Sunday, November 24, 2013

Salesforce Shows Off Impressive Dreamforce 2013

I have been away from large enterprises for long enough to be in the dark about the latest developments in ERP systems.  I had heard of Salesforce (CRM) from other professionals but I had little idea of what they did.  That's why I had to check out their Dreamforce 2013 extravaganza.  I got the free expo pass but maybe next year I can convince these folks to let me into the exclusive lounge for the investor community.  Security around the entire campus was pretty tight and I was not going to be able to score very much free food unless I could locate some afterparties.

Check out that ginormous inflatable honeycomb.  The Dreamforce people said it was the largest inflatable structure in North America.  It took up the entire street outside Moscone Center and looked like the residence of some science fiction monster.  I was waiting for the Rancor from Star Wars to come out of there and start throwing furniture hither and yon.  It was probably supposed to look like a cloud but my imagination doesn't really match the corporate design mentality.

CNBC financial guru Jim Cramer was broadcasting from Dreamforce Plaza on the first day. Academic studies have shown that a portfolio of his daily stock picks would have underperformed broad market indexes.

My first glance at demos of the Salesforce CRM modules showed me just how far behind the technology curve the US government and its military still lag. A user with a high school education can drag and drop reporting tools into a Salesforce business intelligence dashboard in minutes. A similar analyst for logistics or intelligence systems in the US Army would need weeks of training on incompatible systems.

I started off with the AppExchange partner keynote.  I was unclear on their use of the "seats" metric as a measure of closing new accounts.  Some web searching tells me that seat counts are the number of users in an enterprise who subscribe to that company's license for Salesforce modules.  Okay, got it.  The Salesforce leaders speaking at this keynote expect an eventual $1T wealth transfer to the cloud and claimed that 70% of venture investment deals are now for enterprise solutions.  That confirms what I've heard at other conferences now that VCs have lost interest in consumer deals.  Salesforce calls their partners "ISVs" which I take to mean independent software vendors.  I can't see why they portray having 63% of their users with one app and 23% of their users with five apps as some kind of smashing success.  That divergence looks to me like Salesforce customers mostly prefer single servings rather than a smorgasbord of integrated products.  They introduced their market segment focus for the next year and I noticed that their six chosen sectors were all bubble-driven.  Automotive, media, consumer retail, financial services, health care, and the public sector are all at the peak of their employment curves because they are all driven to some extent by the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing.  I hope Salesforce can quickly pivot to serving the hard asset sectors once hyperinflation kicks in.

All of the AppExchange speakers concurred that business domain knowledge is way more important than tech knowledge when operating ERP systems.  That pretty much confirms what I heard at Decision CAMP about BRMS.  Domain experts understand verticals' performance metrics and can hire any tech mercenaries they need to build apps.  I totally admire Salesforce's ability to stroke their customers.  Time after time they showcased their biggest clients at these keynotes.  They invited even their smaller customers to get on stage and share their love for Salesforce solutions.  These small players get free publicity and independent validation for their business models just for standing on a platform at Dreamforce.  The VC money going to Salesforce's ISVs ($2B by their claim) must be driving the addition of accelerator-specific functionality to their AppExchange.  Let's see if accelerators start directing their startups to launch apps on AppExchange Accelerate.  I noticed that all of the men who spoke at this keynote wore conservative suits and ties.  The women wore conservative suits with no visible cleavage (darn it) and either pantsuits or dark hosiery (darn it again, I'm a leg man).  I've never seen such conservative dress at a tech conference.  I was in the back of this keynote going "Woo, Salesforce, yeah!" just to see who noticed my exuberance.  I exchanged smirks with a couple of nearby onlookers who were probably not Salesforce employees.

The Cloud Alliance keynote had senior Salesforce honchos Tyler Prince and Keith Block joking about who would have the best afterparty.  If these people want me at their afterparties, they need to tout free food and booze, plus attractive women.  The system integration consultants in attendance seemed to define themselves by the size of their practice they commit to working on the leading ERP brands, with SAP and Oracle as Salesforce's main competitors.  Consultants have the vertical-specific domain expertise that can figure out where Salesforce's solutions are supposed to fit.  Now I'm starting to wonder how different my career might have been if I had gone to work for one of these leading consulting firms instead of financial service providers.  I learned a new word from the parade of consultants on stage:  "enablement."  I attend these conferences to provide some enablement for my career, in every sense of that word.  The keynoters avoided mentioning the Affordable Care Act in their pursuit of the health care vertical, which is smart if they don't want to look bad when it is eventually repealed or just collapses.  Check out Gartner's Magic Quadrant rating for Salesforce because these square-jawed top execs sure like it.  A lot of these Salesforce guys on stage sure looked like former athletes or frat boys who grew up and parlayed their amiability into sales careers.

The conference even had a talk just for those of us who were new to Dreamforce.  They claim the title of the world's largest software conference but the metric they threw around of 135K attendees seems too high for the physical space of Moscone Center.  There's an obvious rivalry here with Oracle and some of my colleagues who attended told me later that Dreamforce is a lot like Oracle OpenWorld, which I unfortunately missed this year.  One meme that pervaded this talk and the entire conference was the Salesforce 1/1/1 philosophy of giving 1% of their time, product, and earnings to charity.  I think that's pretty cool.  These Salesforce acolytes said the line for Marc's keynote typically formed up early.  I had to admire the party-line worship of this guy because everybody was staying on message.

Marc Benioff had a conversation on disruptive innovation with Drew Houston of Dropbox.  Marc was sporting some extremely shiny customized Christian Louboutin shoes with cloud motifs.  Billionaire CEOs can wear whatever they please including custom high-tops.  They shared some baloney about Pearl Jam being authentic and not selling out.  Uh, fellas, Pearl Jam was the best-selling rock band in the world for years and now they have enough money to do whatever they want, including playing obscure songs in backwater venues.  I don't think major cloud providers want to go down that road.  This was the first keynote where I noticed Marc had what looked like a wearable device on his left wrist, which he later confirmed in his own keynote to be a Fitbit wristband.  I was expecting some major revelations about how to build a successful company but Drew's lessons were the same things I'd heard elsewhere about how the founder's role becomes less technical and more managerial as a company grows.  I was dismayed to hear that Dropbox pursued acquisitions as a hiring strategy.  That's something very large companies do to secure key talent in a few product development roles called acqui-hires.  A startup buying another startup just to hire a few people seems to me like a waste of money.  Hey entrepreneurs, you can can scale up your sales and technical staff through temp-to-hire firms and still be flexible.  Marc said he knows he's winning when boilerplate media stories appear about dominant players destroying him.  That's totally gratifying.  I want my own ego stroked by lots of negative press if it drives traffic to my site and blogs.

My first glimpse of Marc in action on stage with Drew was instructive in how rock star CEOs build successful personality cults.  Now I see why there was a line out the door for Marc's talk.  The earlier keynotes would burst into spontaneous applause when Salesforce executives announced the firm's successes.  There must be lots of employees planted in the high-profile keynotes to make that reaction look spontaneous.  Marc's emphasis on formalizing the 1/1/1 paradigm in Salesforce's ethos gives the firm an emotional hook when it engages customers.  I've also blogged before about how one of the key drivers of a corporation's culture is its CEO's personality.  Marc's public persona endorses generosity, innovation, pay-it-forward, and giving back.  People inside Salesforce who want to move up will follow suit or at least go through the motions in public.  People outside Salesforce who want to see what all the magic is about will line up for Marc's morning keynote because they want to be like him.  BTW, I noticed that neither Marc nor Drew were wearing neckties.  Real techies don't wear neckties.  Former fraternity/sorority types who gravitate to sales careers wear neckties because they have to impress the tech types who employ them.

Dreamforce uses its time efficiently. The top-tier stages were full of intermission speakers in between keynotes, hosted by longtime tech guru Peter Coffee.  Salesforce brought out their chiefs of strategy and trust (aka security) because that stuff matters in the cloud.  I guess major corporate events need warm-up acts.  I actually ran into Mr. Coffee (no jokes please) later in the week outside the conference.  He was a nice guy and his public persona is genuine.

Vivek Kundra gave his keynote on becoming a customer company, which of course supports the Salesforce theme of the year pushing the "Internet of Customers."  I tried to figure out what he meant by the market / sell / service / build hierarchy but I don't see how that's an improvement over time-tested customer acquisition cycles.  Sometimes corporations make up stuff as they go along because they can't remember the four marketing P's of product, price, placement, and promotion we all learned in business school.  Salesforce has to contend with Microsoft Dynamics in this space.  It's cool that Salesforce's tools have drag-and-drop interfaces so domain users can build their own dashboards.  They even have geolocation tools in there.  Man, I've really been away from enterprises.  The typical dashboard's team chatter and heavy graphics are reminiscent of Facebook's wall.  Their platform means no employee can hide from fact-based HR checkups, which is precisely why Salesforce will never be able to sell this to government agencies.

The next morning's keynote with Marc Benioff really did have massive lines for the main showroom, so I had to occupy an overflow room at the Marriott Marquis.  Salesforce continued to stroke their biggest clients and partners during the intermission displays.  I would like to know how companies define the ROI of splashy events.  Does all this hoopla with concerts and speakers add to net income?  The benefit of closing a big new account is lost somewhere in the aggregation of the show's total cost.  Salesforce's Safe Harbor statements prior to each keynote mean that we shouldn't make our investment decisions on anything these executives say, especially when they say how great Salesforce is at making things happen.  Read the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 to see just how hard it will be to sue any public company that says anything about itself.

Marc Benioff gave his long-awaited keynote.  I'm used to keynotes at trade shows that showcase industry knowledge and innovation.  Single-sponsor keynotes are mutual lovefests between clients, executives, and employees.  Huey Lewis and the News opened the keynote with "Back In Time" and they suck just as badly now as they did back then.  I know corporate events need acceptable, cleaned-up rock bands and these guys are locals.  Still, they sucked.  I liked "Back to the Future" when I was a pre-teen because I had only tasted mass-produced lowbrow entertainment in my youth.  My tastes are now far more refined.

Marc came out thanking everyone.  Rock star CEOs do that.  The whole point of opening with a rock band is to drive home the message that the CEO belongs on the same stage to receive unquestioning adoration.  He showed off his wearable medical device, his 1/1/1 philosophy, and the sick kids who eagerly await the completion of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.  I gotta hand it to this guy.  Nothing tugs heartstrings like images of sick kids smiling and getting well.  The advertisements around San Francisco for this in-progress hospital have been visible for weeks but only now did I draw the connection between that PR campaign and Dreamforce.  The health care sector is one of Salesforce's announced target markets and a big tax writeoff for Marc matches a UCSF business relationship perfectly.  I don't know whether UCSF is also a Salesforce client but the utility of such a showpiece partner for the health care sector is an undeniably compelling affiliation.  The overflow audience applauded the UCSF video and I looked behind me to see if the Salesforce hall monitors for the room had instigated that reaction.  I was curious about that because I've never seen such behavior in an audience that was physically remote from a speaker.  I could not identify the corporate plants and was left to wonder whether a corporate do-gooder model is really so compelling to people.  Sentiment has implications for B-Corporation certification if it can live without paid prompters.

Prime Minister of Haiti Laurent Lamothe, supermodel Petra Nemcova, and superjerk Sean Penn showed up to thank Salesforce for supporting their charity work in Haiti.  I've seen photos of Petra without her clothing so it was disappointing to see her fully dressed.  She's very articulate but that's not what held my attention while the camera had her in frame.  Sean Penn looked like he didn't even want to be there.  Actors who think they can rehab their immature images through high-visibility charity work have not all figured out how to be better human beings.  I'm pretty sure I saw superinvestor Ron Conway in the audience but Marc didn't ask him to speak.  Marc segued over to Huey Lewis for "The Power of Love" and they still sucked.

Marc has a very expansive speaking style and uses words like "amazing, phenomenal" pretty heavily.  He went into overdrive when his co-founder Parker Harris drove a Tesla onto the stage dressed like Doc from, you know it, "Back to the Future."  They had obviously rehearsed their skit about how the Salesforce1 platform was the future of cloud computing but they kept breaking character with winks and nods.  Come on, we know this great software thing isn't really from the future and neither is the gag "CEO Mood Detector" app with Marc's image.  It was a cute skit.

Some other top Salesforce honchos pushed their product lines' cloud capabilities.  We're going to see service techs wearing Google Glass and sales reps pulling Big Data feeds from their smartwatches during prospecting meetings.  Sales managers love drip campaigns but they never worked for me.  They will work now because every drip will be fully and automatically customized.  Marketing managers can even design campaigns around query results because everything comes with linked data.  Parker Harris went "Back to the Future" to show us the tech that's already here.  Don't even try to fight the future.  There's no going back.
I had to see this live and not just for the cameos of people like Meg Whitman.  Some combination of ringers in the audience and the emotional hook of philanthropy set the tone for Marc's sales pitch of Salesforce.  Emotional connections matter and even the smartest people in the audience think this way.  Marc described his people as "doing God's work" several times.  Good for him if he means it.

I made my rounds through the expo floors in between these keynote sales pitches.  The one most important technical point I learned is that services exist to transform MS Excel files into apps.  That is a technique I'll have to explore.  Some of the financial models I've built might work as freemium apps if I can configure them for app stores.

There was some breaking news from Dreamforce 2013:  Alfidi Capital takes over NBC Universal.  Nah, actually I just occupied a chair in the fake studio NBC set up for its exhibit.  Let's go in for a close-up.

The week's biggest news story should have been this heartwarming tale from San Francisco about Yours Truly, a veteran-turned-financier who takes Dreamforce 2013 by storm.  There was no teleprompter but the TV camera was impressive.  Teleprompter mastery has been a prerequisite for the Presidency since 1960.  It has not yet overtaken the bloodline requirement.

I had one very serendipitous moment as I headed into Moscone South for another keynote.  I ran into Parker Harris, co-founder of Salesforce, at Dreamforce 2013.  Mr. Harris is on my right (your left).  The other gentleman in the photo is the chief developer of their new flagship product, Salesforce1.  Mr. Harris is probably a genius given his academic background and he was super-nice for agreeing to a picture.  He is rich enough and smart enough to do whatever he likes in life.  That's my inspiration for attending.

I didn't get much from the keynote pitch for other than an appreciation for Salesforce's ability to obtain some very cool Internet domain names.  If clean data is really valuable then I need to get my Excel models out as apps, so the world can see how I value data as a financial asset.  I skipped a lot of the other product keynotes because I just don't use the products, and I missed out on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's event due to a conflicting event I had to attend in San Jose.  I know she's hot and all that but I heard she was boring.  I'm busy, folks.  It's not easy being a CEO because I'm in demand.

I also did not attend the evening concert with Blondie and Green Day.  Blondie isn't my type of music but those who are curious can check out their lead singer Debbie Harry for the many unclad figure studies she gave the world in her youth.  She looked magnificent and she is not a natural Blondie, if you know what I mean.  I have never seen Green Day live but they've always been rumored to be a corporate simulation of a punk rock band.  No corporate event would ever employ a real punk band so that must be the case.

One very important Salesforce partner appeared as the warm-up to the Facebook lady's keynote.  Veterans2Work had an expo booth and was invited on stage to showcase the veterans who completed Salesforce Administrator training.  They need more corporate sponsors to pay the vets' tuition.  The organization uses Salesforce products to manage their contacts and recruiting pipeline, and they credit the 1/1/1 model for providing them with support.  I hate to think that vets would be unemployable without training on specific product brands but that's the reality of today's workplace.  I like to think that companies doing business with the federal government would hire veterans for their security clearances and knowledge of the procurement system.

Sheryl Sandberg's keynote scored me a free copy of her book Lean In.  I am now curious about how many bestselling hardcover titles are driven by bulk corporate purchases as event giveaways.  Marc and Sheryl came out and the first thing he mentioned was her early mentor Larry Summers.  I noted from Marc's background that he was also recognized very early in his career and fast-tracked to stardom.  It's clear to me from these anecdotes that corporate leaders must show early promise to become top leaders.  There are no such things as late bloomers in large enterprises.  Any college graduate who isn't selected for a management track by their mid-20s will stay at the entry level forever.  If you don't get your Springsteen / Cox "Dancing In The Dark" moment where someone plucks you out of a crowd for stardom by age 25, you may as well become an entrepreneur because otherwise you'll spend the next four decades warming a chair in customer service.

I don't think I need to repeat Sheryl's great points on empowering women other than to note that her comment on laundry chores got a sustained audience reaction that even Marc wouldn't touch.  I can totally relate to the discouraging messages Sheryl says women get about their career ambitions.  I got those same messages because of my military background.  Marc gave Sheryl a light hug at the end of their talk, but would he have hugged a male executive in the same way?  He sure didn't hug Parker Harris during their earlier "Back to the Future" keynote skit and they've had a much more involved history of working together.  If we're going to take Sheryl's advice on addressing gender differences then let's start by addressing hugs.  Either everyone gets one or nobody gets one if we're serious about treating people equally.

Marc also said during his talk with Sheryl that he likes military metaphors, "surge" and all.  I'd like to know whether Salesforce hires military veterans, either from Veterans2Work or other sources.  I'd like to know whether they participate in Hero2Hired or Hiring Our Heroes.  Gender equality begets equality for other underrepresented demographics.

The only other keynote I had time to attend on the final day of Dreamforce was Dr. David Agus.  Everybody who's anybody has a Steve Jobs story and Dr. Agus said Steve asked him to change the title of his book to something more positive and declarative.  Steve understood marketing.  I liked what the doctor said about how controlling complex emergent systems doesn't mean we always have to understand them.  My analogy to finance is that capital markets are complex emergent systems and that a hedge fund manager's estimation of how stock prices change is less important that knowing how simple macro inputs will move markets.  I'll betcha human health works that way too.  I'll also betcha that the quantified self plus gamification motivate people to make healthier choices.  The doctor said move more and you'll live longer, and your body likes regularity in sleep and meals.  That's awesome advice.  I'm no expert on proteomics or microbiomics so don't ask me how those fields operate.  I do think that the Human Microbiome Project is a high-level counterpart to DIY biohacking, and that the ACA's Federal Data Services Hub will eventually be able to push the results from this project and other research efforts into the HealthData stream.  Health sector disruption must be data-driven.

I did score a free copy of Dr. Deepak Chopra's latest book on my way out of the keynote room but I didn't have time to hear him talk.  The guy is controversial and I've never studied him closely enough to hold an opinion of his work.  Give me some time to read his work and his critics' views.

Dreamforce was totally worth my time.  It inspired me to host my own high-level business event.  I am seriously thinking about launching "AlfidiFest" in 2014 to capture the spirit of self-promoting, ego-driven corporate showcases.  I can't promise anything that will give Dreamforce or Oracle OpenWorld a run for their money right away but it should carry some familiar themes.  My AlfidiFest will feature attractive women providing me with grown-up beverages and entertainment.  The main event will be me showcasing my genius.  The most suitable venue might be a bar in SoMa but if it succeeds then I'll have to consider Moscone Center in future years.  Until then, there's always next year's Dreamforce.