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Salesforce Dreamforce 2019: An Event Unto Itself

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Last week I was in San Francisco for Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference. If you’ve been, then you know how overwhelming the scale of this thing is. If you haven’t, try and imagine 170,000 people shoehorned into a few city blocks for 4 days on end. To attend is an endurance event (claustrophobics need not apply), and as you prepare to board your plane home, there is an immediately identifiable look in the eyes of many filing in around you that says, “Yeah, I was there too.” It’s unmistakable.

But here’s the thing: is it worth it? And year after year, the answer comes back a resounding “yes”. This year even more so.

For all the right reasons, Dreamforce is a must-attend event for me. It’s not just the company’s vast resources that command attention, it’s what they choose to do with those resources. Argue all you want about some of its early acquisitions, but for several years now founder Marc Benioff’s team has been building – and acquiring – the types of technologies that fill out an undeniably focused strategic vision. Wrapped up in all the cutesy marketing and social justice messaging is a holistic vision that cannot be denied, and annual attendance of this flagship event continually reminds me that global business domination and being a good corporate citizen do not have to be mutually exclusive.

To wit: one of the company’s big announcements this year was its dedication to the 17 UN-approved Sustainable Development Goals (made to look like the periodic table and including such components as gender equality, quality education, clean water, and affordable energy), with a vow to donate $17 million and 1 million volunteer hours before next year’s Dreamforce.“It’s all about doing well AND doing good,” said the CEO. Which brings us to company’s other big announcement – its plans for its most recently-acquired technology, Tableau.

If you read this newsletter regularly, you’ll know that I was at Tableau’s user group the previous week, where the question I had going in was, “Did Salesforce just buy the data visualization tool to take it out of contention?” After all, Salesforce’s Einstein technology is meant to do some pretty powerful things with data, as well.

But the Dreamforce event truly put that theory to bed. Salesforce’s excitement about what it’s going to be able to do with Tableau data convinced me this was genuine addition, not merely an addition by subtraction. If you don’t know much about the Tableau technology, its true strength lies in its ability to blend data from any number of unsophisticated sources and then make the results visually interesting/actionable. For retail decision makers, (who have not historically been above emailing an Excel spreadsheet around), this holds enormous possibility to modernize regardless of company size, sophistication, or even how strangely old systems have been cobbled together just to get through the business day. For Salesforce, this means it has a whole new way to speak in a meaningful way to the powers of Einstein – for all the AI in the world won’t make a difference if the data it’s being fed is janky.

As a result, Salesforce feels it is on the precipice of the fourth wave of computing. From systems of record, to systems of engagement, to systems of intelligence (where we’ve been for several years now), Benioff believes the single source of truth (or SSOT) that our industry has been talking about for some time is now moving into the realm of the real. So much so, that Salesforce is now re-branding its Customer 360 product to become Customer 360 Truth. Said Chief Product Officer, Brett Taylor, “Every time we’ve shown a 360 demo in the past, two things have happened. One, people have said ‘I want that,’ and then after it was over, they’ve come back and said, ‘That was way more difficult than you made it look in the demos.’”

So the new product, Customer 360 Truth, does not require all of a retailer’s data to be in Salesforce. It can exist wherever the retailer feels most comfortable, and then through the company’s use of last year’s big acquisition (Mulesoft Anypoint Platform, or what Salesforce calls the Integration Cloud), actionable insights or “next best actions” can be generated by the Einstein (and soon Tableau) assets. It’s a big deal.

How big? The company showed several demos of what would soon be possible over the next few days. Some of them (Kellogg’s, L’Oreal, and a deeper dive into one of that company’s owned brands, Kiehl’s), were quite impressive. Some of them (Louis Vuitton) were glitzy enough make an analyst wonder, “How much of this is real vs. how much of this is designed to conjure the possibilities?” That’s part of a Salesforce conference, too. After all, when you’re trying to hold the attention of nearly 200,000 people in real life (plus untold more online), you’re gonna have to include some showmanship.

But all in all, I maintain that I’ll be going to Dreamforce as long as they’ll have me. Too big to be ignored? You bet. But also: far too interesting.