Salesforce Career Conversations #11: Vera Loftis
Episode 11: Vera Loftis talks to Lee and Theresa about her Salesforce career growing up in Bluewolf and her next exciting venture with Solution Junkies.
Lee Durrant: Hello, it‘s Lee Durrant here again with the new episode of RODcast. I‘m joined by my co–host, Theresa. In this episode, we spend time with Vera Loftis, who is Salesforce royalty, so you‘re in for a bit of a treat.
She talks us through her career at Bluewolf, where she rose to be the managing director of the UK Bluewolf before they were acquired, and how she‘s getting on now through COVID. Her plans for the future with her new company and what she thinks will happen in the ecosystem.
Vera Loftis: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Lee: Thanks for saying yes. I‘m honoured.
Lee: I should tell everybody, we‘re still in the middle of the COVID thing, we‘re in the middle of lockdown, so this is a chat about your career in Salesforce, which will inspire a lot of people. It‘ll also have a COVID-related lockdown theme to it too.
Let‘s talk about your career if you don‘t mind, up until COVID. What we normally ask is how you got into Salesforce.
Vera: Of course, and I‘m probably interesting in that I fell into it. It‘s the easiest way to describe it. When I was in school, I thought I was going to be this very glamorous marketer PR person. All of my internships in college, I had internships with publishing companies doing PR. I did marketing for a magazine, and it all seemed fairly glamorous at the time. When I got out of school, I was a marketing coordinator for a not-for-profit, which was slightly less glamorous, I‘ll be honest. It‘s quite funny because, at the time, I didn‘t realise not-for-profits work in a very lean environment.
I was young, and I wanted to do all of this ambitious stuff. When I started the role, it was described to me that this is marketing plus. I was like, “Marketing plus? That sounds interesting.“ What they meant by marketing plus was marketing plus customer service. We ran an alumni club in New York, and there was a part of the appeal for being a member of the club. It had a tiny hotel, I think, 12 rooms – half of my job was giving people tours of the hotel, and answering the call when they ran out of towels, and things like that.
It got to a point where I thought, “I‘ve probably delivered enough towels. I don‘t think I‘m doing the marketing as such.“ I was just looking for a change. At that point in time, I didn‘t know where to go from there. I was an English major in school, so I already was confused about what I wanted to do when I grew up. Then when this marketing job didn‘t pan out to be exactly what I was hoping for, I just started looking around randomly. I was lucky in that my cousin was a consultant, not necessarily in the Salesforce space.
He worked for Anderson at the time, but he said to me, “You should get into consulting.“ I went to a school where consulting was something that the smart kids did, so I had never considered myself part of that tier of hires.
He broke it down for me; he was like, “Consulting is just problem-solving. It‘s somebody who can get into what people need, can get people to open up about how they need to operate, and then try to help them do that in a better way. We had a couple of conversations about it, and I thought, “You know what? I‘m just going to go for it.“
He had put me in touch with Bluewolf. I interviewed at that time with Eric, and I remember I was so scared because I thought there would be all of these consulting questions. I had read online that they were going to ask me all of these strange things. To be fair, he did ask me one, which was how many ping pong balls I thought there were in America? I had prepared for how many tennis balls were on an aeroplane, but I hadn‘t prepared for that one. I had realised that, luckily, thank God it wasn‘t about mass. It was about how you work the problem through.
I went back and googled the number, and I was about 50 times off. Luckily, that didn‘t keep me from getting the job. From there, I just fell into it. I remember my first day at Bluewolf; I hadn‘t heard of Salesforce.
I started, and they put me straight on to an admin course. I think I came home that first day and thought, “Oh my God, I‘ve done something wrong. What have I done?“ I did not understand what people were talking about at all. At the time, Bluewolf did official admin training for Salesforce, so there were many partners in the room. There were people who had worked on Salesforce for a long time.
They‘re asking these questions, and they might as well have been speaking a foreign language because I was utterly confused.
Lee: Sorry to interrupt you. Can you timeline this? This is around 2007. I‘m looking at your LinkedIn profile.
Vera: Yes, it must‘ve been.
Lee: You got an idea of how it works right at the beginning of it?
Vera: Yes. This is a good testament to Salesforce, a little shout-out here. By the time I finished that week because the admin course back then was a week, I came home on the Friday, and I was like, “Pfft, I get this. This is great. I could go do this.“ It was a completely different attitude towards it. In that week, my perspective on not only Salesforce but I think technology completely shifted, which was amazing. That was the first moment where I thought, “Yes, I think this is going to be a good move.“
Lee: That‘s usually my next question. That was when the penny dropped, and you thought, “Yes, this is me“?
Vera: Yes, which is funny because if you had asked me when I was younger, what I thought I was going to be when I grew up, and you had told me it was going to be A, a consultant, and B, in technology, I would have laughed at you. People who work with me can tell you I‘m not necessarily the most tech-savvy person. I struggle on a Zoom call, but I do know how to configure Salesforce. I don‘t know what that says about me. That was the beginning of what will inevitably be the rest of my career.
Lee: You mentioned Eric. Bluewolf had an interesting policy in the early days, in that it didn‘t look to hire experienced consultants, from what I‘ve heard.
Vera: That‘s absolutely true. I remember because I was quite young and quite green back then, I remember my first day on the job, Eric came up to me, and he‘s like, “What do you think you‘re going to do for us?“ I was like, “Oh my God, I was hoping somebody was going to tell me what I was going to do because I have no idea. I don‘t know what you people do.“ It did take a little while for Bluewolf to work out what to do with me, just because I was so out of my depth, I think. It was interesting because Eric took a chance on a lot of young kids at that time.
It‘s down to what you make of it. I think those companies are amazing for the people who are self-motivated and can just work things out. Remember, because no one knew what to do with me, I was doing database entry for my first couple of months. We had a system called OpenAir, which was for time tracking. I was just literally going through and cleaning up data, and calling PMs, and saying, “You‘ve got two hours left on your project. Is that an accident? Do you want to close it out?“ Then I quickly realised I hate this. I cannot continue to do this.
I would loan myself out to the other architects and salespeople. I would just say, “Look, take me on your meeting. I‘ll go, I‘ll take your notes. I‘ll do all the stuff you don‘t want to do. I‘ll do all of your config, all the grunt work.“ Then eventually, that turned into a role, and then that was the birth for us, at least, of what the business analyst role became. My job in the early days, I ran something called BA University, which was all about trying to repeat that process in an accelerated way.
How you take kids either early in their careers or right out of school and turn them into productive consultants by teaching them how to configure, take notes, and act in a meeting. All of that useful stuff, which was quite fun because you did get to see people, almost become a completely different person in the span of six months, which is inspiring.
Teresa: I suppose an unusual way, but a very good way of doing it because it‘s almost the people that are self-motivated like you where you‘re just thinking, “I cannot do this data entry role for the rest of my life“. It spurs you on to want to go and learn more and do more. I suppose from a consultancy point of view, you want those people that are motivated to go out and do that and seek out the projects and the challenges. It‘s a foundation.
Teresa: Just out of interest, do you remember the first Salesforce project you managed to get your teeth into? Does that stick in your mind at all?
Vera: Yes. It‘s funny. I can tell you about almost every project I‘ve been on. I get quite personal with them, which is not advice I would give to anybody else. I can remember my first big deal. It was funny because we went through a process. It was quite a big oil and gas company, and they had a lot of due diligence, as you would imagine. I think they interviewed seven or eight PMs. At the time, I was maybe six months into that role specifically. They‘d interviewed everybody by phone. Thank God for me, because I looked about 12.
They put everybody through the wringer and then told Eric, “We‘ve picked Vera to run the project.“ I remember we kicked off in our offices in New York, and they came. You could tell the shock on their face when they realised who they had picked. The smile on Eric‘s face when he saw their reaction was hilarious. To be fair, they had done massive amounts of due diligence. I think we had to interview two or three times, so they couldn‘t go back and say, “We didn‘t want a kid.“
It was intense. Probably it went on for a year, which back then, Salesforce projects just did not last that long. It was a fairly complex build, and it had a lot of integration. It had a whole MDM process they were putting in place. They had a system called Nirvana Soft, which I‘m not even sure exists anymore, which was their backend ERP. The complexity with it is, in oil and gas, you offer a price, and that price is worth trading for about two hours. The whole system between the sales team, the trading desk, the back office, everybody lining up behind these numbers and these volume predictions is quite intense.
It has to work. If that integration goes down, the whole process is disrupted. It was good because it threw me into the deep end in terms of managing a big project. It also taught me a lot about integration, which I think in terms of advice I would give. If you look at the Salesforce world, it‘s quite easy, especially as a PM, to stay at a surface level. You‘re managing tasks, you‘re managing activities and people, and you are not diving into anything at any depth.
That project taught me that if you understand how this works as a project manager, your life becomes a lot easier because from then on, I knew so much about data integration. We had to do all of this custom development to get these things to work, that I could go on to any project and know if something was going to be off. You‘re telling me that‘s going to take you two weeks. No, there‘s never in a million years it is going to take you two weeks. I do think that‘s a good piece of advice for people, especially in the world of Salesforce where everything is so intertwined, don‘t get stuck in your role.
Be inquisitive about how all of this fits together because regardless of what you do on a project, it will benefit you for sure.
Lee: Picking on the first project, is there a particular project that you can think of in your early career that was a real challenge, or would it be the same one?
Vera: They were all challenges, which is the exciting thing about being a consultant. If this were easy, everybody would do it. That was a challenge for me outside of the technical space, just because they had a third-party PM, which is, I think, always a difficult situation when you‘ve got a contractor who‘s managing the client. In the early days, this woman was called Deb. I was scared of her because she was quite intense. I was thinking, “Oh my God, she‘s going to find out that I don‘t know what I‘m doing.“
It took us a little while to get in the rhythm of things, but it ended up being one of those situations where she probably taught me 90% of what I know about being a PM. She was amazing at her job. She had high expectations. She wanted you to perform well, but she was willing to put in the work, which I quite frankly was surprised about because she didn‘t work for Bluewolf. She didn‘t owe me anything. She spent quite a lot of time just refining how much I prepped for meetings and how detailed my agendas were. Little things that you think, in the course of a project, “Does that matter?“
She would hone in on these things with me. She was quite detail-oriented, and it made me realise by following her methodology a little bit, everything got easier as time went on. Kudos to Deb. I should call her and just say thank you.
Lee: do you keep in touch with her?
Vera: I don‘t. I should. It was definitely one of those moments because you always think mentors come from within your industry or organisation. That was one of those moments where she took me under her wing with no questions asked and gave me more knowledge than I could have ever hoped to gain out of a single project.
Lee: It‘s funny you say it because one of the questions is, do you consider that you have a mentor or a role model? I know there‘s probably never just one. I would have assumed it would have been some senior person at Bluewolf. It probably still is, but then you have difficult customers here and there that don‘t even realise that they‘ve possibly been role models for you.
Vera: Yes, completely. I think it‘s a good thing to consider where you look for mentors. I think you‘re right; I have a ton. I‘ve been lucky, especially with people like Jolene, who led the delivery team at Bluewolf, that she was very similar to Deb. She was patient with me; she coached me through tons of stuff; she advocated for me.
I look at my hiring manager or look at a peer of mine or somebody within my organisation’s four walls. I also think mentorship doesn‘t have to be this big thing. I don‘t have to necessarily go to you and say, “Lee, can you be my mentor? I want to call you for 30 minutes every week.“ There can be moments of mentorship, and I think people would be better suited to seek those in their daily lives, as opposed to always trying to create something semi-unnatural outside of it. A product is a great place to do it. You live and die with these people every day, and you‘re quite often in difficult and stressful situations. To be able to look at a client and say, “Look, I want feedback in this process. Do you think I handled that well? What do you think that we or I could be doing better?“
Sometimes we‘re so afraid to show vulnerability to the client, but we’re all people at the end of the day, and everybody wants feedback. Everybody wants to feel like they‘re progressing professionally and personally. I think we‘d be surprised to see how many clients would be open to that type of relationship.
Teresa: Absolutely. I suppose role models, as you said, they come in all different shapes and sizes. They come from sometimes the most surprising places as well, and they don‘t have to be within your industry just to have a good influence on you. I find role models can be very situational, depending on what situation you‘re in. Then you‘ll look for the person who you think does that well.
Lee: I don‘t mean to make your head swell, but in this job, I speak to many people that maybe you‘ve influenced over the years. You probably wouldn‘t even know it.
Vera: I think I‘m a terrible mentor. It‘s funny you say that because people ask me all the time, “Oh, can you be my mentor?“ I‘m like, “I‘m happy to do it, but I am rubbish at it just as a warning,“ because you feel a little bit of pressure to give people career advice. I always feel like people are looking for this magic answer that I definitely don‘t have. That‘s good to know that I haven‘t absolutely screwed it up.
Lee: No, because, as I said, it‘s not official. If they make it as you say, every Friday for half an hour, we sit and talk, and you‘ve got to give me pearls of wisdom, it just doesn‘t feel natural. But I‘m sure you‘re passing on that wisdom without knowing it in different situations.
Teresa: It‘s only natural that people would admire other people that are doing the job well. The fact that the people around you are admiring you means that you are doing a good job and that in itself is feedback. Sometimes we don‘t often look for that side of feedback. You need that constant reinforcement from perhaps a line manager or something, but there are other ways that you can get it, and that‘s very interesting.
Lee: We‘ll have to ask you something that I forgot to put in the notes you prepared for, but do you suffer from imposter syndrome?
Vera: Oh my God, yes. I think I‘ve suffered that my whole life, though. Nothing to do necessarily with Salesforce. It‘s funny; I was telling my husband early on; my biggest fear in life is that people will find out that I‘m not that smart.
In some ways, it‘s quite good because it‘s what drives me. I was afraid that people would realise it wasn‘t smart, so I just worked hard. In every aspect of my life, I‘m always either thinking I‘m doing it wrong or feeling like, I think I‘m doing it right, but that‘s only just because I‘m faking it to some level.
I don‘t think anybody walks into a room and just feels super. Maybe people do, and that‘s amazing for them, but walking into a room and just being like, “Yes, I know everything there is to know. Ask me anything.“ No, of course not. I‘m scared.
Teresa: The thing is, though, I don‘t think anyone would want to admit that because they‘re opening themselves up to challenges. If they walk into a room and say, “I know everything,“ there‘s always going to be someone else who wants to catch them out.
Vera: Oh, completely. I completely agree.
Lee: You‘d be surprised, Vera. I thought you would say that because I know you well enough, but I think people who don‘t know you would look at your profile would be surprised to hear you say that.
Vera: It‘s funny; somebody asked me recently because we do the Solution Junkies live show every week on LinkedIn. Somebody was like, “Oh my God, you‘re such a great facilitator. It‘s just so natural for you.“ I was like, “Are you joking? I am sweating. You can‘t see it because, luckily, you can‘t see it on the camera, but I‘m sweating before going on to those things. Every time I present, I‘m nervous.
Teresa: I suppose you need that in those situations because you just don‘t know what situation you‘re walking into.
Vera: If you‘re not pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, you‘re doing it wrong. If there are not points in the week where you‘re like got to hope this goes well, then what are you doing it for?
Lee: The only thing we can do is bring the best version of ourselves to that situation. If it goes wrong, then you know at least you tried.
Lee: Let‘s talk about your rise at Bluewolf – it was phenomenal, wasn‘t it?
Vera: I think so.
Lee: It certainly looked like it from the outside looking in. Tell us about that through to relocating over to the UK at some point; how did that happen?
Vera: A lot of people are like, “Oh, what‘s the secret? Tell us, how did you do it?“ It‘s not down to me. I think that is a massive testament to Bluewolf, I would say, and to Eric and Jolene‘s vision at the time. It was very much a company that empowered people.
It empowered people every day on projects, and it empowered people to accelerate their careers, and it trusted you to be an adult. That was the baseline.
Until you lost that trust, everybody just assumed we‘re all adults here. Everybody is going to get their stuff done; everybody is going to be a rock star. You prove me different, then yes, I‘ll have to micromanage you. Until then, you‘re left to operate as you see fit. I remember in the early days, I had a depressing 20s because I just worked all the time, and I‘m quite career-driven.
At that point in my life, I wanted to grow fast. I remember I used to take on multiple projects. I would bill 100 hours in a week easy, just because I‘d have two full-time projects, and then I would do playbooks, training materials at the weekend because you can just watch TV and screenshot, and it‘s not as mind consuming. I was just set that once I had gotten into that environment, I would maximise it.
I would take any project. I would take any role which I think is also another good piece of advice. I was a PM at the time, but if somebody needed somebody to run a training session, I would do it.
I was the go-for for everything, and I just became this good utility player, which was great for Bluewolf because, in a pinch, I could always do whatever was needed. For me, it was amazing because it meant that I, without realising it, was learning to operate in every aspect of a project.
I think that‘s, probably later on in my career, what helped me accelerate even further because there wasn‘t stuff I didn‘t quite understand how it worked. I had done everything. For me, it was about how hard I was willing to work.
Bluewolf was amazing about recognising that, and seeing that, and giving you the opportunities to grow.
I remember I moved from BA University and went from managing a small team of grads into a delivery of director role quickly. I was managing a whole team of 50 or 60 people at one point in time, across the whole of the West Coast.
There was never a question in Bluewolf in terms of, do you have the right years of experience? Do you have this? Do you check these boxes to put you forward for a role? They looked at everybody on an individual basis and made the right decision by people, which I think is amazing but quite difficult to do.
I do appreciate how amazing they were back then because it was a well-oiled machine. It was a very personal well-oiled machine, if that makes sense. If I had gone into Accenture, or Deloitte, or anything, in my early career, I would have never been able to do what I had done. There are just so many barriers. Not barriers necessarily in a bad way, but you take natural steps to get to the next level. Whereas in Bluewolf, it was just, prove yourself, and we‘ll put you in the role.
Teresa: You carved your own career out and just did it your way rather than the traditional way.
Lee: You obviously have a very, very good work ethic and want to just say, “Yes,“ to everything. At a certain point, they must have said to you, “Do you want to go to the UK?”.
Vera: Interestingly, I studied abroad in London when I was at school, so I had always wanted to come back. I had been looking for a way to do that.
At the time, I was managing the West Coast. I was delivery director for the West, but I was angling more towards the sales role. I was going on more sales cycles. I was much more interested in that part of the business and understanding how these two things came together. Then when this job popped up, we had a London office.
There wasn‘t necessarily a big strategy around it. It was one of those moments, Eric thought, “We either need to do this properly, and use it as a growth to international expansion, or we need to stop doing it because, at some point, we‘re going to start screwing up projects, and we‘re going to get into situations with customers that we don‘t want to be in“
We had this conversation about moving over and looking after that office, which I was delighted with because it gave me two things; brought me to London. It gave me the role that I wanted, which was managing both sales and delivery in a single space.
To be honest, it was partly about getting back to being small because, at that time in Bluewolf, we were growing massively in the US. The teams were getting big, and the projects were getting big. I was quite excited to get back to a small team where you can have a bigger impact, and you can touch every project that the team is working on.
Lee: I can remember those days. How big were they in London at that point?
Vera: We‘d maybe have five people, four people. It was tiny. We were in a little Regus office out in Reading.
Lee: I remember that. That‘s right. You took over from that the person who was in charge at that point? I think they moved on.
Lee: That was very early days.
Vera: It was.
Lee: You‘re effectively responsible then for the five people in Reading to whatever it became before IBM?
Lee: Well done, brilliant.
Vera: It was good fun, to be fair. I loved that whole part of my career. There was a lot of hard lessons because you were away from the mothership. There were certain things that Eric and the team couldn‘t help you with just because the market was so different.
I remember my first sales meeting; I had screwed up the directions and thought we‘d just take a taxi. I thought it was in London, and I had read the address wrong. It was somewhere out in Milton Keynes. It was far. We got in the taxi, and it cost a fortune.
We‘re about half an hour into the journey, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness“. I start googling and realise we are so far away. I had to call the prospect and say, “I’m so sorry, we are going to be late. Please still take this meeting.” There were a lot of those comical disasters in those early days where you think, “I’m obviously an American out of my depth.”
Teresa: That whole growth, taking it from five up to however many there were when IBM took over, how did you manage that whole process?
Vera: It was quite difficult. We went through periods of growth. One of the challenges, which is definitely something I learned through that whole experience, is that you have to be comfortable with how fast you’re growing. Because, especially in the Salesforce ecosystem, there’s a lot of pressure to hurry up and grow.
I remember even back in those days; it was like, “You guys need to hire more people, you need to be bigger.” It’s not about that. It’s about, as an organisation, what you can cope with.
We say this to our customers all the time, “Don’t create a change you can’t manage.”
In those days, it was important to make sure that we were bringing people on that same journey with us, and we weren’t hiring for the sake of hiring, and we weren’t going after every deal putting ourselves at massive margin risks.
For us, it was periods of growth. I think we had lots of ups and downs, especially on the sales side. I think that’s the difficulty; you can teach people how to configure Salesforce, you can teach people how to be a good consultant; it’s harder to teach people how to sell services.
In our early days, we made the mistake of going out and hiring product people, which is a somewhat natural thing. Then thinking, “We’ll just teach them how to sell a project.” It is such a different world that I think had I been a more experienced sales manager, I probably would have been better at helping people make that transition, but I wasn’t.
Because I had come from delivery and grown up on that side, it was hard for me to be empathetic. I didn’t understand what they didn’t understand. We definitely had some faults over the years in terms of how we grew.
I think the important piece for us was all around culture; how do you grow sustainably, grow profitably, bring people on the journey with you, and not lose the heart of why people are here? Because at the end of the day, you join a consulting organisation because of the people, right?
Vera: If the people leave tomorrow, you don’t have anything left. I think in any consulting organisation, you’re quite demanding of what you ask of those resources.
Projects are hard; you get into situations where things go wrong. You’re asking people to work nights and weekends, and people are only willing to pool that hard if they understand the direction of travel and believe in the greater good of what you’re doing. What was important for us was, how do you keep this family culture going while you grow, and not necessarily just start hiring loads of random people?
Lee: Did you follow the model that was successful in America, in terms of not being about ticking boxes, how many years experience you’ve got, it’s giving people like the young Vera opportunities? If they say yes and want to step in and do things, you’ll give them the opportunities. Did you follow that?
Vera: Definitely. This will sound terrible because it’s going to sound slightly unprofessional, but a lot of my hiring style is, do I like you, and do I believe that you can work hard? Everything else, I can teach you.
If you don’t know Salesforce, I can teach you that; if you don’t know consulting, we can teach you that. It’s about, can you fit the dynamic of the group? Are you going to pull us forward, or are you going to draw us back? That’s an important piece of the overall dynamic. You hire somebody with the wrong cultural fit or the wrong DNA, and it drags the whole rest of the team down.
You can teach people anything, but only if they want to be taught. That’s one of the areas people are often surprised when they work with me for the first time, and they see me in an interview, they say, “You didn’t ask him about this.” I’m like, “I don’t care about that.” I care about what motivates people and whether we think they will be a good fit for the team.
Lee: As a recruiter, which we are, it’s what we do; we spend a lot of time looking at job specs and CVs.
Vera: I think especially in the world of Salesforce when you look at CVs, and this is part of the issue with how the partner ecosystem has been built, to a certain extent, but everybody is an architect. You can go out tomorrow and get a certification; it doesn’t necessarily mean you know what you’re doing. So, to a certain extent, you have to throw the CV out a little bit just because CVs often tend to be an extrapolation of what the core skill set is.
We get that all the time where you read somebody’s CV, and you’re like, “Wow, this person sounds amazing.” Then you meet them, and you think, “, do you have any experience?” You might have 17 certifications, but can I put you in front of a client? That’s a very different question, and it would be part of my advice to people in this growing, in this ecosystem, is practice.
I know that sounds silly, but yes, listen to the modules, get the certs. A lot of what we did in the early days, interviewing in Bluewolf, is we would give people fake scenarios and make them build them out. We’d make people draw out a data model.
Like, take a real-life scenario, google a company, and see if you can get a created dev org and build out what you think they need. That’s how you work through some of the intangibles and how the application works. As you look at Salesforce, everything is amazing on the surface, but can you solve a problem inside the system when you’re given one?
Teresa: Love it. I’m coming back to you for a second. I spoke more about your career, but what’s been the biggest challenges that you’ve experienced so far in your career?
Vera: Definitely moving to London; that was big. It’s funny for me because I naively thought, “I’ve done these roles, I’ve been in the Salesforce ecosystem a long time, it’s going to be great. It’s going to be the same as here, except more fun because I’m in London.”
I think I completely underestimated the difference in dynamics. Buyers on this side of the pond are so different than they are in the States. In the US, you do a lot of pitching from a sales perspective. It’s funny, looking back on it, we used to have all these pitch certifications, and you’d have to go through this elaborate process to learn how to pitch.
I got here, and it took me a little bit to realise people don’t want you to pitch to them. That is the opposite of what they want. It’s quite condescending. People want to understand how this will work fundamentally, and they want to trust that you’ve done this before.
It was definitely a culture shock from a professional standpoint. There’s just so much that is different about hiring. In the US, it’s at-will employment. You can hire and fire people for no reason at all.
It’s quite a different dynamic when your staff is in that situation versus here, where you’ve got to be much more conscious when you’re hiring somebody, and managing them through that probation period, and understanding what their rights are, what your rights are.
There was definitely some hiring mistakes I made in the early days that I look back on. Had I understood how the UK’s employment process worked, I would have done it completely differently.
Lee: Let’s move forward to the moment you found out that IBM was going to buy you guys. What did that feel like? It was a massive change, I imagine.
Lee: What did it feel like to be one of the leaders?
Vera: To be honest, I was quite scared, and this is just on a personal level more because, in my early days, I had done a stint working on VC projects. My experience to date, to that point with acquisitions, was not a pretty one. I had seen the nasty side of how these things worked, so I had just naively thought that’s how this will go. I was quite scared that they were going to bring us in and rip us apart.
I was bracing myself for it to be a nasty experience, and it wasn’t. I think every acquisition is difficult. It’s like two families coming together; you work out who will brush their teeth in the bathroom first and stumble over the fact that you don’t like that the other person doesn’t wash the dishes.
It was painful, but in a nice way. There was always this intention of wanting to do the right thing, which I don’t think you always get, and I was quite surprised by that. I think everybody on the IBM side who was involved in the integration had very clear and very well-intended motivations.
They wanted to make this work, and it was a nice thing to be a part of. Like I said, it was painful at times, but you never felt like you were doing it for the wrong reasons.
Lee: A lot of people that are under you come to you for advice, and obviously, people fear change. I imagine a lot of people were worried and came to you for advice; how did you manage that?
Vera: We grew a lot right as the acquisition happened, so I think when we settled down, we were at about 120.
Lee: Crikey, from five?
Teresa: That’s good growth.
Vera: It was difficult in those days because as a leader, everybody does come to you and says, “What’s going to happen? How is this going to work?”
It’s interesting; you get to see different sides of people, the things that people are worried about. In the beginning, I made this laundry list of things that I thought people were going to be worried about. I was very off. I was right, in some cases, but that’s such a personal thing for people.
I think the difficulty is you can’t lie to people, and you don’t know. My way of managing it, which I will be the first to put my hand up and admit, I did not always manage those messages correctly. It was just to be transparent.
Say everything you know, and be honest that you don’t know some things because that’s what people want. They need to trust that this process is ambiguous and that you don’t know, but you will find out, and you’ve got their motivations driving you to understand what the answers are.
Lee: Again, from the outside looking in, it seems like one of the better acquisitions. You see some of the other ones, where there’s hardly anybody left after a year or so in the smaller company. It doesn’t seem to be the case with the IBM-Bluewolf takeover. Something must have gone well.
Vera: Now, knowing what I know, I will tell you, every acquisition is hard.
There’s no secret sauce of how to do this. It’s just about people, which makes it difficult. I think we were good at managing people through that change. The reality was with some of these acquisitions is people want to be part of different companies.
The people who joined Bluewolf didn’t necessarily want to be part of a big enterprise, and so those people should go, can go, did go at certain points in time. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
You’ve got to do right by everybody, and you’ve got to let everybody have that personal conversation and decide what’s best for the company, what’s best for their personal careers.
I think if you’re doing that, then the people who should stay do, and it all works itself out. It’s how you manage those individual conversations, which is difficult and time-consuming, to be completely honest.
Teresa: I suppose it’s about communication because people fear the unknown. If you’re communicating well with them and handhold them through the process, it makes your job a lot easier.
Vera: Yes. Absolutely.
Lee: The time came at some point after 13 years. Again, I’m not sure how accurate your LinkedIn is, but you probably needed to take the leap then.
Vera: I did. It was a logical point for me because we had come to the end of the integration period. In the beginning, I felt this obligation in some ways to get people through this. I had hired a lot of these people. A lot of them had worked for me for a very long time. I wanted to make sure that I got everybody to the other side of this in a career they were happy with, with benefits and salaries and things that worked for them.
For me, on a personal level, there was a massive transition because Bluewolf went from being my baby to being someone else’s baby. There were a lot of emotional points in that process where I struggled to be completely honest. I started to realise that my role was completely different, and it should be totally different. I needed to get people through this process. I needed to set the organisation up for growth.
I’m probably not the person to take Salesforce, IBM to the next level because there’s just too much legacy stuff there.
People look at me in a lot of ways as the old Bluewolf. I could feel through this process people getting defensive of Bluewolf and some of the legacy culture and getting defensive of me. I thought this needs to progress at some point, and I’m probably going to hold it back, weirdly. It was a sad decision for me. I’ve been there ages, and I love Bluewolf, and I always will.
I didn’t necessarily want to be in a world where I was working in a big corporation. The acquisition taught me that because it’s only when you get pushed into certain situations that you realise what you don’t want.
Part of me wanted to get back to the early days of Bluewolf, growing something, being on the ground. That was a big part of the decision. I would probably say half of it because I felt like I needed to let this go for the greater good of letting IBM take over and letting this thing transition and evolve into something that was completely different from it could have been if I was there.
Lee: That brings us almost up to date because the timing of you leaving Bluewolf coincided with COVID.
Vera: I know. It was terrible timing!
Well, I had decided in late 2019 that I was going to leave. It was just about figuring out how to do that in the best way. Then my mom died that December, and it threw everything out of whack for a bit. I didn’t end up leaving IBM until March.
The funny thing is I resigned on a Friday. I think Saturday night was when COVID was starting to pick up. Saturday night, IBM sent an email out to everybody saying offices are closed, don’t come in on Monday.
The funny thing about it is, people still have not been back into the office since I’ve left, which is quite weird because it’s been almost a year. To be honest, it had just taken me so long mentally to get to that stage that I couldn’t go back, but it was quite scary.
The funny thing about it was I had all of these plans for my gardening because, in the whole of my career, I’ve never had a month off where you no obligations. It’s like I was going to be a lady with lunch. I had had this whole version in my head of how this month was going to go. Then we were in lockdown. I was at home doing nothing.
Teresa: Eating from a bowl and crying.
Vera: Yes. Basically.
Lee: You never got your big leaving party. Did you?
Vera: No. It was a quite weird situation because I never even got to say bye to people. Quite strange.
Teresa: You’re definitely owed a big celebration at some point.
Vera: I’m hoping somebody buys me a glass of wine at some point.
Teresa: I’m sure you will get more than a glass.
Lee: Obviously, you wanted to go back and build some things, so the Capita thing was going to be there, wasn’t it? I think if I’m correct, COVID put paid to that as well, did it?
Vera: Yes. There was always this conversation about, “What does growing and building something mean?” Before my mom died, the conversation was much more geared toward, “Let’s start something, let’s create our own kind of company”, which has always been the intention.
Then when all of that happened, it just didn’t feel the right time. I had had a conversation with Ismail at Capita, where they were looking to start Salesforce practice. He was like, “Look, don’t be silly. Don’t do it with your money. Come do it here.” It seemed like the best of both worlds. I was going to start from scratch again, to hire who I wanted and build methodologies and practices again, and that was going to be amazing.
Of course, I started at the beginning of COVID. We had put together all of these business plans around what our hiring plan was going to be. We were talking about acquiring people. That all fell by the wayside as COVID got deeper and deeper. It took me about six weeks to realise this isn’t going to happen, is it?
The funny thing is I started right after Easter. I again naively thought, this is going to be fine. Let’s start hiring people. We started getting interviews lined up. Then slowly but surely, I realised how insane this pandemic was getting. I thought it was going to be just a short-lived thing. It’s going to be fine, they’ll find a cure, and we’ll be back at work in a month. As time went on, I started to get more realistic.
We just came to a point where it was like, “Look, you know what? Capita doesn’t and shouldn’t be investing tons of money in a Salesforce practice.” You shouldn’t be starting anything new right now. That’s okay. We can just chalk this up to bad timing and remain friends, and we are. I still consider Ismail one of my mentors. If I were in a tough position, I would call him and get him to give me some tough love. It was one of those things. It was unfortunate that the timing didn’t work out.
In some ways, I’m super grateful for it. If that had not happened, I probably would never have had the guts to do what we’re doing now. You think everything happens for a reason, but it was almost that situation that made me realise, “You know what? You should have just done this from the beginning.” If there ever is a time, this is probably the worst and the best time to do this. Let’s just go for it.
Lee: For people listening in, what is this you’re referring to?
Vera: I’ll talk a little bit about how we got started because that lends itself to the story. We now operate Solution Junkies, which is a newly appointed SI in the Salesforce ecosystem.
I got quite lucky because as this whole Capita thing was happening, Gareth had already corralled people into public sector accounts. Because we would bring a bunch of people to Capita, so let’s get people lined up, let’s get people operating in the roles that we want them in. By the time I decided to leave, I think he already had eight people billing full time.
It was already an organisation that was nice for me to step into because it wasn’t starting something from scratch. You’re starting something with a pretty hefty launching pad. It was nice because it was perfect for me. Because I’m not massively risk–averse, but I’m not stupid either, you know what I mean?
I’m not just putting all my money on something, not knowing if it’s going to work or not. This was a good halfway house where you think, “Okay, we’ve got a bit of runway here. We’ve got some time to get our stuff together, to get our go-to-market strategy together. To get our internal structures figured out.” I was super lucky to come into a team that was already running, and it was just about carrying that baton forward.
Teresa: Fantastic. When you say “We” and “Gareth,” for the sake of the listeners, who are you referring to?
Vera: Gareth is my business partner. He also lives in my home, and he’s sometimes referred to as my husband.
Teresa: I was about to ask about the dynamics between you and your husband.
Lee: How’s the working from home thing going during COVID?
Vera: I’ll be honest. I wish we had a bigger house, that’s one thing. We are lucky because we’ve worked together, on-and-off in different periods in our career and we love working together, that’s a good thing.
We’re quite opposite in a lot of ways, mostly financially. Gareth wants to make money and save money, and I want to spend money. That’s quite a good balance there. The funny thing about it is that’s probably the only thing that we ever fight about; it’s just where the money is going. As you can imagine, I’ve got all of these great marketing ideas that sometimes get shot down, rightfully so.
The work itself has been good, and it’s been nice to be stuck at home in some ways. There’s so much in starting a business that just bleeds into your evenings. All the stuff I didn’t have to do in my day-to-day job, like invoicing and creating content and stuff that happens outside of your 9:00 to 5:00. It’s nice; we don’t have anything else to do, so we might as well. You don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything, which is quite good.
It’s enabled us to be quite intense. There’s been, over the last couple of months, the hours and the effort that we’ve put in. It wouldn’t have been as easy if it wasn’t in this environment.
Teresa: You’ve got family, you’ve got friends. There’s that guilt that you’re not spending enough time there. Whereas, at the moment, you just cannot do it.
Lee: When we started the blog, it wasn’t in the middle of a pandemic, was it? We had to do those things. You’re right; you’ve got the job of working in the business and working on the business, and that can be quite challenging. Like you say there, the on-the-business stuff tends to, like you said, bleed into the evenings and weekends and things, doesn’t it?
Teresa: The dinner table conversation is not about, “What we’re doing this weekend?” Suddenly, it’s about, “Have you sent those invoices?”
Lee: Or having three meals a day where you’re not getting away from your desk. I don’t know if you guys were ever in that situation, but you just need to get time out, don’t you, as well. With COVID and everything like that, how has it affected the way you work, the future you see for Solution Junkies in terms of things like going to an office? In Bluewolf, were they office-orientated?
Vera: Yes. I was in the office every day.
Lee: Do you see a future doing that again?
Vera: No, not even close. It’s interesting for me because I think in the beginning I missed the office so much. Just because I’m used to being in a big office surrounded by people, and you can get stuff done in some ways a lot quicker because you can walk up to somebody’s desk.
I think I’ve transitioned over this period in that I’ve flipped and gone the other way. I find that you’re so much more productive at home. For me, sitting in the office means that everybody can come up to me and ask questions all day long. You find that you get very little done.
Whereas, if you look at the hours in the day and how productive people are, I think it’s amazing. I do think it’s quite intense, and I don’t think it can carry on in this way forever. People are working harder than they ever have in some cases. There’s got to be a balance to that. I think as this goes on longer and longer, people will start to find that. That’s my hope, at least.
I think we’ll move to a hybrid model; I think most people will. I think it’ll be one of those situations where, if you want to work from home, absolutely, do it. If you want to be in an office a couple of days a week, that’s absolutely fine.
There will always be a space for an office in that you have to meet customers face-to-face in an ideal world. You want to see the whites of people’s eyes, I think. Outside of that, I don’t think we’d ever be in a situation where we would have a full-time office and expect everybody to come in every day. I look back at just the commuting time. It’s one of those things you don’t think about because you just do it every single day. That’s three hours out of my day I don’t spend on a train.
Lee: How are you spending those three hours now? Are you just working, or are you doing other things?
Vera: Well, it’s funny you say that, Lee. I set a lot of goals. I don’t follow through with some of them. In the beginning, I was like, “This is going to be great because I’m going to use these hours differently, and I’m going to start meditating.” I have a laundry list of lockdown things that I hope to accomplish, which is still sitting there. I am striving to get better.
My biggest problem is I’ve developed bad habits. Most successful people say you get up, and you have a routine. Gareth’s good about this; he does. He gets up straight away, he showers, he gets set for the day.
I’ve developed this terrible tendency of rolling over and picking up my phone. Then you start scrolling through, and you’re like, “I’m going to answer this email.” Then before you know it, it’s like, “Crap, it’s almost 9:00, and now I’m late. I’ve got to take a shower, show up to my call looking like a homeless person.”
I do need to develop a better routine, but that is a work in progress.
Teresa: That’s something to aspire to.
Lee: Are you sticking to a 9:00 to 5:00?
Vera: Not at all.
Lee: All right. Are you more of a later person then?
Vera: I’m sticking to probably an eight-to-eight. That’s just because of the nature of where we are. I find there are points in the day where I’ve started to structure my schedule a little bit better, like group the calls together. I think part of my problem was you’ve spread the calls out so much. In the beginning, I thought, “Well, I need a break between calls because I don’t want it to just be back-to-back.”
Then you find you start something; you have a call, you pick it back up. You get to the end of the day, and you’re like, “I’ve looked at this thing 17 times, and I’m not progressing at all.” I’ve definitely found making my schedule work a little bit better for me and giving myself blocks of time to get stuff done has been much, much better. I think you can always be better.
Teresa: Yes. There’s room for improvement.
Lee: I’m writing that down. That’s good advice, to be fair because I think I tend to try and do everything at once. I’m not good at that.
Teresa: Then end up working quite late because you’ve been trying to finish off all these 19 things that you’ve started and not quite completed. I think this is a learning curve for everybody.
I suppose the vast majority of companies were used to being office-based, so people have to get used to it. I think in early lockdown, people were just using work, if they were fortunate enough to be in work, as an opportunity to make themselves busy, so they didn’t think about the situation they’re in.
I think maybe when summer rolls around again, people will want to go back outside and enjoy the weather. I think, hopefully, that work-life balance will come back to people; they’ll realise that there is more to life than work, and they need to address both sides of their life and allow that to happen.
Vera: I agree. Not to get on my soapbox, but I think there’s an onus on companies to force that to a certain extent. I find, especially in the beginning, there were a lot of publicising of wellness and work-life balance and things, yet you’re scheduling meetings till all hours of the evening. You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. I think creating corporate expectations around, “Look, everybody is going to take a lunch. If you work here, you do not book a meeting between 12:00 and 1:00,” or whatever the policy is.
If you look at Salesforce, they’ve started to do these wellness days. I think they were giving people every other Friday off or one Friday a month just to decompress, which I think is brilliant. It takes, in some cases, leadership mandating some of that to force people to change their habits. They’re always going to feel like, “Okay, well, yes, I should do that, but everybody else is doing this. I’m going to be considered lazy if I’m not pushing as hard as everyone else.
Teresa: Yes. We’re trying to give people some say over how they spend the time they use in their own home. Because we have to respect that people live with other people, they could be living children, and the 9:00 to 5:00 when you can go to an office and shut the door and leave is not there anymore. You have almost to put up a virtual barrier around your home life and your work life, but respect there are other people in the house as well.
We’re just encouraging people to work when they feel that they can work without any monitoring. We don’t care what they’re doing if they go for a longer lunch or that sort of thing.
Lee: It sounds like the early Bluewolf. As you mentioned then, they were so ahead of the curve, in terms of, we don’t micromanage you, we trust you to get the job done.
Like you said earlier on, but if you prove me wrong, then we’ll micromanage you, and that’s where we’re at now, but Bluewolf were doing that years ago, so fair play to them. I think a lot of companies are like that. Obviously, with the job we do, we speak to a lot of people, we speak a lot of companies, and we do ask them, “What’s your plan after all of this when you go back to being in office?”
Some companies are still adamant, “Oh yes, we want everyone in the office 9:00 to 5:00 in location.” I think, “Oh, you’re going to make it tough to find people.” I appreciate they might have a long lease on their office, but I think many companies might struggle if they’re going to say that to people.
Vera: I completely, a year is a long time to get used to something. I think people have, on a personal level, figured out how to make it work for them, and they’re not going to want to give that up.
I was talking to a girlfriend of mine who is a mom, and she’s struggling to be doing homeschooling, but she was saying she’s like, “As hard as it is, I’ve realised how much time I miss out on commuting, and I don’t want to give that back. I’ve realised that I can balance these things at home, and I should.”
I think, again, it’s not until you force somebody to change that they realise that they can change, and I agree. I don’t think a lot of people are going to want to go back.
Vera: I don’t think they should. For economic reasons, for sustainability reasons, it’s not a bad thing to not have everybody commuting into London every day.
Teresa: Yes, absolutely, environmentally as well; there are so many benefits.
Lee: I want to end with a question I usually end with: What are you most excited about? In the context of Salesforce, but it could also be other things, is there’s something about the future you’re excited about?
Vera: Yes. Aside from being able to go to the pub, you mean at some point.
Teresa: If that’s what you’re looking forward to!
Vera: This will be a little bit of a selfish one, but I think in terms of what we are trying to do at Solution Junkies in the world of Salesforce. I’m hopeful that that will make a change in the partner ecosystem.
Because our whole model is yes, we want to deliver successful projects, we always will, and we will always be putting our customers first. But we want to balance that with having a greater impact, giving back and fundamentally structuring the organisation to be focused on that.
I do think, especially in the world of Salesforce, we could all be doing that. I’m hoping that by setting up this company and proving that those two things are profitable and giving back to the world, they’re not mutually exclusive and can balance them. It does offer not only benefits for society but employees and beyond.
I’m hoping that sparks a greater movement because I do think there’s more as a partner ecosystem that we could do to help each other. We could do more to help the greater good of the world if we start focusing entirely internally, and then looking at our people and our processes and start to pick our head up and look at what we can do beyond that. I’m hoping it’ll be the start of a shift.
Lee: That’s good. We might be a company that will copy you then. Are there any specific things you’re putting in place at the moment? Because I only got the 1-1-1 Model from Salesforce. Is it similar?
Vera: Yes. We’ve got a couple of things, and part of this was in the beginning when we came up with this concept. I think most of it was birthed out of COVID.
I think we were all in jobs where we felt like, “This has to mean more.” “I can’t sit at my laptop from 9:00 to 5:00 and just configure Salesforce? We’ve got to have more purpose in this.” I think the struggle was okay; if you buy into that concept, then how do you make it happen? Because we’ve all worked at organisations where you have giveback initiatives, and we all looked at why those don’t always come to fruition.
Often, it’s because it’s the first thing to get put on the backburner. A project goes south, “Yes, I’m not volunteering. I’m working 80 hours a week.” A big struggle for us was how to build that into the company’s structure and to the heart of what people do day in and day out?
The first thing that we came up with was this concept of Projects for Purpose. We looked at our organisation, and we said, “What will always trump everything priority-wise? Projects and clients. “We said, “Okay, how do you work getting back into the scheme of a project so that it doesn’t get left behind?”
Projects for Purpose is based a lot on the 1-1-1 pledge, but it’s taking it a step further. We will give 2% of our profit to the client’s charity of choice for every project. Then instead of hosting a big dinner, or a big go-live party at the end, we’ll spend two days at that charity in whatever capacity.
Sometimes it will be building bikes, and sometimes it’ll be helping them with Salesforce, but establishing early on with the client that our goal is yes to deliver you the successful project. It’s also to support this charity that you feel passionate about, and everything that we do leads us to both ends.
We’re hoping that we’ll create a better bond with our client, but also it motivates the staff, it gives you a bigger purpose beyond just launching a system, so that’s one thing. Then I think, especially in COVID times when we haven’t been able to get together. We haven’t had a whole group meeting in-person since we started. It’s how do you create a culture in that environment.
Part of what we found is rallying behind this concept of giving back has been amazing because people quite frankly get tired of the Zoom calls and the wine tastings, and there’s only so much you can do with booze, I think.
We rally every month around a different cause; in the fall, we all did Race for the Cure in our own neighbourhoods, we all did the 5K. It was one of those days; it was amazing. You saw people with kids doing it early, and the WhatsApp group is going, and people are clocking their times, and you got pictures, and people are doing it with their kids. By the end of the day, all the results were in, and you just felt amazing about the group of people you were with.
I will say, it’s you feel more bonded to these people having in some cases never met them and doing this thing together than the biggest night out, and there’s no hangover involved.
Teresa: It’s the common cause again, isn’t it?
Vera: Exactly. It’s just rallying people behind something that collectively you can believe in, and it’s got a bit of purpose.
Teresa: I think one of the strangest but probably nicest things that have come out of COVID, if you can say that, is the fact that everybody is in it together, and it’s almost like we are all fighting the same battle. It’s something that you think would have just trailed off after a couple of weeks but seems to be there. It’s just this camaraderie that people have around; we’ve got to help our fellow neighbours. There’s more volunteering going on and things like that.
Lee: Brilliant ideas. I’ve written all that down as well, so we’ll see if we can come up with something similar.
Teresa: Well, I’m just going to ask if it’s possible to slip one last question in at the end?
Vera: Of course.
Teresa: It would be, do you have any sort of comments or advice that you would give for people looking to start their career in Salesforce. What would be your pose of wisdom?
Vera: Absolutely. To be honest, I think being in the world of Salesforce takes curiosity at its core. That is fundamental to make a good admin or a good consultant, and there is so much to learn.
Luckily with Trailhead and other things, there’s so much resource out there. I would say, definitely take advantage of the resource, but go beyond just the online modules. There’s a mentoring program, for example, that Salesforce has, where it couples you with people who are active in the industry. A lot of our guys are mentors on it for people who are just starting their career.
Take advantage of everything and, especially in those mentoring conversations, push yourself to create ways of getting practical experience. Because the reality is if you’re new to Salesforce, you’re teaching yourself.
You’re not going to be able to walk into a client or an interview and say, “I’ve got all of this Salesforce experience.” But, if you’ve given yourself little scenarios or you’ve asked the community for scenarios, and you’ve built some of this stuff out. If you walked in and showed me, I’ve taken everything but look at these five orgs that I’ve built for these different industries and different problems I’m trying to solve.
We would get five minutes into that interview, and you’d be hired because it shows so much. I think that’s the way to learn. Everybody internalises the modules in their own way, and I think applying them in some practical way shows whoever you’re speaking to that you understand it.
It’s the easiest way to translate what you’ve learned. Take advantage of all the resources out there and just try to create as much practical experience for yourself as you can.
Teresa: Fantastic. Thank you very much.
Lee: Brilliant take. Thank you very much.
Vera: Thank you, guys. This was great.