Dreamforce 2018 - Keith Block on integration, innovation and life as a co-CEO

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan September 27, 2018
As Dreamforce begins to wind down, I had the chance to sit down to chew the fat with co-CEO Keith Block on a variety of Salesforce-related topics.

One thing that’s different about this year’s Dreamforce is that it’s the first one to take place since the announcement that the company has split the CEO role between Marc Benioff and Keith Block. The creation of the co-CEOs structure inevitably prompted speculation as to what this meant in terms of the future for the company and how it would work in practice.

There had been some clues on the most recent quarterly conference call which, as noted at the time, was essentially led by Block, with Benioff taking more of a ‘bigger picture’ role. I wondered then if this was what the co-CEO relationship is going to be like in terms of day-to-day operations? Is there a formal division of responsibilities or are things more free-flowing?

The reality, Block tells me, is that if not quite business as usual, it’s not a particularly radical reinvention of what has become the norm:

This is really an extension of what we've been doing in five years. I mean, we've spent so much time together. We’ve known one another for a very long time. We started at the same company [Oracle] back in 1986, and have gotten to know each other, become very, very close, a very trusted relationship.

It's really an opportunity where the company is in terms of size and scale. We're a global company. We're growing incredibly quickly - fastest to $10 billion [revenue], fastest to $20 billion. It really allows us to focus on our strengths - Marc with the vision and the culture and focus on product strategy and my focus on the customer experience, growth of the company, operational excellence.

He adds of his own responsibilities:

You could think about the operational aspects of the company, so the G&A functions, the growth functions, some of the product, that falls to my purview. But it’s very collaborative. There's really not a day that goes by that we don't have some level of communication.

As for the timing of the announcement, again Block says:

There was a conversation with Marc and the board about where the company’s going and how successful the model has been and what are the things that we need to think about as a company as we come out of our $13.175 billion guidance and as we focus on $20 billion and focus on $30 billion.


How the co-CEO model works out in practice will become more apparent over time of course, but already we saw earlier this week a rather different keynote at Dreamforce. It was one which was far less Benioff qua ringmaster dominating the proceedings and far more a distribution of responsibilities across senior management. After Benioff’s barnstorming cri de couer for the first 30 minutes, it was a case of handing over the business of the day to Block and others.

It worked well - a fired-up Benioff in full evangelical future vision mode laying out the good/bad shape of things to come, while Block took the remainder of the keynote through day-to-day examples of Salesforce use cases in action and updating on new and recent developments, such as Customer 360 or Einstein Voice.

And then there’s Mulesoft, Salesforce’s largest-ever acquisition (so far!). Mulesoft has inevitably had a very high profile at this year’s Dreamforce, partly because it’s the first chance to take center stage since the takeover, but also, suggests Block, because what the firm offers is now a CEO priority item:

I’ll tell you a couple of stories. One is where the light bulb went off for me around the importance of integration. We had one of the CEOs and his executive team of one of our largest customers come out to headquarters to talk about their digital transformation and how it was going and how could they make it go faster. And some of the pushback came from [the question of], ‘How do we get the data out of these legacy systems?’. And that's where a light bulb went off for me personally, when I said, ‘Wait a minute, integration is very strategic. It's not what we thought about integration classically’.

The second example concerns Jes Staley, CEO of Barclays, who is set to bring his entire executive team out to San Francisco in a few weeks to talk about integration. Block says:

It’s become a very important, very strategic part of digital transformation. It's not ‘your father's oldsmobile’ as we used to say here in the United States. There is barely a conversation where we're talking to an executive when Mulesoft does not come up. It’s very important. If I talk to Michael Tipsord [Chief Operating Officer] at State Farm, he wants to talk about this. When I talk to Jes or to Ulrich Spiesshofer [CEO of ABB], who I spent some time with yesterday, this is what they want to talk about. That’s never happened before, right?

Right - which does then beg the question as to why the time is now ripe for such high-level exec attention to be directed on a topic that would once have been deemed to be on the CIO’s ‘something for you to worry about’ list? It’s about a recognition of the importance of data, replies Block without missing a beat:

At the end of the day, data is important. This data is locked in legacy systems. I mean, it's been built up. The legacy data in all companies, all governments, it’s just there. And if you can’t unleash the power of it, it's really stagnant. So that's why the integration piece is very important. People want to go through this transformation and they can have an amazing customer experience platform - and that's certainly what we provide - but the final piece of that puzzle is that data. How do you get it out of these legacy systems?

The pace of innovation

Alongside i-for-integration, there’s i-for-innovation, a word that’s never far from the lips of any presenter at Dreamforce. A challenge for any tech firm is how to drive an innovation agenda, and keep turning up the dial there, without creating too big a gap between that and the adoption rate at which customers are ready to move. In other words, how do you keep bringing fresh innovation into the product set, but not run too far ahead of the immediate needs of the user base?

The annual State of Salesforce report from Bluewolf alluded to this phenomenon when it examined Sales Cloud take-up. Noting that the product had become considerably more feature rich since its original launch, the study suggested that users were not tapping into that additional functionality and missing out on its full potential as a result. Is that down to too much innovation? Is there such a thing?

Block points out that Salesforce is “one of the the most admired companies in the world for innovation” and it’s clear that keeping that reputation is important. But promoting adoption of that innovation is something that’s also important:

We have a model where we deliver innovation three times a year. Our customers have not said, ‘Sow down that innovation’. I think our customers really appreciate innovation. Our portfolio of customer base is so broad now that, you know, different groups will be using different features and functions in different clouds. We're very, very proud of the fact that we're delivering that innovation and that innovation. Those ideas, they do come from the customers.

Now, the adoption of the technology is very, very important. So customer success is very, very important. This is why Trailhead [Salesforce’s learning program] has become very strategic to us. We're trying to drive this community of Trailblazers. There’s over 10 million certifications and badges that have taken place. It can't just be Salesforce organically person-by-person providing education. We have to create this platform and this community of Trailblazers who are an extension of us in terms of driving adoption and knowledge learning and knowledge transfer. That’s very, very important and will become even more important with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and workforce development.

There are also internal efforts to accelerate adoption rates through automated programs, he adds:

There's more that we can do with learning journeys. So you can think about providing intelligence in the product around best practices. People like you, organizations like you, companies like you are leveraging this feature this way. This is how they're using the technology; you should also be thinking about using it this way. That's going be the next evolution of the journey, because at the end of the day we want our customers to be happy. We want them to feel like they're getting value for their investment. We want them to drive adoption and it's a two way street. They want the same thing.

As Dreamforce winds down, it’s the end of what has inevitably been a very busy week for the co-CEO and time to look ahead to what comes next:

Well, obviously we want to continue the growth trajectory of the company, but the primary focus for me is really making sure that we're running a great company, that we're doing the right things and we are focused on our customer success. I think there's some innovation opportunities for us on the success side.

But you know, we have a lot of momentum in the marketplace. We've got some amazing innovation that we've announced. It's not going to be the end of our innovation.  We just want to make sure that we're doing the right thing for our customers, that we're bringing them success with the focus on the right solutions, that we're servicing our customers globally and that we're doing this in a smart way. That's what I'll be focusing my time on.