- After a traumatic brain injury, Sandi Nuss Zellner had to transform her life.
- To develop skills for a tech career, she used Trailhead, Salesforce’s free online learning platform, which features courses on everything from understanding artificial intelligence to mental health.
- For support during that process, Nuss Zellner leaned on Salesforce’s Trailblazer Community, a global network of millions who help each other learn new skills and thrive within the Salesforce ecosystem.
Sandi Nuss Zellner is obsessed with learning and teaching. A music teacher by trade for nearly 20 years, she’s driven by “exercising her brain.” So it was a cruel twist of fate in 2011 when Zellner fell at a Crossfit gym, which revealed an underlying condition that required brain surgery to survive.
The surgery and its aftermath required Nuss Zellner to overhaul her entire life — physically, mentally, personally, and professionally. More than a decade later, thanks to hard work and a strong, supportive community that includes Salesforce’s Trailblazer Community, Nuss Zellner is now thriving as an independent Salesforce consultant. But her transformation was anything but independent.
“It was like the person I used to be was dead”
Nuss Zellner’s fall in the gym revealed she had Chiari malformation, where the lower part of the brain pushes down into the spinal canal, and syringomyelia, when a cyst develops on the spinal cord. Those conditions affected her ability to walk straight, lose feelings in her limbs, and even focus her eyes. Doctors told her she needed to undergo brain surgery immediately.
“They think what happened was my brain actually got stuck outside my skull,” recalled Nuss Zellner. “If I didn’t have surgery within a few weeks, I would have become paralyzed from the neck down and even lose my ability to swallow.”
While the surgery saved her life, Nuss Zellner struggled to adapt to her new situation. For six weeks, she could barely get out of bed. By the time she was ready to return to work, her brain could no longer process the sensory overload involved with being a band teacher, so she had to quit teaching music. Losing her career identity quickly spiraled into other aspects of her life.
“Not only was work a part of my identity, but [the loss of my career] affected me as a mother because I felt like I couldn’t take care of my kids,” described Zellner, who has two children. “It was like the person I used to be was dead and I needed to figure out who this new person was. I was really glad to be alive but everything I knew was gone.”
Nuss Zellner struggled to find help and depression set in.
“There was a lot of denial. I tried to put on a brave face and ignore what was happening inside me. It took an incident to recognize I needed the help of friends, family, therapy, medical professionals, and medication. I needed to allow myself to grieve and recognize it’s okay to need help, accept help, and ask for help.”
She ended up being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety due to chronic illness.
Moving forward with a mission
During this time, Nuss Zellner also moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. While she wasn’t able to teach, she still craved being around music and began volunteering with Music Will, a nonprofit committed to bringing music education to underserved children. As it so happened, Music Will used Salesforce to manage their operations and one day, Nuss Zellner was asked to help with data entry.
“I had zero tech skills, but using Salesforce was something quiet I could do that still felt impactful to the mission,” said Nuss Zellner. “I was really excited to find there was this tool out there I could work on. I started to feel hope for the future.”
As Nuss Zellner’s interest in Salesforce grew, a mentor at the nonprofit suggested she attend “a little software conference” in San Francisco to learn more.
“Little did I know going to Dreamforce in 2014 would change my life. I was introduced to Trailhead — Salesforce’s free online learning platform — where I could follow a path of learning and get a cool badge after completing a course. At the time, I was in a mental vacuum and for the very first time, there was light at the end of the tunnel when it came to a new career for me.”
At the time, I was in a mental vacuum and for the very first time, there was light at the end of the tunnel when it came to a new career for me.Sandi Nuss Zellner, Salesforce Trailblazer, Locke Nuss Consulting
Forging new trails
Nuss Zellner fully committed herself to finding her new career through Trailhead. The platform’s gamified experience was a perfect match for her thirst for knowledge and she was soon learning the skills needed for jobs in the Salesforce ecosystem.
“Trailhead truly has been instrumental in my career development. It’s the foundation that has allowed me to balance my curiosity of how things work with actual knowledge and hands-on experiences. I know this sounds corny but Trailhead has been life rebuilding. It’s been very powerful for me.”
I know this sounds corny but Trailhead has been life rebuilding. It’s been very powerful for me.Sandi Nuss Zellner, Salesforce Trailblazer, Locke Nuss Consulting
“Trailhead is more than just a learning platform; it’s a driving force behind remarkable transformations,” said Kris Lande, SVP of Marketing, Community, & Content at Salesforce. “Seeing the incredible journeys of individuals like Sandi Nuss Zellner as they overcome obstacles and embrace digital skills reminds us of our mission to empower people from all backgrounds to forge dynamic careers in tech.”
Mental health awareness tools
For Nuss Zellner, Trailhead’s impact went far beyond professional — it also became deeply personal. The combination of the learning platform and the Trailblazer Community gave her the tools she needed to address her mental health.
“Trailhead gives you access to mental health information and some concrete steps to move forward, while providing a community who know how it feels, that it’s okay to talk about, and want to listen to you,” an emotional Nuss Zellner said through tears.
She also explained how they helped in her darkest hours.
“The Trailblazer Community got me through really hard times. They’re a collection of people I know I can turn to when I don’t know the answer. If I took a trip and wanted to have coffee with someone, I could go online and connect with different groups from all over the world, and even meet up in person. Pose a question in the community feed, someone will be there for you. They leave me speechless sometimes.”
The Trailblazer Community got me through really hard times. They’re a collection of people I know I can turn to when I don’t know the answer.Sandi Nuss Zellner, Salesforce Trailblazer, Locke Nuss Consulting
AI and the next Trailhead frontier
Nuss Zellner has since become someone that other Trailblazers seek out for help. Currently an independent Salesforce consultant helping businesses reach their goals, Nuss Zellner continues to use Trailhead to stay informed on the latest trends and technology, including artificial intelligence.
“I’m already seeing how AI can affect my daily work, from translating and summarizing client meetings or checking code. It can really help speed up processing time so we can focus on the human aspects of our jobs,” said Nuss Zellner.
“I’ve been using Trailhead to skill up on the basics of how AI works, what are natural language models, and how to use AI ethically and responsibly. If we’re using an AI tool, we need to understand how it works and how to securely handle company data with it. Trailhead helps me understand the questions I need to consider before I jump straight into using AI.”
If we’re using an AI tool, we need to understand how it works and how to securely handle company data with it. Trailhead helps me understand the questions I need to consider before I jump straight into using AI.Sandi Nuss Zellner, Salesforce Trailblazer, Locke Nuss Consulting
Thinking of her emotional and physical trauma, Nuss Zellner never would’ve expected she’d now be discussing pre-trained generative transformers and CRM, but as she’s quick to point out — sometimes the destination is the trail itself.
“There are so many things that are possible if you allow yourself some grace. Take a chance to understand what’s out there and don’t be in a rush. Things don’t always happen right away but if you take it one day at a time and keep going, you can make it happen.”
Learn more about the Trailblazer Community here.