Dreamforce 2017 – Still being Benioff and blazing trails

It’s Day One of Dreamforce and the sun is out. That’s clearly something that pleases Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff who looks up at a bright blue San Francisco sky:

The weather is good. We have one cloud in the sky. That’s OK, we can have one cloud.

This being Dreamforce of course there many more clouds across the conference campus, ones that we know about and ones that might yet come as a bit of a surprise. Benioff is still a few hours away from his main keynote session at which he promises enigmatically:

There will be some surprises.

The campus this year is decked out like a US national park – indeed, delegates walk in through a faux rock entrance that has “Welcome to the Dreamforce National Park”, while the conference guides are dressed up as park rangers. Those delegates are encouraged to think of themselves as trailblazers and aspire to the innovation successes of corporate versions of the same idea, firms like Adidas, 20th Century Fox and Marriott.

Last year I took a tour of the main communal campus area – AKA Howard Street, one of San Franciso’s main vehicle arteries on a normal Monday morning – in the company of Benioff during which he shared his thoughts on what had worked well – and what hadn’t worked as well – at the 2016 Dreamforce.

Just over 12 months on, it’s interesting to compare some of those insights from last year’s event with what’s on show here this year. As we talk and Benioff points around, I’m amused to note the presence of a climbing wall this year. He’d asked about one last year and seemed so disappointed that there wasn’t one there that I placed a bet that this would be one thing we could count on seeing in 2017.

On a more serious note, a bone of contention with the CEO last year was the banner advertising which was too focused on “one person and a quote and a logo. Bad. Never again!”. Sure enough, that advertising look and feel is completely absent this year. It was the focus on the individual rather than the Ohana, the community, that was concerning Benioff last year.

That concern is still there, underpinning the foundations of what Dreamforce is intended to be about. “What do you think?”, he asks me about this year’s event, a question that puts me on the spot a bit given that the conference is only a few hours old. But it’s a genuine question. This very-much-hands-on CEO wants – and welcomes – feedback.

What really matters to him is simple. As he explains it to me, gesturing around:

The important thing is, the question that I ask is, does this feel like Salesforce? This does feel like Salesforce.

As he told me a couple of years ago at Dreamforce, there’s a huge amount of prep that goes into his central keynote. It gets roadtested out in the Ohana and the content and presentation adjusted and shaped according to the reactions it gets from the really important constituency – the customers.

This year Benioff is particularly excited by the push behind the firm’s Trailhead initiative, a program to train up and certify customers in crucial skills needed to exploit the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This is something that Benioff tells me he thinks will take the company into “the next phase”. He points to the Moscone West building and talks up the Trailhead layout that lies within. (And again – “I’d like to hear your feedback”.)

That’s all to come. I haven’t made it as far Moscone West yet. I’ve only made it as far as the monks. Yes, just like last year a group of monks from the Plum Village Buddhist meditation center in France have made their way to a downtown San Francisco tech conference. As before, they remind us that the tech aspect is only one part of the Dreamforce DNA. And like last year, the monks beam with delight while the tech CEO beams back at their contribution to the spiritual and mindfulness elements of the conference.

It’s only Day One of Dreamforce – in fact, at time of writing it’s not even halfway through Day One – but already I’m reminded of the unique characteristics of this conference. Yes, there is going to be product pitching over the next few days. But there’s also going to be music and philanthropy and ethical debates and diversity discussions and equality best practice – and monks. As Benioff wryly notes:

We’re back with the monks again.

My take

In answer to the question – this does feel like Salesforce. Very, very much so.

Image credit – Author’s own Disclosure – At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.

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