Preparing for (and passing) the Salesforce Certified Platform Developer I Exam (WI19)

(Originally published at InfoWorld.)

I’m ambivalent about certifications. Because I spent enough time in school for the equivalence test validation to be embedded in my psyche I have enough certificates to fill a two-inch binder clip. Because I have been working in the real world long enough to know what most of them truly reflect, I actually display them all in two-inch binder clip with a sticky-note on top that says “Pick One”. Anyone who has multiple certification knows that not all are of equal value in terms of proof of knowledge. I have one from an enterprise vendor that is a household name, very fancy looking with a hologram in the middle. It is the result of showing up for class every day for two weeks and the check clearing. Yet I learned a great deal achieving it. Another was acquired as a pre-requisite for continued employment following a merger, which was easily achieved with no study and only a third of the allotted test time. The next took a solid year of daily study and was taken in hopes of leveraging it to leave the employer that required the previous one. 

My most recent certification was one of the more difficult to study for: The Salesforce Certified Platform Developer I (WI19). While I have plenty of practical experience working with Salesforce, there are many aspects of the product that are required knowledge for certification that just haven’t come up for the businesses requirements I have been fulfilling. However, I enjoy working with the product and Salesforce has done a good job of convincing decision makers of the value of certification as an indicator of ability that I wanted to have it to please those decision makers. So here is how I went about it.

Trailhead

Trailhead is an invaluable resource for learning Salesforce, regardless if you are seeking certification or not. I use it all the time to keep up on new and updated features and whenever I run across a requirement where a tool that I’m not thoroughly familiar with may be helpful. Also, in 2018, Salesforce move the certification verification to Trailhead as well as the maintenance exams.

If you have not already created a Trailhead account, do so before reading on. If you already have a free Developer org, sign up at Salesforce Trailhead. If not, go to the Developer Edition site and get yourself one first. Pro tip: Don’t use your email address as your user ID for the Developer org, even though that is the default value on the sign-up form. User IDs must be unique to all of Salesforce, not just the org.

On Trailhead, navigate through the menus under Credentials > Certifications then to the specific certification you are interested in (or jump to the Platform Developer I (PDI) page). Here you will find the Exam Guide, which is a good way to understand the structure of the exam. There is also a link to a Trailmix. Trailmixes are groupings of Trailhead training modules and super badges created by Salesforce and other Trailhead users. These are a great way to begin preparation for a certification. If you have been working with Salesforce, many of the modules will be topics you are already familiar with. Skip those according to your own confidence level. I will add this personal anecdote about skipping Trailmix modules: The second-lowest score I received on the exam was in a category I work with regularly. The exam questions were about aspects that I no longer consciously think about, similar to how it may be hard to give directions with street names for a route you travel daily because you traverse them on autopilot. A refresher may be useful.

Udemy

I used Udemy to great success for the Salesforce Administrator’s exam by taking an excellent preparation course taught by Francis Pindar and then a practice test course with three practice tests. Preparing for the Developer’s exam was a bit more daunting, mostly because the nature of the exam has evolved in the last couple of years and the courses have not caught up with it.

Before you get sticker shock looking at the Udemy courses, here is the strategy to pay a reasonable price for Udemy courses in general. Create your account on Udemy and take one or two free courses (there are many worth doing). Eventually (at longest up to three months) you will receive and offer for all courses for a flat rate per course that is quite reasonable. If your employer has a discount program that includes Udemy (such as Fond), you can get an even better price. I only paid $9.99 per course through my company’s Fond program.

As of this writing, the best Udemy course I found for the Developer’s exam is Salesforce Platform Developer 1 Certification Course by Deepika Khanna. It seems to be an Apex developer course that was later re-purposed for certification prep. As such, most of the content is there, though it may not be clear how it translates to the exam. There are also several course files that are not referenced in the course. One of these is a practice exam that has all of the answers in Word. Most of these questions are also in Salesforce Certified Platform Developer practice Tests, so I suggest you not read the Word document until after you have gotten everything you can from the practice exams.

I had taken another prep course on Udemy that had a great outline, but I did not find it a good learning resource as evidenced by the abysmal score I achieved on the first of the two practice exams.

The practice exam on Udemy is not the greatest, though it does reflect the actual exam process well, if not the questions themselves. There are a lot of spelling and grammatical errors in the practice exams and the mistake I made was to assume that an incorrectly spelt answer was automatically wrong. The spelling issue is not seen in the actual exam, so it is just an issue with the practice exam author.

Another lesson about practice exams is to avoid the temptation to take them early. There are only so many questions and you can end up memorizing the answer to those rather than learning the topic well enough to answer similar-but-different questions on the actual exam.

Other practice exam sites

The site I got the most from for drilling on test questions is a ProProfs Quiz, appropriately titled  Salesforce Platform Developer 1. Questions are added and updated occasionally. There were 131 questions available the final week before I took the exam. The same spelling issues seen on the Udemy practice tests are there, and many of the same questions. I also noted questions from the course quizzes from the exam preparation course I took, though not sure who copied who there. One thing to be aware of is that not all of the questions have the correct answers. Believe it or not, that is a good thing if you use the strategy I did. Every time I took the exam, I would research the questions I missed to better understand the concepts. This helped a lot. I also would save the final page with the answers to a PDF that I stored on my phone and reviewed when idle.

Some other useful practice sites:

  • Salesforce Certification Dev 401 #1 (also on ProProfs Quiz) is for the older exam. Most of the questions are still relevant, as the new exam has more topics than the old one.
  • Salesforce Certified Platform Developer 1 Quiz at Salesforce Tips, Tricks, & Notes is short but some of the questions are really hard. The order of events question was especially helpful in getting this topic down.
  • Simplilearn’s Free Salesforce Platform Developer I Practice Test is very hard, probably because they sell a certification preparation course. It requires some contact info, but I found they only send you ads a couple of times. No telling if they sell the info, though. Which is why I keep an anonymous account for such registrations.

Key topics to study

  • There are many questions related to Triggers and Order of Execution. Memorize this as best you can.
  • Knowing the Data Model well will boost your score. If you are good at memorizing things, the link will be sufficient. Otherwise, hands on experience (at work or on Trailhead) is the best way to embed the key points into your subconscious. I studied this the least and it was my highest scoring area from a combination of project work and Trailhead modules. YMMV.
  • Apex Testing has a multitude of sub-topics and there are some over-lapping concepts that can be confusing if you don’t regularly use this aspect of Salesforce.

Test Taking Tips

(This is a bonus section for readers of my LinkedIn or Solutionist blogs)

The process of answering the test questions is just as important as the approach to preparation in ensuring a passing score. I first go through the test quickly, reading each question and response options and answering those that are immediately obvious to me. I then go through a second time, answering the questions skipped the first time through and marking for review any that I don’t feel 100% confident about. An advantage to this approach is that sometimes one question is worded in such a way that I easily remember the answer and it reminds me of the correct answer to another, related question.

I then go back and review all of the questions marked for review, re-read the question and answer and asses my confidence. I do this in order of the exam questions because I still might leave it marked for review on this pass. The ones I was still unsure of on the review I then re-review. Finally, I go through the test from start to finish, reviewing each answer.

While this may sound very time consuming, I usually still finish with 20 – 30 minutes to spare.

Some final comments about certifications

The Salesforce employment market is heavily slanted towards certified applicants, so if you really like working with Salesforce and aren’t already in your dream job (or are a consultant who is always pursuing new clients), Salesforce certification is a must have. The Salesforce Administrator certificate I find the easiest to achieve, and if you are serious about Salesforce development I recommend getting both certificates because knowing enough administration to be certified will help you in designing better components.

No matter how hard or how easy a certification is to obtain, almost all are proof only of knowledge. In general, the application of knowledge is where the value is. As someone pursuing certification, continue your learning after certification. I find participating on the support discussions and completing Trailhead modules regularly to be a good way to grow beyond the day-to-day tasks.

And for employers, please weigh overall experience with certification achievements. Someone that has years of technical experience on multiple platforms and coding languages will be able to become very proficient in Salesforce in a short period of time, and someone with several certifications who has little experience outside of Salesforce and all within a small variety of orgs may not be the right fit for a complex implementation.

Finally, my own score on the exam was not in proportion to my actual capabilities. The exam results are broken down by category. In one case I scored very low in an area that I use regularly and frequently advise others on. In another case I scored quite high in an area I rarely use and most of my learning was academic. Having previously passed the administrator’s exam, it is no surprise that my best categories were the areas that overlap.

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© Scott S. Nelson

The future is cloudy with a chance of success

(Originally published at InfoWorld.)

I would have titled this post “How to be a rainmaker in the cloud” except the term rainmaker often refers to the selling process, which is already succeeding and that success is a key contributing factor to why so many cloud initiatives are all wet. If nothing else, the popularity of cloud services has made the use of metaphors in technical articles much easier!

In this post I want to talk about some of the slipperier aspects of cloud services; how to reap the most benefits; and ways to identity potential pitfalls before a sinking feeling sets in.

AI, big data and the cloud

A great expression going around about AI and big data is that they are “…like teenage sex: everyone talks about it; nobody really knows how to do it; everyone thinks everyone else is doing it; so everyone claims they are doing it”. I want to add to that that “and most of those that are doing are not having nearly as much fun as they could be”. The same can be said for the cloud, even though it has been around a lot longer and is relatively more mature. And many people actually already have it, though they might not know it, so maybe it is more like insanity.

These three technologies were all drivers for each other. The ease of getting started in the cloud (the quality of which we will ignore for now) was a multiplier for the data accumulation that had already been growing exponentially. The amount of data was so big it needed a separate category of, well big. Then, trying to manage that much data while it was still of business value (or even determine if it is of value) quickly became too much for human manipulation or even basic algorithms, so more complex algorithms were created, followed by algorithms that create algorithms and then AI became a battle cry to save us all from drowning in the data lakes (that we probably wouldn’t have created if we had true AI to start with).

The lack of quality in initial cloud forays that we ignored at the start of the last paragraph combined with the ease of getting into the cloud is what led the way for so many being over whelmed with data.  The truth is most cloud initiatives that have real business value are still in their early stages. The early adopters (that are now trying to hire more data scientists than then there are in order to help dam the floods) have given the rest of us a great example of what not to do. So let’s use their hindsight to build our vision.

If you don’t know what it is, don’t handle it with familiarity

Anyone with kids or animals learns fairly early that they should never pick anything up from the floor bare-handed if they are not positive of what it is. Technology deserves the same wary respect. If some says “everyone is moving to the cloud”, I know they are either misinformed or not being truthful (sometimes both). First, because everyone rarely does anything at the same time, no matter how much marketers and salespeople tell us otherwise. And second, because lots of us have been there for years and just didn’t think of it that way. Financial services is one very common area where storage, processing and source-of-truth data has been entrusted by the customers to the service provider and accessed over the internet since internet was spelled with a capital “I”.

The truth is, there are many different types of cloud services and the value of a given service and provider varies according to the enterprise needs. I know this is really obvious and what I am calling out here is how it is often forgotten after seeing a competitor’s press release or the conclusion of a well-rehearsed and intricately orchestrated sales demo. There is no doubt in my mind that cloud services will benefit most (maybe even all) businesses. But not every type of cloud service is needed by every business and how one business uses a specific service is not how every business should even if they will benefit from the same service.

Data storage is a great example, because it has become a universal need. There are businesses that can and should keep all of their data in cloud services. The plural is on purpose, because if you are going to commit your entire business to the cloud you need to have some kind of back up. On the opposite end of the spectrum there are many small companies that have neither the volume nor the budget to properly maintain all data safely in the cloud. In the middle (and the latter example is far more common than the first) there are the majority of businesses that will benefit storing certain types of data in the cloud and applying both MDM synchronization to ensure availability and continuity.

The green field is not always greener

The biggest hurdle in guiding enterprise technology is not getting buy-in on new technology; it is managing the false sense of security that comes with having been convinced to adopt the new technology.  

Part of the reason stake holders expect the latest cloud offering to save the planet is over-selling on the part of IT, vendor sales and marketing, and industry hype (which is greatly fueled by vendor marketing in much the same manner as a recursive process with a bug).

Another equally significant part is human nature. Once a decision has been made or a belief adopted, the subconscious mind will often vigorously defend that decision or belief whenever it is challenged, deepening the associated conviction. This is why we so often seen a mass movement towards solutions as they gain popularity even if the solution is not always what is called for. People who want to slow or redirect the changes for very good reasons seldom take the psychology of newly adopted convictions into account and the result is a more energized drive in the direction that may not be right (or right at the time).

Measure twice, cut once…every single time!

To avoid the rush to greener cloud pastures, IT and business need to work together to define and agree on business and technical goals. Once the goals are agreed to, an analysis of how a given cloud solution will further those goals should be supported by a pilot or proof of concept before any large commitment is made. The results of the analysis must vigorously seek any side effects that have a negative business aspect in addition to how the goals are met (or not). Finally, if the solution is adopted, the analysis needs to be reviewed and revised for every case. Again, no rocket science or epiphany here, just common sense that is not-so-common as to not benefit from repetition.

Walk, don’t run, to your nearest gateway

To offset the cautionary tone of this post, it bears repeating that there are many benefits to cloud services and some combination of cloud services will very likely benefit any enterprise. Some key concepts to keep in mind in order to realize the most benefits (and dodge the potential pitfalls of a bad combination) are: The forecast for enterprise architecture is increasing clouds. Enjoy the shade and keep to high ground away from potential flood damage!

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© Scott S. Nelson