The Software Agents: Episode 17 - Salesforce - Marina Harrell, Director, Software Engineering - A Platform to Enable Anyone to Rebuild the World in Software

Most of our Software Agents focus on remaking one field. Marina Harrell has made a career of creating software that empowers people on many fronts to build, deploy and maintain software solutions that once would have been out of reach. She also launched a nonprofit, Code Edge, that brings free coding classes to kids in underserved communities.

Announcer: Welcome to The Software Agents. Meet the people who bring software to every aspect of life, society, and business, to handle the challenges of a transforming world.

Christina Noren: Welcome to The Software Agents, a new podcast on how software is helping the world survive and evolve right now, as told by the people who are making it happen. I'm Christina Noren, and my co-host is Paul Boutin.

Paul Boutin: Hello. Thanks for tuning in.

Christina Noren: The Software Agents is sponsored by Cloudbees, the enterprise software delivery company. Cloudbees provides the industry’s leading DevOps technology platform that enables developers to focus on what they do best—build stuff that matters.

So, today, I have the great pleasure of a guest that I've had the privilege of working with briefly in the past, Marina Harrell. She has decades of software development and engineering leadership experience, and was pointing the way towards automation and visibility before anybody else was, and she’s now an engineering leader at Salesforce. And so, you know, I felt like Salesforce is one of those platforms that’s letting us work asynch distributed these days, so she would definitely have a story to tell about what she and her team are doing in this age of the pandemic and everything else.

So, Marina, can you just briefly tell us a little bit about you and your background and then talk to us about what part of Salesforce you're responsible for the engineering of right now?

Marina Harrell: Hi Christina! It’s so good to talk with you today! So, let’s get started on my journey. So, I grew up in Washington D.C., and I started my career in software probably around the age of 16. I gained my first summer position while I was working with the Department of Navy, the Bethesda Naval Research Lab. And we were writing mathematical models in Fortran that allowed us to research materials of submarines that made them less detectable to our enemy.

So, while at the Department of Navy, I applied for a four year scholarship, I got it. And then I applied and I was accepted to NC State. You know, NC State is one of the best Computer Science and Engineering schools. And while there, I majored in Mathematics, took a couple of Computer Science courses. As part of my scholarship, I was expected to co-op. So, every semester, I would co-op with the Department of Navy, gaining my software skills, working with automation, writing mathematical models.

And during my time at NC State is when I started a part time position working with NIEHS, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. So, I was a student at NC State while I was working there, and we were building analytical models using SAS.

So, we fast forward through college, and my first few positions out of college, I was a software developer at various organizations. And I eventually was able to obtain my dream position at SAS. I held various roles at SAS; software development was one of my main roles that I held there.

And so, doing my role as a developer of a real time decision rules engine, I really gained an interest in improving developer productivity. We would have to push our code, we’d wait 24 hours before it would build, we had testers who would manually test our code, and it was very—it was just a long process.

So, I got this interest into developer productivity while I was at SAS. So, I started working in an organization across all of our developers. I joined a Java technology board, and working along with some of my colleagues, we started to improve the developer productivity experience of our developers in terms of how they implement their code, how they test it, how they build it, and also how they deploy it.

So, for about 10 years, I worked on improving the developer productivity. So now, developers are developing code a whole lot faster. And so, what’s next to tackle? It’s the improvement of our testing.

So, I applied for a role in the Testing Division at SAS as a manager, and that particular department was starting its journey into the DevOps space. You know, building the software, deploying it automatically, running tests against it. So, I was really excited about being able to expand my work with developer productivity and to the testing realm.

So, I took that position, I started with three employees who were also excited about that journey, and we started just by beginning to introduce to the rest of the testing organizations automation servers like Jenkins starting to work to develop a common data mark that would allow our development and testing teams to easily report on the results of their test.

So, my team began to introduce this concept of DevOps into the testing organization. And with the support of my leadership ,we gained a large following and we had testing teams coming on board implementing Jenkins across the organization. Just really starting that DevOps transformation.

And I'll have to say, one of the most important things that I've seen when you're starting to transform an organization towards DevOps from more of a legacy software development process, it really takes the support of your leadership to get behind you. And so, at that time, our VP of our Testing organization, she was really instrumental in helping pave the way for us to be able to promote our digital transformation journey.

So, after doing that for about six years, my team grew from a team of 3 to a team of 35, and we had a team of automation software testers, we had a deployment automation team, and we had a test automation tool team, and then we had an infrastructure as code automation team. So, we really put all of the tools together that allowed you to go from end to end implementing your code all the way to deploying your code and really starting this journey.

And so, I got really excited because I looked out and I saw this wonderful position at Cloudbees. So, by happenstance, I decided—hey, I think I want to productize this whole journey of our digital transformation.

So, I took a position at Cloudbees and I became a manager of an engineering team, and that’s where I met a wonderful role model. So, while I was at Cloudbees, I had the opportunity to work with Christina, and I'll tell you this story about her. She came to me one day, and she said, "Oh—software delivery management. If I'm out one day, I want you to deliver my speech at this Power to Fly conference.” And I said to myself, "I've only been here for like a month. [Laughter] She really has trust in me being able to do that.”

So, I took the information around the software delivery management software that Cloudbees was developing and I really, really dived into the concept. And then I realized, when I looked at the concept of software delivery management, I said, "That’s the problem that I've been trying to solve since I was a SAS.”

Christina Noren: I think anyone thoughtful about—you know, about how they go about the business of developing software and seeing all the problems has some inkling that we can build software to solve that problem.

But actually, so, all the inspiration for software delivery management was to do for software development what Salesforce, where you are now, did over the last few decade for sales and revenue management and customer relationship management. So, I kinda want to fast forward you and thank you for that time at Cloudbees, but you know, tell us about what you're doing at Salesforce today.

Marina Harrell: Well, I'll tell you, Salesforce is just, the role that I have now at Salesforce is pretty much a more enterprise level of solving the developer experience. So, I currently am the Director and Software Engineering Manager for two teams that work within our Salesforce DX product. So, let me tell you—

Christina Noren: What is DX?

Marina Harrell: - yes, I was just about to tell you. Let me tell you what Salesforce DX is. Salesforce DX is pretty much our developer experience for how our customers build Salesforce applications. So, whether you're an individual developer who’s working alone or you're working with a large team, what Salesforce DX does, it provides you with an integrated end to end life cycle designed for high performance agile development. And, best of all, what we've done with Salesforce DX is that we've built it such that it’s open and flexible and you can build it together with some of the tools that you love like Git and some of the other VS Code tools that you love.

And so, as part of that Salesforce DX experience, when you go from code to merging to testing and deploying the components that my team works on are called scratch orgs and sandboxes. And what we do is, we provide these environments—scratch orgs, they're just temporary environments that you will start up and you will write your code, you'll pull it down from your repositories and then you do your development, your Salesforce application development, you test it, and then those, they go away.

And then once you've tested your applications using this disposable environment of what we call a scratch org, then you're able to take your production application, your production Salesforce application and utilize what the other part of my team develops, which is called a Salesforce sandbox. And that is the environment where you do your customization and your testing. That allows you to build with trust, it allows you to boost your admin and developer productivity and deliver a better innovative experience for your customers.

Christina Noren: So, let’s move on to what’s happened in terms of what your user customer needs are, how that’s translated into any changes or what you're developing, and how things have changed for your team doing the work, if they have, you know, in the time since we all went into lockdown. So, I imagine a lot of Salesforce customers using your product and all of Salesforce product were not as distributed as we're used to being going into this. And so, I’d imagine there’s impacts.

Marina Harrell: Well, I'll tell you, you know, our world, it is currently in crisis. And I know that businesses are leaning on their developers to build more new and innovative products.

But one of the challenges that we have is custom development on most of these platforms is hard, and it limits developer productivity and output. But it’s our developers who are building Salesforce apps. Salesforce DX is that solution that allows them to build more faster and build from anywhere with an open tooling and you're able to test and trust in the secure environments that my team develops, and it pretty much allows you to simplify your DevOps to allow our customers to release more and faster.

Christina Noren: So, let’s get into some of that a bit, because that’s where I think it gets interesting for our listeners. So, if I translate what you said in some other terms, it’s—Salesforce customers are in every industry and in every industry, which really has been the theme of this podcast through all the episodes, we're seeing things that didn't used to be software that were physical processes, whether it’s physical commerce to e-commerce, whether it’s physical operations on a factory floor to automation.

And so, you have a lot of organizations that suddenly, you know, they're not necessarily software companies, but have some software developers, but suddenly need to do more in software. And what I'm hearing you say is that some of these customers are able to use the DX platform and build software apps more easily than if they didn't have that platform. So, there’s a big shift that we're seeing underway of physical jobs going away and software and digital jobs being created, and not everybody had the opportunity and the access and the skills and the knowledge and the intelligence you had to, at 16, start studying software development and go to NC State. You know, some of us got our degrees in Business degrees and now need to figure out how to write software.

Marina Harrell: One thing I do love about the Salesforce platform is the Apex language.

Christina Noren: Mm-hmm.

Marina Harrell: The beautiful thing about that is, we have a low code solution, and we have a high code solution. So, using the Salesforce platform, individuals and customers who may not have software experience or who are a little bit limited who are transitioning from other disciplines, they're able to utilize our low code pathway within Salesforce in order to build applications. You don’t have to worry about setting up your infrastructure. It’s a cloud native application, so it allows you to easily spin up a complete Salesforce app.

Christina Noren: Can you give an example? Are there any examples you can talk about of customers that have built things since the COVID crisis started to hit that they've been able to be responsive and build something that you think is truly cool on the platform?

Marina Harrell: Well, I'll tell you one thing that I think is truly cool is, I don't know, maybe—probably earlier this summer, there was an announcement about our new offering that we've done with Salesforce called Work.com. And Work.com was born and delivered during this pandemic time. It provides you with the essential solutions that are designed to help businesses reopen the workplace as quickly as possible. You're able to track your employee wellness, and it allows companies to assess their readiness to return to work as well as contact tracing.

And I will tell you, in the middle of all of the Work.com development, it probably was about, maybe it took us a month or so to use our own tooling and our own Salesforce DX platform in order to spin up Work.com.

Christina Noren: That’s great. That’s a great example. So, in terms of how Salesforce, a Salesforce development organization like you is working, were you working in an office? I know you still live in North Carolina—were you working in a Salesforce office with a team that you were collocated with or were you distributed before the lockdown?

Marina Harrell: I was working in an office. Most of my team is in Raleigh. Some of my other team are distributed in San Francisco as well as Colorado. So, we were working in an office.

Christina Noren: So, how did—you know, you've been working on developer productivity and tooling and DevOps and automation for so long. So, I imagine even if you weren’t working in an office, you know, you weren’t allowing a lot of gaps in that process. But did you find anything that you had to change about how you worked when you didn't go into the office any more?

Marina Harrell: I think one of the things that we had to change was the way that our team communicated with one another. We had to find—you know, when we were in the office, we were pretty close together. We're a close knit team. And so, we had to really figure out ways in which we could transform that closeness into having the same experience while we were all working in a distributed fashion.

Christina Noren: And how did you make that change?

Marina Harrell: Well, I'll tell you one thing we did, just a simple thing that we did. Every day, we used to have lunch. And so, now, every day, we still have lunch. We have a water cooler lunch at the same time every day, and at the same time, everyone showed up at the lunch room table. It’s what we do now. We show up in our virtual water cooler-slash-lunch.

Christina Noren: Mm-hmm.

Marina Harrell: Although I'm trying to get the team to stop talking about work. [Laughter]

Christina Noren: [Laughter] Yeah, I think we found that working distributed at Cloudbees, too, that we wanted to create that bonding and some managers were good at doing it, but there was always a tendency that—okay, this is official work panels and so forth, so yeah.

So, I'm curious, you know, implicit in what you said earlier is that, you know, while there’s been a general drive towards a continuum of low code to traditional platforms in our industry and lowering the barriers or development, and Salesforce has certainly been at the forefront of that, but like so many such trends, there’s suddenly new need and more need and different needs for that thing that we were doing already.

So, I imagine there are projects the customers are spinning up that they wouldn’t have thought of, pre-pandemic. And so, you probably have new users and training. What are the—are there any impacts to that you're building or how you're supporting the platform because of the pandemic driven increase or different usage?

Marina Harrell: Well, I'll tell you this. When you asked your question about how we've done things more, I will just tell you that Q2 for Salesforce was a really good quarter. [Laughter] And so, that tells me that our customers are using Salesforce a lot more, even during the pandemic.

Christina Noren: Well, that’s why I was excited to talk to you about it in terms of what you're doing now, because I assume that, because I think, you know, Salesforce is one of those platforms that if—I mean, even an inside sales team, and I've been around a lot of inside sales teams in my life, you know, they're supposed to track things in Salesforce, but they're sitting in a bull pen and I've worked doing product next to the inside sales bull pen in multiple companies. And they're trading notes with their manager and so forth, and they're not doing a great job of really using the systems. And you know I became technical years ago with 4GL tools, building my own proto-Salesforce, so dealing with populating Salesforce.

But just like software engineers, you know, that had Post-its for agile, you don’t get to behave that way any more. So, I'm assuming that’s behind some of Salesforce’s benefiting from this, you know, we're all working distributed.

Marina Harrell: Oh, absolutely. I really think that just that alone with the good quarter that we had in Q2, which was during the whole pandemic, I really think that is a demonstration that our customers still have faith in us, even during this pandemic, and that they're home and they're able to use us more.

I don't know if it’s because they're home and they're not out and they're in front of their computers and they're using Salesforce to drive their sales from a virtual perspective. I can’t really say, but I know that the numbers speak for those sales.

Christina Noren: Yeah, I [Cross talk] and I think that’s part of the point of this podcast, too, is I think this is where what Salesforce is for the business half of the organization, you know, Cloudbees is becoming for the development half of the organization.

Marina Harrell: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Christina Noren: And, you know, both had earlier phases of development in our industry where we didn't think we needed systems and we could, you know, talk to each other in the hallway or have update meetings or all have our own spreadsheets or whatever. And I think the podcast and the distributed work, it forces us to do what we should've been doing anyway.

Marina Harrell: I would agree with that.

Christina Noren: Yeah, yeah. So, Paul, what are your thoughts so far?

Paul Boutin: I don’t have much to add. It’s really great to hear how the developer experience is such a focus, which of course leads to, in the end, so many better business outcomes and customer experiences, and just hearing how you do it is terrific.

Christina Noren: Well, I'm gonna embarrass Paul a little bit because, you know, I think there’s the first time developers and then there’s the returning developers, and Paul this year has been getting his hands dirty with development and was a software engineer in the ‘80s, you know? [Laughter] So, and I think Paul, you know, you've experienced how different these platforms are today.

Paul Boutin: That’s true. I just had a conversation with someone about how we've both found ourselves finally giving up Emacs for coding and using Visual Studio Code, except for those times when we know exactly how to do this in Emacs, and would never go back. It’s amazing how empowering these sort of suites can be and they're sort of bringing things together in APIs and connecting everything to everything else and thinking big picture.

But I think most of our listeners know that, and it’s great that this stuff exists so that people can bring it into areas where before, it would've just been impossible. It’s great that people are turning to Salesforce, because there are things that they would not be able to do without these sort of platforms.

Christina Noren: So, I have another thought I want to ask a question about, Marina. I think our guests so far have been split between what I would say are hardcore software engineers and software developers who are doing something for the world right now with that skill set in one domain or another. And then people who are maybe a little bit more like me than like you or Paul, you know, which are people who’ve gotten their hands dirty over the years with tools that are more accessible and done, you know, whether it was called 4GL or low code, you know, we've done that kind of thing. And a number of those guests are doing things where, you know, Salesforce didn't come up as a brand name, but some of it I know behind the scenes is, whether they're building a grant management system for philanthropy or they're building a global child helpline for tracking, you know, for handling children who are facing higher levels of abuse at home and tracking that from a case management perspective, and those are both CRM use cases. And people are taking tools like Salesforce and bending them to those needs.

And so, I guess my, I think that there are people who are gonna be listening to this podcast who are inspired to solve particular problems and maybe they would think of adopting Salesforce and building Salesforce applications as a platform.

So, if someone is in that spot where they wanna solve a particular world problem that smells like a flavor of CRM type processes, where do they start with Salesforce? Like, what’s the URL to go start to, you know, to turn yourself from an analytically minded person into a Salesforce developer and an Apex developer?

Marina Harrell: Well, I would say that they would just start with Salesforce.com, and if you go out to Salesforce.com, we have what we call trailheads. And our trailheads are pretty much free for all of our customers, and many of our trailheads—that’s one thing I really love about Salesforce is their platform for learning. It’s very easy for anyone to go out to Salesforce and step into one of our trailheads about any one of our products and just really start on our Customer 360 journey of learning the components and becoming what we call a trailblazer. There are various levels of trailblazers.

But I would say you would go out to Salesforce.com and just start to read about some of our trailheads that talks about some of our products.

Christina Noren: And it doesn’t cost a lot as a very small, you know, two or three user would be organization to be a Salesforce customer, you know, because you don’t have to be Ford or GM to do it, right?

Marina Harrell: That is absolutely correct.

Christina Noren: Actually, I have one last thing to ask, because I think it’s interesting. Let me correct that.

So, Marina, aside from your professional journey, which is awesome that you've taken us through, I know that you're very involved in different organizations to help other people get on that journey. Can you tell us a little bit about some of your extracurricular activities?

Marina Harrell: Sure, absolutely. Yeah, I'm really excited to talk about my nonprofit. In 2012, my husband and I were in search of computer programming training for our two sons. And usually at about that time, what we were finding is that training camps were costing about $1,500.00 to $1,800.00 for a week at a university.

So, we got to thinking—you know, children who look like our children, African-American children, they cannot afford to be able to be exposed to computer programming at $1,500.00 to $1,800.00 a pop. And so, my husband, he’s also in programming. So, we decided that we would start a nonprofit, and our nonprofit is called Code Edge. And the purpose of our nonprofit is to introduce some of our underserved school age communities who don’t have access to these type of camps who can’t afford to pay for these type of camps. What we do is, we partner with community organizations to come in and teach computational thinking.

And one of the great things about it is, my husband and I are both in computer programming, and so we're great African-American role models in the industry. And I think that’s pretty impactful for our students who are African-American to be able to see themselves in this field of computer programming.

So, while the pandemic has put a halt on our in-person workshops, we've had the beauty of being able to partner with a company here in the Raleigh area, and they're helping us move our in-person workshops into a more virtual setting to allow us to continue the mission of our nonprofit.

Christina Noren: That’s exciting. That’s very exciting. Well, thanks for telling us about that, and definitely, good luck with that. And is Code Edge a nonprofit, is it something that our listeners can help support?

Marina Harrell: So, if our listeners would like to support us, you can go to www.codeedge.com, and that will allow you to—hmm. Back it up again. [Laughter] I'm so glad we can edit this out. Okay.

If you’d like to support us, you can go to www.codeedge.org, and there, you can send us an e-mail and we're actually working on a volunteer portal. So, you'll be able to sign up and volunteer.

Christina Noren: So, if our listeners want to help teach these classes, they can do that, too.

Marina Harrell: You can absolutely do that. You can send an e-mail to Marina.Harrell@codeedge.org. And my e-mail address is also on the website.

Christina Noren: Great. And Code Edge is two e’s in the middle, or one e?

Marina Harrell: Yeah, two e’s in the middle.

Christina Noren: Well, this has been wonderful. You know, I think it’s, you have an inspiring journey and the interesting thing we're really touching on is, what you're doing is, in a meta way, supporting the world turning from physical to digital and both in your work at Salesforce and your work with Code Edge, you're making sure that people don’t get left behind in that journey and that they can be part of this movement to rebuild our world in software.

Marina Harrell: Absolutely. One of the missions of Code Edge is to, number one, engage our underserved youth population in that interest of computer programming, and we also want to dedicate ourselves to provide our local youth with affordable opportunities, and then that’ll allow them to gain a self-awareness and confidence through these hands on experiences, and then they can excel in computer technologies and hopefully, maybe, pursue a study in the field of mathematics, engineering, and science. So, we call it our Edge Principle.

Christina Noren: That’s fantastic. Thanks, again, Marina. It’s wonderful to talk to you, always, and it was fun to explore what you're up to now and thank you for the time and thank Salesforce for making you available to us.

Marina Harrell: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

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