I recently caught up with Lilith Van Biesen (she/her), one of the rapidly growing number of women to have achieved the Salesforce Certified Technical Architect (CTA) credential in the past couple of years. She joined the Salesforce community in 2017 and has quickly achieved excellence and made her mark in the Ohana.
Lilith gives back to the Salesforce architect community in a number of ways, including through co-leadership of SAIMA (Salesforce Architects in the Making), leadership of the Brussels Salesforce Architect Group, and her willingness to mentor and judge mocks for CTA aspirants - myself included!
Lilith, tell us a bit about yourself!
"I’m in Belgium, most famous for Bruges or for Muscles from Brussels. I didn’t ever expect to go into IT. Growing up, I never really considered IT as an option, it wasn’t heavily featured in the education system (which is unfortunately often the case as education is not usually able to keep up with the industry).
"Not knowing what a career or a job is like, when I was 18 and starting at University I chose to study languages. At 18 years old, having to decide what you’re going to do with your life is ridiculous, ridiculous amount of pressure and expectation when that person just recently had to ask the teacher to go to the bathroom!
"Through my studies I started to understand that I do prefer hard sciences, at the end of it. I did some research, and worked at the university as a researcher. Administration or teaching is what you usually do with a language degree. However, I wanted to create something tangible that people could use. I wanted something that could make a difference to a broader audience.
"I knew by then it would be more in the direction of IT - my husband was in IT, and by now I understood way better what that meant. So, I went for a new bachelor degree in multimedia and communication technology. The study topics were quite broad, including design, photoshop and coding. It was the most fun study that I had done so far.
"The study included some programming, which I found super cool - I could automate something! In my next-to-last semester, I took the opportunity to dive into IT as a career and take some steps forward rather than relaxing (as I had started the study as a working student, my individual track had left that semester quite bare). I contacted a few different companies, and found a company that implemented multiple technologies, one if which was Salesforce. I told them I love to learn - they said, Salesforce is probably your thing.
"Trailhead made so much sense to me. I hadn’t seen packaged based development before. It was so quick - I had done SQL servers before and now you don’t need to do it, it’s done for you. From that moment I got a love of learning for Salesforce which translated very quickly into achieving the certifications like Admin, Platform Developer 1, and Sales Cloud Consultant.
"After that I discovered the Salesforce architect credentials pyramid, and started to think that maybe software architecture was my path, which I had never considered before. I started studying and achieving the certifications. Once I had the pre-requisites I thought it would be just a small effort to do the last one, but that’s the biggest misunderstanding! The final certification in the pyramid, the CTA, it’s the biggest one of all.
"My career so far has been a journey of discovering what I like to do. I’ve found my niche - particularly the love and connection I feel with the Salesforce community, where I get to share how I do things, how I structured my approach to achieving the CTA. People seem to get value out of that."
What is your role now?
"I’m still a Salesforce architect, but I combine it with more time to interact with the community, attend events and conferences and stimulate my team to get involved. I take part in strategic decision making while still having the architect part of my skillset. I’m still learning and it’s at an accelerated rate than when I was an architect on one project."
So when roughly did you enter into the Salesforce world?
"2017. I haven’t been around long in the ecosystem."
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about Salesforce?
"One of the things I love, is you can pretty much do everything. It’s a very cool platform. There are some limits here and there which make sense if you think about how the platform is built up.
"One of the examples is Flow, I love Flow. One of the coolest things Salesforce has introduced.
"If I could change anything, it would be the review process for Flow. You need rigorous quality gates in your software development lifecycle but Flow isn’t readable if you look at the metadata. If anyone wants to check it out they need to go via an org which is an immense amount of clicks. Such a shame, I would love to be an evangelist for Flow but until they make the metadata more human readable and take care of quality assurance, it’s really tough to guarantee the quality of the build. Salesforce know this, I have been nagging about it to the product manager. I imagine it’s not an easy fix."
How did you feel when you learned about the CTA credential?
"At first, I saw it as just another certification. I didn’t consider how intertwined it is with your mindset. Other certifications are more of a knowledge test of the product you’re working with, and I thought the CTA was more in that direction. I didn’t expect to grow as much as I did throughout this journey."
Tell me more about your CTA preparation journey?
"It was an interesting one, you get to the point of achieving the pre-requisites and think: “so now what?”. I didn’t know where to go from there. All I knew was how to study, and I was doing it as a lone wolf, using Trailhead and help.salesforce.com documentation. I was approaching the certification based on the notes and summaries I created, which is not how you should go for the review board.
"While I was studying, I did some additional product specific certifications, like Pardot (now known as Marketing Cloud Account Engagement) and Field Service. Then I decided I needed to really get going and joined a CTA study group called the Benelux study group. Seeing my study buddies present their CTA mocks had me dumbfounded, realising this is what I will need to be able to do to achieve the CTA. I thought to myself, “I will never be able to do this!”.
"You need so much knowledge and be able to recall it quickly when people ask questions during the Q&A section. The mocks and self study I was doing wasn’t efficient, so I figured I should dive into the domain I was most uncertain about, Identity. I watched all the Ladies Be Architect Identity videos that were out there. I think there were a few from Natalya, Charly and Susannah."
"The problem is you really need to have a structure. In the end, I started to do more mocks and then focused on learning what I didn’t know and I would tailor what I would focus my study on based on that. This approach, coupled with the FlowRepublic program, made my study more efficient.
"The most important part was doing the mocks, taking notes and finding where I wasn’t confident so I could build on my confidence. If you’re not confident, you’ll have a tough time in the Q&A."
When did you succeed in passing the CTA?
"For a bit of background, I had taken the 602 which was still optional at that point, and I got a pass which was a bit of a boost - I felt I was going in the right direction. I was working for a Salesforce partner company, where you usually have one person who regularly talks to Suzanne & the Salesforce architect credentialling team to arrange vouchers and exam dates. I gave that person my timeline of 3-4 months, and a month before my scheduled exam date, I got the notification saying my date was set for 17th June.
"That was super scary, because I was expecting 2-3 months notice. I was definitely scared but I was also excited, because previously it had felt like I was working at an endless and unobtainable goal. Having a scheduled date made it more tangible, which was nice but also scary. Did I mention scary? Luckily, I had a huge network of people who were happy to help, to be my judges - Seb at FlowRepublic for 1-1 and my study groups, the broader Architect Ohana with Melissa and a smaller one with my colleagues.
"I always solve uncertainty and chaos with structure and planning. That calmed me down because I knew I had a plan. It’s still going to be super tough but I know exactly what to do. Johann Furmann gives some similar advice - make sure you’re relaxed, so on the day you're ready to go and not too worried. Make sure you sleep well. I took the exam, and it went quite well, pretty much how I wanted to, except I had to take the exam virtually - I was hoping for an in-person exam."
How did you feel during the Q&A - did you feel you could comfortably answer the questions?
"The judges are there to help you find your mistakes and fix them, not to be there to be hard on you. Some people can be defensive, but that wasn’t my go-to. I tried really hard to understand what they’re asking and why.
"The questions that they ask have a point. I wasn’t too sure I had convinced them but the Q&A ended up before the time was up. I knew this sometimes meant a good result.
"I got a partial pass for that attempt because I didn’t succeed in the integration part. In summary, the feedback was the solution was right but the justification was not. The issue was I was proposing an optimal or good enough proposal but wasn’t able to explain why it was optimal or good enough. Which is perhaps why in the Q&A I felt at ease - because I had gaps I wasn’t aware of.
"It was only later, when I dove into the integration part more deeply, that I understood what I should have said because I didn’t even know there were other options. "
How did you feel during that wait period between your first attempt and your re-take?
"When you’re in limbo, you don’t want to study in that time. You also are unsure about what to study until you receive the feedback from the judges. The feedback gives you direction, the feedback email is everything. When I got my initial results, it was bittersweet because I knew it was a good result, but it also meant diving back in and getting back to that level of energy and commitment.
"I decided “we’re doing this”, and discussed the section re-take with my coach Seb: what can we do, how should we approach this. I talked to a few people in my network who have had section re-takes. I talked to Suzanne Ferguson on my timeline and what to expect.
"For the section re-take, I had way less time to prepare and present. You really have to think about what will be in there, what can you put in given the short amount of time. I did some last mile planning and squeezed in the mocks. I approached my section re-take with the same mindset as the full board - “I will do this”."
When you finished the section re-take, how did you feel waiting for the final results?
"I had to pass a few questions which was new. All in all, it was ok, because these questions were a follow-up on a follow-up. They want to see how far they can keep digging, which is usually a good sign. When I’m a judge in mocks, I only do that when I run out of questions. That put me more at ease. The judges were also super nice.
"It’s still scary because you invest so much time and energy. A lot more eyes were looking at me at this point. My network grew as I went through this journey. If I had failed, that’s part of the process and fine because people knew how much effort I put in. The days before and after, you’re freaking out. What if I failed? I’d feel like such a fool (which is silly because it’s a hard thing to do so failure is very much an option).
"When I got that email with my pass result I screamed. The email came in quite late in my day because it’s sent in US time. I was getting cosy when I got the email. My husband was sitting three metres from me, so he jumped a bit upon my scream and I was a bit scared to hear the results. I hesitated a moment before opening it because I needed to compose myself.
"The preparation was so hard, I spent so much time on this, but to become the first woman in Benelux to pass the CTA was so amazing."
What advice do you have for women and other minorities who are interested in a career as a Salesforce architect?
"I never expected to be here and to be in this career but I absolutely love it. Not only do I love to do it, but I know I’m good at it. I have my strengths and weaknesses as everyone but I have my own mindset.
"If I listened to my insecure self, looking at the list of capabilities as a must have vs. a list of what they are expecting I would have held myself back. Don’t doubt yourself. Once you start, maybe the CTA is not what you want. Maybe you're more interested in another domain. That’s the beauty of Salesforce and IT. You can create a role which fits what you want to do and you will find there is demand for it.
"Focus on your strengths and what you want to do and you will find a place in the Salesforce industry. Keep learning and growing towards it. I found that being an architect is where I fit in. Everyone has their ideal place - they just need to find what it is.
"You’ll find your way by asking questions and taking on additional responsibilities. For anyone that has doubts: please reach out, I’m happy to make time to help people to find their way."