Barbara Christensen, Salesforce MVP

In our most recent Salesforce Q&A interview, we caught up with Barbara Christensen, Salesforce MVP and Lead Consultant at Percolator Consulting, a technology consulting business helping non-profit businesses with technology planning, staff coaching, metrics, and other ongoing support.

Barbara talks to us about how she got to where she is today, the challenges and benefits of implementing Salesforce for non-profit businesses and discusses how data will help towards social change in the future.

Third Republic (TR): How did you begin your career in Salesforce? 

Barbara Christensen (BC): About 10 years ago, I was the Membership Coordinator, IT Manager, and Digital Communications nerd at a conservation non-profit. We had our supporter data siloed across an ungainly sales CRM, ‘95-chic eBase (FileMaker), MS Access, and many spreadsheets.

With an amazing consultant (who is actually now my boss at Percolator Consulting) we transformed all that mess into a Salesforce-centered system, to more fully understand and engage our supporters. That’s when I realized how much I liked working in engagement technology and that Salesforce was a powerful platform for building that.

TR: Could you explain a bit about the journey you took to get to where you are today?

BC: My journey was more of a wander – I haven’t always been techie! My older brother was a budding programmer way back in the 80’s and my dad worked in electronics. To be candid, as a girl, I was actively discouraged from participating in their tinkering, and it worked: I avoided tech for a long time. 

After college, I ended up in Seattle, where the then tiny, Gates Foundation library program was just starting up. Luckily, they took a chance on a clueless 24-year old with good customer service skills, a head for strategy, and a glimmer of technical acumen!

I learned a ton about good support and training there but it hasn’t been all tech work since. I also earned an M.S. in Soils, focusing on contamination (still my lab’s data nerd, of course), and that’s how I ended up in conservation… but the tech always drags you back! 

TR: What advice would you give to those starting out their Salesforce career?

BC: For me, Salesforce is a tool. I would never be happy just building, say, a hammer over and over again, even if it’s the best hammer out there, with an integrated cocktail shaker. However, using that hammer to make the best homeless shelter or accessible playground (or after-work manhattan), that is what fulfils me.

I’d say focus on the mission, goals, and strategy. By solving how to make Salesforce serve those, you will still fully learn the tool, better leverage its power, and hopefully love your work… in the end.

TR: Do you think certifications are a good way to continue career development?

BC: I know lots of people are motivated by certifications, and that’s awesome. They aren’t my main focus. I find experience and solving problems far more valuable. I do hope non-profits, who don’t always have the economic buffer to hire unwisely, look beyond the certification.

It’s important to people who also understand the sector and know how to use technology to meet their mission, manage the demands of a 360-degree system, and help their team succeed. 

TR: How important do you think the Salesforce community and networking is to achieving success in the ecosystem?

BC: I honestly don’t think there is anything more important! The Power of Us Hub is my stomping ground, and I have learned more helping other people with sticky problems than anywhere else.

I love helping on great community projects like NPSP How-To Videos (which is captained by previous #SalesforceQA subject Bill Florio), Office Hours, Amplify, and Community Sprints. While there, I have made some great connections with people I admire and like a whole lot.

TR: After two decades of working with non-profits, what are some of the challenges and benefits you have come across while working with non-profit businesses? 

BC: Non-profits and their funders, on the whole do not invest enough money, staff time, or strategic focus on their tech stack and data, nor do they recognize its deep integration with successful engagement. I think they underestimate the lost potential – in fundraising, campaign influence, program success, and staff growth – of treating engagement technology as an afterthought.

Maybe because of those funding limitations, some of the best innovations also come out of the sector. There are terribly creative, resourceful, and smart NGO folks eeking out way more than most from the tech they do have, and all while doing it to feed people, teach communities, save wildlife, and more. NPSP alone is full of great stuff, even some tech that is community-built, because of their focus on open source. I wouldn’t want to work in any other industry!

TR: What do you enjoy most about the work you do with non-profits?

BC: Celebrating the on-the-ground change our clients achieve is the easy answer, of course. I’m deeply invested in Percolator’s progressive vision. However, the best part of my day-to-day is empowering awesome admins to take a journey much like mine, from being an order taker and tech firefighter to architecting an integrated engagement system born of mission-driven strategy.

I know what it’s like to manage an ever-evolving tech stack as just a small portion of your job description and budget and to struggle to keep up, let alone create real progress. It’s so great to work with them to focus on strategy, be resourceful, and leverage enterprise-level tools (and thinking) to meet their mission. I love our clients’ hardworking admins!

TR: You are passionate about the power of data for social change, could you explain this in more detail?

BC: Real change comes from people, not data. Data just makes it easier to engage enough people so that change becomes inevitable. At Percolator, I’m lucky that I get to think about how data can best mobilize people by focusing on a really great engagement strategy.

When you understand the audiences your organization interacts with and the roles you need them to play to achieve your mission, you can capitalize on existing resources, identify gaps in your campaign or marketing tactics, and break down silos in your organization. That gives you real people power.

TR: How do you see data helping towards social change in the future?

BC: There’s a paradox I don’t think we can ignore as we move into the future of big data. On one side, big corporate data is being used unethically to target vulnerable people, benefit bad actors, and cause real harm. Recent US elections are an object lesson in the iniquity of data used for the wrong purpose.

But, like science, data itself isn’t inherently bad and there is much good it can do if wielded justly. Disciplines like epidemiology, public health, and ecology show us every day how large sets of unbiased data can help us identify and solve important problems. 

Recognising this paradox, however, technologists, scientists, and leaders must constantly engage with their community – all of it, not just the wealthy, white, or powerful portions – to make sure their innovation and use of data doesn’t run roughshod over the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. It’s vital that we remain vigilant, thoughtful, and connected.

TR: Do you have any predictions for the future of Salesforce and where the ecosystem is headed?

BC: I’ll speak to the backend more than customer-facing innovations. I love to see the growing number of declarative tools for admins to build on the platform. Maybe because I came to my current skills via that unexpected route (like many women and other underrepresented people in tech), it’s exciting that you don’t need a computer science degree to accomplish a lot.

I don’t know if it’s a prediction as much as a hope: I’d love to see new tools. training, and engagement for the “admin-eloper.” The move to command-line coding and complicated IDEs like Salesforce DX and Visual Studio, while the simpler tools are sunsetted, has left some of us scrambling (we will miss you, Mavensmate).

There’s a lot an advanced admin can accomplish in that middle ground, with an approachable development app (and wouldn’t a little training AI built-in help new coders a ton?!) I think we are a growing audience, so I hope to see something exciting there.

Finally, do you have any further comments or advice for those new to navigating the ever-changing world of Salesforce?

BC: That one’s easy! Be a learner: admit when you don’t understand and ask for help. Be willing to help others, because you will learn even more by teaching. That’s all pretty easy to do when you get involved in one of the many online or in-person communities in Salesforce-land. As for me, I’ll see you on the Power of Us Hub.