Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 20, 2019, and is posted here in observance of Veterans Day, November 11, 2020.
You’re on duty, thousands of miles from home, under constant threat of enemy attack. You signed up for this, making personal sacrifices to serve your country. It’s an honor. But in those rare moments of downtime, you dream of life back home — a career, a family, a future.
Navy veteran Sheldon Simmons saw that future life in the pages of magazines he’d occasionally receive while aboard ship. He read articles about promising careers and saw that most of them related to technology. “In the Navy, I was an aircraft fueler, working aboard aircraft carriers, and we didn’t do anything tech-wise. Seeing that everything in the future was going to deal with technology, I thought, when I leave the military, I’m going to pursue a career in tech.”
After being discharged from the Navy, Simmons immediately enrolled in a community college in his hometown of Austin, Texas, to study computer programming. It was a promising start; however, life intervened. With a wife and son but no certainty of a job, tensions in his marriage led to a breakup that halted Simmons in his tracks. He stopped studying and took any job he could get. “I did whatever I could to make money, but I was struggling, trying to take care of my son and pay for an apartment. Still I was telling myself, ‘You have to get into tech. You have to go back to school and learn something with computers because this nine-dollars-an-hour stuff is not going to cut it.’”
Determined not to lose sight of that goal, Simmons re-enrolled in community college. Things began looking up after he nailed his final presentation in a class on Java programming, based on a website he’d created for his mother’s daycare business. That’s when a counselor who’d attended the presentation asked him if he knew anything about Salesforce and Merivis — a question that would change his life.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, I don’t want to sell anything,’ and she explained Salesforce isn’t like that — it’s tech. She knew I was a vet and told me how Merivis helped vets learn Salesforce. She said she was going to introduce me to this man named Hector Perez.”
Preparing veterans for their next mission
Perez is co-founder of Merivis, a non-profit, volunteer-driven veterans’ service organization. It focuses exclusively on preparing veterans for a career in Salesforce technology, through training, mentorship, and job-readiness guidance.
An Air Force veteran, Perez knows firsthand the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life. “One of the big challenges we see is when individuals exit the military, they don’t really know where to start. They don’t know about technology like Salesforce. They are unable to translate what they’ve done in the military to the business world. For example, they know all about teamwork, it’s table stakes for them, but they don’t know that’s actually a really desired skill set.”
Perez, his wife, Kate, and partner Joe Castro, created Merivis to help veterans understand the tremendous value they bring from their military experience. They provide a structured pathway to parlay that experience into a technology career. In fact, Merivis was inspired by a workforce development initiative for military veterans that Salesforce launched in 2014. An employee with Salesforce at the time, Perez volunteered to help set up the program.
Previously known as Vetforce, and now called Trailhead Military, the Salesforce program provides veterans with free online training in Salesforce. It also provides the opportunity for them to earn coveted Salesforce certifications. “I was so inspired by the potential of that program,” Perez says. “Salesforce was partnering with some nonprofits in the San Francisco area and a few others on the East Coast, but there weren’t any in my home state of Texas. I just felt I had to give back to the community that gave me so much, and with that in mind, I started Merivis.”
Merivis — which means “merit force” in Latin — was soon after established in Austin. Following a call from the counselor at Simmons’ community college, Perez invited Simmons to be part of the inaugural cohort of trainees.
Simmons recalls, “I was very skeptical because I had worked a lot of jobs and heard a lot of promises that always led to nothing. Hector told me if I didn’t believe him, then go online and look at the salaries for Salesforce administrators and developers.”
Realizing that Salesforce certification represented an opportunity to pursue a rewarding, stable career, Simmons was convinced to give Merivis a try. “You know, I was able to provide for my son, but I couldn’t get him everything I felt he needed. That bothered me — if someone was going to give me an opportunity and invest in me to learn something, I’m going to do it. I couldn’t pass this up.”
Keeping an eye on the big picture
Simmons and his fellow trainees embarked on their new mission to learn Salesforce, through a mix of online and in-person training. It wasn’t always easy: Simmons had to balance his study commitments with his recently-acquired night job at a semiconductor plant, sleeping in his car for the final week of onsite training.
Simmons finished the eight-week program. He was proud of his work, and excited about the possibilities of a career in Salesforce. All he had left was to take his first certification test.
Simmons remembers all too well: “I didn’t pass. Oh my goodness, I didn’t pass! I felt defeated, like a failure. I thought, maybe I should just do the semiconductor plant job. But that’s just not me. I had to get this certification.”
Several months went by, and Simmons took the exam again. This time, he passed, earning his first Salesforce certification as an administrator. Just a couple of months after that, he earned his Service Cloud Consultant certification, and began looking for a job.
Simmons connected with a local, veteran-owned Salesforce consultancy in Austin and began working as a paid intern. He shadowed a senior Salesforce administrator during his days off from the semiconductor plant, learning the ropes and honing his skills.
I started to realize that I could be a Salesforce consultant. I could do this. There are many different roles you can go into with Salesforce. You can be an admin, you can be a developer, or a consultant. That’s what I like—you don’t have to go into just one area. You have many options.Sheldon Simmons, Salesforce consultant
Ann Weeby, a senior director at Salesforce, leader of Salesforce Military, and veteran herself underscores this point: “When we started, the program was based on the premise that military veterans and spouses would make great Salesforce admins. And that was a really great place to start. Now we’re offering 13 certifications. We’re seeing that people coming through the program make great developers; they make great consultants. Eventually, we’ll have our first certified technical architect through the program. There was a time when we thought getting a veteran certified as a Salesforce admin was the finish line. Turns out, it’s just the beginning. There’s incredible potential for members of this community to really increase their knowledge and take their careers to a place they may not have previously thought possible.”
Salesforce certification changed everything for this veteran
One day, out of the blue, Simmons received a call from a fellow veteran in the first Merivis cohort. He had a tip on a job with a tech company that he thought might interest Simmons.
“I sent over my resume and got a call from the company that same day,” Simmons says. “I explained how I’d been doing consulting, and the whole interview went really well.”
However, the topic of salary had not come up in the conversation. Simmons called his buddy for advice. “I was thinking of asking for $40,000 or $50,000, and he says ‘Ask for $100,000.’ I thought this guy is going to get me fired before I even got hired. But he insisted I ask them for $100,000. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ ”
When the company called again, Simmons’s stomach was turning as they asked what he wanted for a salary. “I said, ‘I really would like $100,000 but I’m willing to settle for $50,000, $40,000.’ I felt like the worst dealmaker in the world. They just said, ‘Okay, we’ll call you back’ and I thought, they’re not going to call me back.”
The company did call back — in less than 15 minutes. They offered Simmons a starting salary of $92,000. He was finally on his way to a successful career in tech, as he had long envisioned since his days in the Navy.
How has life changed for Simmons since taking becoming a Salesforce consultant? For one thing, he’s been able to support his son the way he always wanted. He’s in a new committed relationship, and life is good.
“I think about the times I’d take any job I could get,” Simmons reflects. “Now jobs come looking for me. It’s completely flipped. Developing a skill that’s in demand and allows me to compete in the workforce — that’s what Salesforce has done for me.”
Continuing to grow opportunities for veterans and their spouses
Salesforce, through Trailhead for Military, and Merivis, continue to strengthen and grow opportunities for veterans through their respective workforce development programs. Salesforce saves seats in every in-person class so that military veterans or their spouses can earn their Salesforce certification free of charge.
Weeby points out, “By giving someone access to all of these classes and certifications, and enabling them to gain these incredible industry credentials, we can help veterans compete in the job market and put them either at or above their civilian peers.”
The Trailhead Military program has been a rousing success, with nearly 20,000 enrollees to date.
Merivis has also gained traction, complementing the online training with classroom instruction designed to help foster the sense of community many veterans miss from their military days. The Merivis program has now expanded beyond Austin to include Seattle, Washington, and Perez says the organization continues looking for other locations around the country. “I knew we were successful when we started having a waiting list of 30 or 40 people for each class,” he says.
As a result of both programs, there is a growing pipeline of Salesforce-certified veterans ready for their next mission in the Salesforce ecosystem. To further facilitate this transition, Salesforce recently launched another program, Salesforce Military Alliance, a collaboration with its customers and partners, to drive companies to hire military veterans and spouses.
Weeby explains, “The Alliance is designed to connect all these certified people to jobs. Our customers and partners are really stepping up in partnership with us and committing to automatic interviews for anyone who is certified through Trailhead for Military.”
The ultimate goal for both Trailhead Military and Merivis is to enable veterans and their spouses to find rewarding employment. Training and certification are the first step. Creating a path to a Salesforce career is another.
Perez recalls when he first recognized the impact Merivis and TrailheadMilitary were having on veterans. “The inflection point when I realized this was something bigger than any of us thought possible was at Dreamforce ’17. There were 10 members of our community, part of a larger contingent of 40 or 50 from Trailhead Military. It was a really inspiring moment for me when I looked at the faces of those individuals — a Navy veteran, an Army ranger, and on down the line — and saw how excited they were. I knew how transformational that moment was for them.”
Simmons sums it up best: “I always say that before I had a job, but now with Salesforce, I have a career. I’m so grateful. Salesforce and Merivis completely changed everything for me.”
For more on Salesforce’s military efforts, visit this blog post.