both because I’m a woman, and because I am an African-American woman. I don’t think when people think “developer, coder” they think “African-American woman”. I love breaking that mold. I love it! Especially at Dreamforce, when I am in front of hundreds of people who are like “what?!?” And I keep them engaged, and make it fun. Yes, coding can be fun! It can even be sexy! It’s fun when you let yourself be you. The material is dry, so you have to infuse it with life from your experience and your personality.

You’ve met a lot of people in your classes. What is your impression of the Force.com Developer Community overall?

Smart. Forward thinking. Innovative thinkers. Open to new things. And, open to learning. They want to learn, they want to take it in. One of my best classes was my first Veterans to Work class. I am so glad they are going to be out there representing Salesforce. They were a great, great class.

What tips do you share with Force.com newbies?

For my coders, coming in from other programming languages, I tell them to understand what can be done with clicks and not code first. Sometimes, programmers think that if things aren’t cryptic and hard, it’s not hard-core coding, but you need to understand what can be done with approval processes, workflow, formulas – those should be your first line of defense. Don’t code what can be done with clicks. If you do, it’s harder work: you’ll be spending time and energy on creating code and more time writing test code on something that’s already feasible with clicks.

I had a customer tell me they had a consulting firm code an approval process engine in Apex Code because they weren’t familiar with Force.com Approvals. That’s why I also tell my Project Managers and Salesforce Admins, even if they aren’t coding, to understand what is possible on the platform with clicks, and when you need to jump over to code, so that they aren’t sold the wrong solution.

I’ve met many Salesforce Admins who are interested in learning to code. What is your advice to them?

Most Salesforce Admins get interested in learning to code when they have exhausted the point & click platform. They need to jump over to code and want to be able to do it themselves. My advice is to get empowered with knowledge. Take training! Take Salesforce University classes, or search and find the tons of free training out there, like the Dreamforce ’13 sessions.

There is also great content on the developer.force.com site, including step-by-step workbooks, and a very active community discussion board.

The Salesforce community is active on Twitter. I recommend using #askforce to ask questions, and following these folks:

And finally, be careful because it can be overwhelming. Start small. Look at code that actually works and is doing something that you want to do. Start there, and then tweak it. Start with a small simple trigger, and learn how to write test code. If you can’t write test code, you can’t deploy your code!

(Author’s Note: check out this simple Writing Your First Apex Class and Trigger example in the developer docs.)

Tell me about your life outside of Salesforce.

The 1:1:1 philanthropic model is a key part of everyone’s V2MOM at salesforce.com. Many people are interested in eliminating their carbon footprint. I want to reduce the digital divide. We keep moving forward with technology, but never look back at the people who are left behind. There is a huge divide for people of color. You don’t have to go to another country to find people without access to the internet. You can go to a school in East Oakland. Black Girls Code, Black Male Achievement Oakland, and the Hidden Genius Project – organizations like these are bridging the digital divide. With my volunteer time, I want to figure out how to use my skills to help further their cause.

My first love is dancing. In a past life, I auditioned to be a “Fly Girl” on In Living Color, and that didn’t pan out, but I still dance. I thought that a good way to bond with my 14-year-old son, Dez, would be hip-hop classes, but I have to say it wasn’t until I took him to a hackathon and he out-coded me that we had a strong bonding moment. (Author’s note: Leah’s son participated in the Startup Weekend Oakland Black Male Achievement hackathon, on the same team as George. I recap that event here.)

Dez will still dance with me sometimes, and recently he and I volunteered to teach a hip-hop dance class at The Arc. The Arc is a non-profit service and advocacy organization for adults with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families living in San Francisco and San Mateo counties. Salesforce.com employs folks from The Arc to work in all the San Francisco and San Mateo offices, staffing the kitchens and making coffee. It was a great class!

Author’s Note

Want to learn more about Leah, Salesforce University, and the other organizations where she volunteers her time? Check out her recent ButtonClick Admin podcast.

Want to learn Apex Code but don’t have a programming background? Learn to code in ADM231: Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming with Force.com Code. Leah is teaching this course in New York City, April 21-25, 2014.

Want to get news and info about about Salesforce Developers, Salesforce Admins, and Women in Tech? Follow me on Twitter @rockchick322004.

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