Salesforce: The Office of Accessibility - four years on
DESCRIPTIONNearly four years ago, Salesforce stepped ahead in the tech and corporate world by announcing the formation of an Office of Accessibility, charged with pulling together all the strands of accessibility across the CRM giant, including workforce development, product development and design, and customer relations. Sight Tech Global touched base with the fledgling effort in 2020 and in this session we’ll hear what the accessibility team has learned after three years work to ensure every aspect of Salesforce embraces accessibility.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Well, thank you so much, Alice. It’s great to be here again at Sight Tech Global with a group of really good friends, old and new, from Salesforce. We’re going to hear some really interesting history of Salesforce. You hear a lot about companies and their maturity model as they develop their accessibility, functionality, and processes. I think we’re all really welcoming Salesforce’s rapid maturity model from 0 to 60, went from infant to near adult pretty quickly. So we have here today Kristian Burch, Derek Featherstone, and Paige Gulacy. Paige, I get that name right?
PAIGE GULACY: Gulacy. You were close.
LARRY GOLDBERG: So Gulacy. All right, and we’ll keep that. I’m going to ask each of you to introduce yourselves, your role, your title, and how long you’ve been at Salesforce. And then we’re going to get right into hearing how Salesforce developed its Office of Accessibility and how you help your customers. So let’s start right off with Kristian.
KRISTIAN BURCH: Thank you, Larry. My name is Kristian Burch. I am director of accessibility programs. I’m part of our Office of Accessibility. I’ve been at Salesforce almost 11 years. In the last four years, I’ve been honored to be a part of the Office of Accessibility. The prior seven years– I was a senior leader in our support organization and working with Paige very closely.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Excellent. And Derek.
DEREK FEATHERSTONE: Hey, I’m Derek Featherstone. I’m the VP of product accessibility and inclusive design here at Salesforce, been here for just shy of two years, joined in January of 2022. We are– my team and myself– we’re not actually part of the Office of Accessibility, but we’re part of the product organization and strategy and operations. And I think it actually highlights the strong partnership that we need to have with the Office of Accessibility to succeed with accessibility at scale for a company like Salesforce, so very, very happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Thanks, Derek. And yeah, we’re going to talk a bit about the organizational structure because every company is different. And based on their culture, it tends to be what works for them. So, Paige, tell us about yourself.
PAIGE GULACY: Yeah. Hey, thanks, Larry. My name is Paige. I manage the accessibility support team here at Salesforce. We are aligned to the support organization. I’ve been at Salesforce for a little over seven years. And I’ve been working in the support space pretty much my entire career. I work really closely with Kristian and really closely with Derek’s team on a regular basis.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Thanks, Paige. That issue of how you organize yourself is very interesting. And the fact that you come from different areas within the company really contributes to how you’ve really gotten on the map so quickly. Kristian, I’d love to hear a bit about the history of Salesforce’s accessibility efforts, how you establish this Office of Accessibility, and what kind of commitment it took from high up to establish that unit.
KRISTIAN BURCH: Larry, earlier, when you mentioned the rapid growth that we’ve had in the last three years in the accessibility space here, it does come from our executives, absolutely. I think the drive for this though did come from our equality group for our colleagues with disabilities and allies titled Abilityforce. Our Abilityforce colleagues championed these efforts through our executives, found the right executives to push this. And I think in a large corporation like Salesforce, that really is how you get the speed of execution is getting the executives involved. And I’ll highlight this accessibility support team as a perfect example of that. The creation of this team started with a vision from Abilityforce, which is, of course, our quality group for colleagues with disabilities, as well as a commitment from our support leaders, and then obviously the execution from the Office of Accessibility. I had this history working with the support team. And we found that looking at cases from customers with disabilities that some– I mean, I saw an egregious case where someone said JAWS was third-party software, so it was out of scope for the support issue. And so we had that. And then we had customers that were going through internal technology review audits and where do they send those results and who’s actioning them. And really, the support– the creation of the accessibility support team was our first opportunity to have what the Office of Accessibility– we follow a hub and spoke model, right? We don’t have someone sitting in our support organization. We want to influence that support organization to invest and create great experiences for our customers with disabilities. And this started, again, with the Abilityforce champion that we need to provide a better support for our customers with disabilities. We didn’t want to create just like a disability answer desk where everybody with a disability goes for with all questions, right? So we’ve done efforts to train our global support engineers how to provide a really great experience when you’re supporting someone with a disability as a subject matter expert in your area. However, we didn’t have a subject matter expert area for product accessibility. So when our customers would report those cases, it was dependent on what support engineer they received in their level of experience with digital accessibility. But now we have this dedicated team. And I would just like to read a quote of Jim Roth, who is now our president of Global Success. Three years ago when we created this team, he was the executive vice president of our support organization. And when we went to him in his Office of Accessibility and Abilityforce, he absolutely agreed we need a team that is there to help our customers who use assistive technology with our products to help them succeed on the platform. And I really enjoy this quote. And he says, “We have an important duty to ensure every single Salesforce customer and partner gets the support they need from Salesforce. We’re proud to have a strong focus on equality and inclusion for our trailblazers with disabilities. Partnering with the Office of Accessibility in this way furthers our vision of providing a support experience that is personal and effortless. We’re committed to continued disability inclusion and look forward to growing this team to help our customers.” That was two years ago, that quote, and it still is true to this day. I think when we find– when we get some of the questions for Paige, she’ll talk about that growth. And so to go back to your original point, Larry, the champion of this work, from people with disabilities that work at Salesforce to go to our executives and have that support from our executives to create this world-class enterprise accessibility support team, has just been phenomenal. And I’m honored to have been and privileged– and honored and privileged to have been a part of that.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Oh, thanks, Kristian. You used the word support a lot, so I think we have to talk to Paige now. Paige has got a long history in support even before accessibility. So I’m really curious to hear how Salesforce helps your customers with disabilities or serve their own employees and how you’re implementing what everyone talks about these days, that’s the shift-left mentality. Maybe you can explain what that is as well.
PAIGE GULACY: Sure. Yeah, thank you, Larry. And Kristian covered some of the history. But we did start as a really small team. We had two engineers when we first started. That was three years ago. Since then, we’ve pretty much quadrupled this team’s size. And that’s really to meet the customer demand that we’re seeing in enterprise-level customers and the public sector. And I’d say we’re now one of the industry’s largest enterprise-level accessibility support teams. And then just from an operational standpoint, each engineer that we hire and we bring in has extensive experience with assistive technology, including WCAG and 508– or section 508. And our team does directly support three major product areas, and that’s probably going to expand as we move forward. So we have extensive experience on the Salesforce platform. And then another thing I want to mention is that we do strive to hire support engineers with disabilities who have authentic experience with screen readers. This allows for those important perspectives and the authentic experiences to be shared when they’re working with customers or when we’re just simply trying to align and explain how intended functionality works with our product teams or internal teams. And then I want to mention audits. So they do account for a majority of our volume. And we typically see audits submitted in bulk to us. So we have a lot of conversations with customers and partners to shift left, which truly means incorporating accessibility earlier into your development life cycle. We often see customers wait until the end of their implementation to test for accessibility. So we end up with a big checklist of items and issues to validate, and it results in technical debt and delayed go lives. So those conversations my team is having and the advocacy in that space is really where I’d say we have a lot of the influence around the shifting left mentality. Also, a couple of things I want to touch on too is we want to encourage customers to manually test, right? So don’t rely on automated testing alone, involve users with disabilities throughout the process when you’re doing testing, and then report issues as you find them. So don’t wait until the end to report all your issues. And then the other thing that the support case process allows us to do is we can now tie volume to specific product areas. And we can work with Derek’s team and with our various product teams to explain impact and urgency. And that allows us to influence the product accessibility road map. So while this team isn’t directly involved in the development life cycle, we certainly have a tremendous influence on what shifting left means for Salesforce and our customers.
LARRY GOLDBERG: That’s interesting. You’re just leading so perfectly into the product guy. So, Derek, and you said you’ve been with Salesforce for a couple of years, but you’ve got a bit of a history in the field of accessibility. So I’d like to give you a chance to talk about where you came from and what you brought to Salesforce and then talk about customer insights that you’ve seen there and the customer demand that Paige talked about.
DEREK FEATHERSTONE: Yeah, thank you. So I have been in the accessibility industry since I can remember really. I went out and created my own web design and development company in 1999 at the height of everybody going out and creating their own web design and development companies. And I started that in ’99 and really focused on– have been focused on accessibility since the mid-1990s when I was teaching high school and first became aware of accessibility through that work when I was building websites and pages as resources for my students. So I eventually got to the point where accessibility became the only thing and created and grew our company. We had our own consulting agency, Simply Accessible, that we ran for many, many years up until 2018. And then we merged with Level Access to come together. And I was at Level Access for four years before coming to Salesforce, so lots of experience on the consulting side, the web design and the development side, and pretty significant experience more on the user experience side of things. And one of our hallmarks was always, how do we make sure that people with disabilities are represented within this process, right? It’s not enough to just go out and do audits with automated testing tools and manual testing. We actually need to really understand how technology works for people with disabilities that are trying to accomplish tasks and do the things that they need to do in their day to day. And that’s one of the perspectives that I’ve tried to bring here to Salesforce to remind us all to authentically connect to the lived experiences of people with disabilities. And that becomes one of many data feeds or data signals or pieces of data that we use to create this overall picture here of how we’re doing from a product accessibility perspective. So we take insights that we gain from audits, and from internal testing, from doing usability studies and exploratory work, whether it’s at the end of creating a product or near the beginning, taking all of those insights and using that to really identify the barriers that exist, not just in software that we’ve already created, but also in things that we have yet to create. And it’s really, really important to us to have that perspective of people with disabilities before we design and build the thing. So we take all of that data. And the data that we get from customers via Paige’s team, those support cases that come in, the things that we get from external audits or internal testing, and that those inclusive design sessions in whatever form they take– that all gives us a really great picture of how we’re doing and how we need to prioritize. I think that’s the bottom line. The influence that that has on us is that it helps us to prioritize. It lets us see where our customers are seeing issues, where are we seeing issues, where are people with disabilities experiencing barriers in our software or in the ways in which we are thinking about creating new things. And so prioritizing and seeing where our efforts have been successful or maybe less than successful are important. So I’ll give you one example of that. We are on a journey honestly with data to figure out things like, how is Team X doing with keyboard-related accessibility release over release over release? And if we’re doing well there, great. How do we take that and then scale that to other teams? If we are not doing well there, how do we create enablement that actually improves our performance in that area? And how do we do that all at scale? And I think that data that we get is absolutely critical to help us figure out what we need to do to do this at scale. Rather than thinking about it as just one small, little accessibility issue that needs to be solved, it’s really about how do we do this at scale.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Well, you’re a pretty big company. So you have a pretty big impact internally and on the rest of the world is as well. It’s interesting that here are the three of you in three different departments, three different bosses, I assume, reporting up to different organizations. We’re all often asked, what’s the best way to set up my accessibility team? And I always answer, well, it depends on your company and your culture, but we’re hearing this idea of hub and spoke over and over again. And I think Paige has talked about that as well. So I’m curious if you could explain that a little bit because here you are, three different departments. How do you coordinate that? And you also said you have the biggest support team that you’ve heard of in the industry. So what’s your trajectory? Where do you see that going?
PAIGE GULACY: Yeah. Thanks, Larry. So it’s really important that support doesn’t operate in a silo, right? So we have established really strong partnerships with Kristian and the Office of Accessibility who helps drive conversations with customers proactively to talk about their implementation, to talk about best practices. And then we get to the support process. Our team is able to work with the customer and provide feedback and create– or create investigations and drive those conversations with product teams which then lands with Derek. So keeping a really close relationship and having consistent conversations is really, really important for all of our success. And just in terms of growth, so we’ve seen an explosion of growth in our enterprise level and public sector customers, which is awesome because they’re placing great emphasis on accessibility best practices and conformance. And over the years, just these three years, we’ve been scaling to meet that demand. And right now, from an operational standpoint, our support is currently focused on EMER only, but we do have support engineers who are located around the globe. And then when we’re done with our most recent hiring efforts, we will be a global team. So we’ll be supporting customers in all of our geos. And I want to mention another important component of the hub and spoke is not just with our extended stakeholders, but it’s also with our global support teams. So it’s really critical that we collaborate really closely with other support teams that may receive an issue that involves a customer with a disability. So we’ve done a lot of enablement and advocacy to ensure that our frontline engineers and any engineer who really is going to work with the customer with a disability is comfortable doing that. And they have a training to do so, or they have training to engage our team appropriately so that we can get the right resources in front with the customer. And I think considering the vast number of customers who are prioritizing accessibility efforts, I do anticipate this team to continue to scale and to grow to that demand. And eventually, we’ll have a big enough team where we’ll have specific engineers specializing in specific product areas. And I think a lot of our growth too is attributed to our product teams, right? So as they continue to prioritize accessibility and create more accessible experiences, our team will grow to support that volume that we’ll see from customers.
LARRY GOLDBERG: You mentioned the customer demand. It’s so great to hear that your customers are asking for this, which is one of the principles and levers for change that Kristian and I have both been working on. And that is the idea of procure access, the procurement side. Salesforce has been a major supporter of this concept, which I’ll ask Kristian to explain. And Salesforce– it’s an interesting place because you’re both a supplier or a vendor at a customer. And you serve your customers. So it’s a really interesting place for you to be. So if you could, Kristian, tell us a little bit about procure access and how that’s hopefully helping your business.
KRISTIAN BURCH: Yeah. So like Paige mentioned, the hub and spoke model and the partnership we have– I get an opportunity to be a lot more proactive. Support teams and our support teams, specifically our support engineers, our break fix, right, as they should be– that’s where really the idea of any customer support is. There’s a potential issue, and we need a way for a customer to report what might be an issue and have an expert validate those findings and create bugs and et cetera. However, we know that our customers are committed to more than just WCAG 2.1 AA, right? We’ve got customers asking about usability, different areas of assistive technology. But we start with WCAG 2.1 AA, right? So if there is a success criteria issue, then that’s where Paige’s team can come in. But what happens when there isn’t a WCAG success criteria violation or potential violation, right? That’s when I get to come in and talk to customers. And that’s often presales. So when a customer wants to know what is Salesforce’s commitment, I get to join those conversations and talk about our commitment to accessibility. I’m obviously very, very proud of we’re one of the original signers of the Procure Access statement through disability. And part of that, though, was I went to our internal team and said, hey, I really want us to be a signer on this. We commit to selling accessible products. And I want us to be purchasing accessible technology. And they said, OK, well, tell us more about what are– sorry, they is our legal team said what– and our procurement team– they said, tell us more about what we sell and how we do it because if we’re going to ask our vendors to do this, we better be doing it as well. And so it just comes down to having the commitment, right? We’re all on this journey of progress. And ideally, we have perfection– and now, there’s this progress, not perfection. I think we can work towards perfection, but we’re all humans. And there’s obviously the right commitment from companies that need to be made, the right level of remediation. And that’s why we have Paige and her team. We have the right partnership with our product organization through Derek and his leadership. I think anytime that there’s a company that is concerned about– if I’m procuring accessible products, sometimes I’ll talk to customers. They say, well, according to your VPAT or– and they don’t even use the term ACR. I know already that they’re oftentimes doing this from a checklist exercise. They’ll say, hey, but you only have 90% conformance. And we think, OK, well, the 10% that’s not conforming has very minimal impact. And that’s concerning anyway to look at a percentage because those don’t tell us anything, right? We look at– one of the things that I really appreciate, by the way, about Derek is he has such a thorough understanding of accessibility and as well with our products we look at the impact, right? And what is the impact? We talk to people with disabilities. And that’s how we drive. And I think Procure Access is what’s enabled us to have those conversations, the commitment, the ability to meet the commitment. Do they have the right people? Are they hiring people with disabilities? Is there research involved that includes people with disabilities that are actually consumers and then the ability to remediate like I mentioned earlier? And so I think having that allows me to go in and have conversations with our customers to instill that level of confidence and, at the same time, gives me the opportunity. As the Office of Accessibility is clearly involved in accessible procurement, I get to go have those exact same conversations with our vendors. We have a responsibility, as one of the largest technology companies in the world, to help all these startups that are trying to pitch technology to Salesforce. I don’t want to shut the doors on these folks just because they have an inaccessible tool, a piece of technology. I want to have conversation. I want to help push them and do what our customers are doing for us and push us to do better. And so as long as I think we’re all working from a place of good intent and the right level of commitment, I think that our Procure Access partnership has been invaluable for both areas of my work.
LARRY GOLDBERG: That’s great. Anyone who’s interested in Procure Access could find them on the disability in website. And it really is about systemic change. If people are at major corporations– and you can see who signed on on their site– all demand that the products they’re buying for their customers and for their employees is accessible, that can have some pretty major change. And that’s I think why so many big corporations are supporting it. Now, Derek, you and I have worked on another systemic change issue, which I think we have a minute or two to talk about. And that’s Teach Access, also looking to try to move the needle in a major way. And Salesforce has been a wonderful supporter of Teach Access as well. So can you tell us a few words about that?
DEREK FEATHERSTONE: Yeah, I think it’s one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle that seems to be missing in the industry. And this is not just a 2023 thing. This has historically been the case where we see lots of professionals coming into the web industry, the software industry, whatever it may be. And they don’t necessarily know even the basics of what accessibility is. Or I’ll say this, but there’s lots of people that don’t even know the people with disabilities can use computers, right? Like that still exists. That is very real and something that we think we should be addressing at a systemic level. And that’s really where Teach Access comes in, providing whatever we can do to make sure that people that are graduating or that are coming through our school systems or coming through as apprentices, or junior programmers, or whatever, that they all come in with at least some basic understanding of some accessibility principles. And that we have built that into their lives, so it’s not suddenly something new when they join an organization like Salesforce, or any other enterprise, or even small business, that accessibility isn’t suddenly this new thing that they’ve never heard of before. And that just makes the work with Teach Access so, so important. It really, really is.
LARRY GOLDBERG: Well, as a board member of Teach Access, I thank you for your support. It’s having a massive effect. And we’re seeing now students coming out of colleges who actually know what accessibility is, the basic principles, know what WCAG is, know how to spell the word. So we’re really pleased on how things have gone there. So, Paige, I’m going to give you the last word because you’ve mentioned a couple of initiatives that are very important to Salesforce, the voice of the customer and the IdeaExchange. Can you tell us a little bit about those two initiatives?
PAIGE GULACY: Sure. Yeah, so the IdeaExchange is a feedback platform. So anyone who has an idea on, like, a feature enhancement can go ahead and submit that idea, or they can vote on preexisting ideas. And then our product teams will review those regularly. And they typically look at the top voted ideas, and then they’ll incorporate those into one of our major releases, which happen three times a year. So our support team I’d say typically will receive a case. And it’ll turn in– it’ll originally be about a feature request, or it might turn into a feature request conversation. And so our support teams can work really closely with our account teams. And that’s where the voice of the customer, the internal prioritization comes into play that works in tandem with the IdeaExchange that the customers are submitting on that platform. So we advocate for our customers really strongly internally. And the support team has a really powerful say in those things that we’re seeing, especially the trends, the repeat asks that we’re seeing from customers. So my team has done a fantastic job driving visibility across those issues.
LARRY GOLDBERG: So democracy comes to the engineering team and through our Salesforce to actually decide what are the hot issues that need to be tackled. That’s great to hear. And there’s nothing like empowering a designer or an engineer with what they see as the needs on accessibility very effective. So we’re running out of time now. I want to thank all of you from Salesforce. I want to thank Salesforce for being a thought leader in this field and supporting all these major important initiatives. So thank you to Paige, and to Kristian, and to Derek. And we will see you hopefully face-to-face again sometime soon.