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Happy Trails to You: Salesforce.com
Josh Greenbaum
JUN 15, 2016 05:40 AM
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Happy Trails to You: Salesforce.com Gets in Front of the Platform Ecosystem Challenge

If someone were to write the “The Tech Event Manager’s Guide to Engaging a Millennial Audience”, a look at Salesforce.com’s recent TrailheaDX conference would be a great place to start. Similarly, if someone wanted to write the “Platform Vendors’ Guide to Building an Engaged Developer Audience”, that same TrailheaDX conference would also serve as an excellent model.

TrailheaDX, Salesforce.com’s first shot at creating a developer’s conference focused on getting partners developing on its myriad platforms, which took place last week in San Francisco, was that good. And being that good first time around puts Salesforce.com in a position of strength around what I believe is the single biggest challenge facing established enterprise software vendors today: how to pivot from selling apps and services to selling apps and services and a platform that is intended to become the go-to environment for a net new set of applications and services. As well as developers and customers.

More impressive than the keynote’s content and tone, which were noteworthy in themselves, was the tent revival vibe that the keynote elicited. I haven’t seen that engaged an audience of techies since a meeting in 1988 between the newly formed Open Software Foundation and a group of hairy, hoary Unix programmers looking for someone to save them from a perceived “corporate takeover” of the Unix movement by a AT&T and Sun Microsystems.

Their savior appeared in the form of Alex Morrow, an IBM exec who had been seconded to the OSF to run its strategy operations. Alex took the stage in front of a sea of doubters, and by the time he was done leading his flock over the river and into the promised land the open software movement, which in turn begat the open source movement, was born. There was, by the way, much whooping and hollering, and other carrying on as the tablets were brought down from the mountain and presented to the assembled wanders-in-the-proverbial-desert.

Maybe it was the whooping and hollering that reminded me of the OSF meeting. Or the acknowledgment of the hunger in the crowd for some recognition that their nerdy corner of the tech market was important. Or the anti-establishment tone to it all. Or all of the above.

Also striking was the casual, free-form way in which the keynote started: the way co-founder Parker Harris and other assorted speakers, techies, and “Trailblazers” wandering the stage as the crowd filled the theater reminded me of the controlled chaos on stage just before a three-day rock festival is about to start. A fitting analogy, as the event was held in San Francisco’s historic Warfield Theater, which has seen the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Green Day rock an audience. (Fitting for an iconic 70’s venue, at one point one of the presenters paraphrased Gil Scott-Heron’s poem/song by shouting “The revolution is not televised, it’s at Trailhead.” Which was less cringe-inducing than the highly successful attempts to get the audience to chant “Rad” when prompted: they obliged, and I cringed my cynical curmudgeonly cringe.)

The meta-content also hit the mark, very much in the vein of the aforementioned fictional “Tech Event Manager’s Guide to Engaging a Millennial Audience”. Diversity was a big theme, social action was another. Women and other people who are not the typical white men in suits were on stage, the young leaders of tomorrow were saluted. And before you think I’m being cynical, snarking at the obvious pandering to a millennial audience, let me explain that the pandering worked – not just because there’s a whole chapter in my fictional guide on the value of pandering to a millennial audience, but because it really did work. The audience literally ate it up.

It’s important to note that the event itself was only one part of a larger and more comprehensive strategy of appealing to a new developer community that Salesforce.com hopes will eventually become 100 million persons strong. While that number seems a little stratospheric, the logic behind it is based on the notion that in order to succeed as a platform company Salesforce.com has to cater to an increasingly large non-techy audience interested more in business outcomes than REST APIs and what’s available on GitHub.

To Salesforce.com’s credit, their new developer’s training ground/landing page, Trailhead, makes a good case for how the company plans to bring on this hoard of new developers. It probably won’t be 100 million any time soon, if ever. But the value of Trailhead as a recruiting and training tool makes it more probable that Salesforce.com will reach a new, broader audience than anything I’ve seen from the other major platform vendors.

Trailhead’s main offerings are a growing set of “Trails” that are designed to train developers and administrators on everything from basic Salesforce.com administration to advanced mobile app development. The trails are effectively a training curriculum, with goals and milestones, that guides the “trailblazer” through an interactive, hands on session using a free Salesforce.com account. Trailhead is lightly gamified, so that the completion of a trail or a set of modules is rewarded with a badge, which the Trailhead team have managed to hype up enough that people were talking about using badges as a form of certification and a credential to put on their LinkedIn page.

The badges offered by Trailhead are themselves remarkable. Sarah Franklin, Trailhead’s marketing VP, has 7 badges on her LinkedIn page, including Business Value of Equality, Impact of Unconscious Bias, and Spring ’16 Release. (Okay, here’s a brilliant idea – every new software release has a trail intended to walk the user through the highlights of the new release. How common-sensical is that?) There are also superbadges for skills such as Apex Specialist and Security Specialist. The mix is deliberate – content for beginners, experts, and those who also want to display their corporate social responsibility chops, something that Salesforce.com takes quite seriously.

Core to the Trails experience is a deliberate sense of light-hearted fun – very millennial friendly, though it works with cynical, curmudgeonly boomers too – that is assiduously curated by an in-house editorial team. For the most part Trails and modules are developed in-house, but the Business Performance Basics module, co-developed with the Drucker School of Management, is an example of where Trailhead is going with respect both third party content as well as more general-audience, non-techy, business content that will appeal to the “what’s GitHub?” crowd.

I could go on about the value of Trailhead MVPs, like Jennifer Wobser, who helps develop content and makes sure that Trails and modules are based on real-world requirements, not something out of a marketing or training manager’s ivory tower viewpoint. Or the cute woodland icons – Cloudy the Goat, Codey the Bear – that are just kitschy enough to work for an audience used to taking their tech with a healthy dose of penguins and elephants and other cute animal avatars. Or I could go on about the average audience age – definitely sub-40, or the enthusiasm of….pretty much everyone.

The coolness of Trailhead, and the infectiousness of TrailheaDX, are hugely important for Salesforce.com’s platform aspirations, and hugely threatening for its platform competitors, particularly SAP and to a lesser extent Microsoft. The importance should be obvious: Salesforce.com may have cracked the most difficult nut in enterprise software today – how to excite a global, millennial-oriented development community and draw them to Salesforce.com’s development platform world. There is simply no way for a platform vendor – one that is interested in the business of building apps, as opposed to those vendors trying to make their middleware an enterprise platform – to become successful without hordes of developers. Think Apple Apps Store – though, ironically, even Apple seems to be struggling now attract the right quantity and quality of developers to its IoS platform, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

SAP has it TechEd developers conference, but it’s overly didactic, too much like a techy version of SAPPHIRE, and seemingly more targeted at services partners and ISVs than the millennial developer. TechEd isn’t all SAP is doing to entice developers – the SAP Store is a solid first shot at building a commercial experience where developers, partners and ISVs can show off and sell their wares. But the community-building efforts from SAP are complicated by the fact, in addition to an inability to understand that building a developer community is an investment that takes a real budget, that SAP has way too many entry points for prospective developers and no simple way to figure out which is right for which purpose.

Microsoft Build is perhaps the top of the line dev conference right now, but that top dog position is Microsoft’s to lose. I didn’t attend Build this year (which means actually in attendance – you can’t go to a dev conference virtually, despite what Microsoft was thinking when it decided that virtual attendance was good enough. Wrong wrong wrong – developers need to rub shoulders, takes selfies, and share war stories, and so do those who track them).

No matter, I was there last year, and it was pretty amazing. But Microsoft has so many irons in the fire – Azure, Office, Universal Windows apps, augmented reality, Surface Hub, Office, CRM, Dynamics AX, SQL, Skype, PowerBI, etc.  – that the threat of option overload and dilution is way too real. If I want to build the killer enterprise app, where do I begin? Should I use the dev environments that are native to many of these offering – CRM has xRM, AX has X++ -- or head for the Universal Windows Apps platform? I think Build should be more targeted to audiences of developers than trying to be a one-size-fits all – otherwise there are too many communities at the same event trying to make sense of too many messages.

Trailhead, of course, benefits from being primarily about CRM. In fact, perhaps a little too focused on CRM considering the broader aspirations of Salesforce.com. But the ability to focus on CRM is for now a strength. It makes the conference more focused and the audience more cohesive. I think this outcome-based or LOB-based focus is the way to go for building developer communities in this highly verticalized and geographically-focused global economy.

As is, there’s enough work running a relatively cohesive audience through Salesforce.com’s development vision. The company suffers from option overload as much as any other vendor – there’s Force.com, Heroku, Thunder (IoT) and Wave Analytics Clouds, Lightning UX tools. All and all, on face value this looks a little messy. But Salesforce.com showed the TrailheaDX audience an excellent slide, code-named the rainbow, that does a pretty good job defining the different points of entry in terms of their audience and the relative amount of coding each point of entry requires (serious coding for Force.com and Heroku, none for Lightning App Exchange and Lightning App Builder, and several “low code” options in between). I think every platform vendor is going to need to start segmenting their developer options in a similar fashion.

A great developers conference is a great place to start, but there’s lots more to do (and get wrong) along the way. There’s the need for a commerce platform, more in the model of SAP Store than App Exchange, that allows a simple, credit-card-based, no contract way or sales-exec-will-call way to buy and deploy apps. There’s also the issue of whether there really is a market for citizen developers, and if that market, which is where Salesforce.com is looking for its 100 million-strong developer army, can generate real revenue for its developers and Salesforce.com and really useful apps for its users.

And, particularly for Salesforce.com, there’s the question of whether focusing on CRM and its allied processes is sufficiently ambitious to make the company’s dreams of platform dominance a reality. Right now Salesforce.com’s platform strategy, as Parker Harris told me last January, is to be the best CRM platform around. While there is no direct intention to exclude other domains, so far the messaging is clearly focused on CRM-based opportunities. To its credit, Trailhead’s trails and modules are more generic than CRM-focused, but my take of the conference audience was that there wasn’t a whole lot of non-CRM thinking in the crowd. There were sessions on IoT, AI, and bots, and most of the CRm sessions were generic as well (“The road ahead for Lightning”, “Process Builder roundtable”). But my read of the audience was CRM-nerd heavy, and no real representation from other lines of business.

Again, that’s a positive early on, but not in the long run – at some point Salesforce.com will want to entice the next great apps developers in supply chain, human resources, and other domains before SAP or Microsoft make a credible case to these constituents for their platforms. But in the meantime, hats off to Salesforce.com for building a program – combining some well-designed and curated-for-fun-and-meaning training modules – that hit what ethologists and cognitive scientists would call the umvelt of the developer community: that perceptual, experiential reality that is unique to these individuals. It’s no small achievement to merely understand that umvelt – to replicate it so clearly is exceptional.

The challenge is on in the platform wars. May the best umvelt win. 

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