Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer,

I work as an organizer for a nonprofit that recently started using Salesforce to track all our organizing data. I’m lucky to be supported by a very patient and competent team of data wizards who’ve been training the organizers in this transition. But the learning curve has been so very steep, and despite their Herculean efforts – and my own desire to keep good data! – I’m still flummoxed. What’s more, sometimes it feels like we’re talking past each other. I fear that my fellow organizers don’t see the data team’s vision, and I’m not sure the data wizards understand what’s been so challenging to the organizers about learning and adopting Salesforce.

I know that you typically write for people on the organizers’ side of this struggle, but I’m curious about what advice you’d have for folks in the data team’s position. What should data whizzes know before embarking on efforts to bring their less-tech-savvy, field-focused, fellow changemakers on board with new, more complex data practices? I just want to help them help me!

Sincerely, What’s an “Object” Again?

Dear Object,

WAY TO GO on making a commitment (to your self, to your org, and to the fight ahead) to keep your data clean and orderly. I know that work isn’t glamorous. I know that it can be frustrating. It largely goes unseen in our movement spaces. I know the feelings of exasperation or heartbreak during rocky implementations. I am glad that you are building a relationship with your data team and I’m glad that they have your back. Thank you for writing in to TDAA and even more, thank you for the work you are doing to fight for the environmentally just future that we need. <3

First of all, Object, what’s an object? You have a right to know! In Salesforce, I think of an object as a basically a spreadsheet (rows + columns, blah blah blah). You probably encounter objects as the Tabs in your homescreen. For your data team, objects have other properties (tabs, record types, validation rules, page layouts, field sets, and more!). It’s our job to make each object as useful and as intuitive as possible for YOU! That includes clear documentation, well-designed apps (app = collection of objects and functionality!), and plenty of support. Want to learn more about relational databases? I wrote about that here!

Ok now that I got that off my chest, I want to speak directly to your admins – and my highest aspirations for myself as an admin. Because I think us admins need to do better. When I hear someone suggest that Database Managers are simply responsible for records and fields, the first thing I think is “I object!” #PunIntended

I always say to myself, “I came to work to be in a database all day, but not my end users! They have other jobs, other responsibilities, other passions! We need to celebrate those; minimize the time they spend doing repetitive data tasks; and maximize how data can support their goals.” That being said, we also need to be adamant that no one is absolved of their data responsibilities. Not even the Executive Director!

We are not just database administrators… we are also product managers, integration specialists, business analysts, strategic planners, trainers, user experience designers, technical writers, and so much more. We can learn from these different fields and get better at incorporating their best practices into our day to do day work. Lately, I’ve been especially curious to learn about the UX world. Here’s a cheeky post about what it means to be “more than an admin!

It’s our job to counteract generations of mansplaining, impostor syndrome, and bad technology. All of these result in users having #feelings about databases (who can blame them??!) We need trauma-informed data specialists. We need to be unrelentingly supportive. Unapologetic in holding our teams to high standards. Generous with praise. Copious with documentation. Patient. Service-oriented. Loving. Yep, I said it. LOVING.

You know how we tell our users “if it’s not in Salesforce, it didn’t happen?” What I tell my admins is, “If Salesforce features aren’t documented, they aren’t real.” I mean it. Documentation is THAT important. My vision is to create a library of written documentation (with screenshots) AND a video gallery with step by step demos of how to do core functions in the system. This takes time and dedication – I’m certainly not there yet. I designate 3 hours (every Friday morning) to work on our documentation and training needs. I have been inspired by the docs writing team at and their “Compassionate Technical Writing” approach. (I can’t find a link online, so email me if you want to read their whitepaper on this topic)!

Jargon. We all use it… but it’s a problem. I try to avoid jargon as much as possible, but sometimes I can’t tell when I’m using a term that isn’t accessible because I’m so deep in the database world. One of my goals is to create a “glossary” for my users so that they can learn the lingo AND so that we can try to improve the “talking past each other” issue. Has your org successfully done this? Have you identified new vocab, acronyms, abbreviations, technical terminology associated with the database? This project has an added benefit of supporting new staff as they get acclimated to the organization. You could make this a collaborative project by inviting end users to submit terms that they aren’t sure about. Then, you can share a word of the week!

One of my goals is to conduct (what will become…) an annual survey of users to better understand how we are doing with meeting their needs and prioritize “heavy lifts” for the year ahead. It’s really hard to do that in the first year of an implementation when you are still learning the ropes! Right now, I’m in year two of an implementation and I feel like we are just getting to a point where we can start planning for the future now that we’re almost done putting out fires. It’s a process… I get it. I’m livin’ it! (Perhaps this is a good place to link to two of my favorite posts… one about “change management” and one about how activism has made me a better admin).

As a part of that process, I have made it a priority to shadow my users and “see what they see” when they click around. Sometimes I can use that time to gently re-direct them (did you know that you can click over here to get there faster?), share documentation to refresh their memory on features (“here’s a doc for you to reference later!”), or see what their real pain points are (“yikes! I didn’t realize how non-intuitive that was!” I can even identify pain points that they wouldn’t quite put into words. If a picture is worth 100 words, a demo is worth like 10,000! In these sessions, when someone tells me that they are struggling with something, I take them seriously. I try REALLY REALLY hard to avoid trafficking in the “blame and shame game” and instead, listen compassionately and give them a realistic timeframe when they can expect a resolution or an update from me about their database problem.

Speaking of feedback… it’s ok to admit when you’ve made a mistake! And… if you haven’t already, I would recommend establishing a committee of “super users” to give you feedback on a more regular basis. Some organizations call these Centers of Excellence… but I call mine the Database Champions!

Recently I was doing a mini consulting project with an organization that serves the Philly LGBT community. In each meeting, and on every document that I produced, I included their mission statement. It was so important for me to get grounded in mission and stay grounded in mission. After all, the end-goal is never clean data. The end-goal is clean air, clean water, and people power. The end goal is environmental justice. And we need to agree on data standards that will help us build a movement to get there. Every training should connect to something practical and related to mission! I think that’s a great way to bridge the Admin/Program divide in a nonprofit context.

It turns out that I had a lot to say about being a service-oriented Admin!

Thank you so much for asking and hearing me out!

PS – What’s an Object? I think you’re ready to explain that one to other people!

With love and optimism, Spreadsheet Whisperer

2 thoughts on “Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer, What’s an Object?

  1. Thank you for this post! “If it’s not documented, it doesn’t exist” really resonated with me. While I’d like to think I’m doing a decent job with documentation, I’ve gotten behind on two newer processes, and this post prompted me to set aside time TOMORROW to dig in.We’re definitely getting to the point where users are accepting the mantra “If it’s not in Salesforce, it didn’t happen,” but it’s on me to hold myself accountable for supporting them in achieving that. Besides, I’m so proud of the new stuff I’ve built, and I’m convinced it will help them do their jobs better (I’m not designing in a vacuum), so I really need to help them make the most of it!

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