Main content

Dreamforce 2021 - back to the future with CTO Parker Harris

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 24, 2021
Salesforce's CTO on the future of work, what Salesforce might do differently as a start-up today and what's next for Dreamforce.


I don't really look back, I always look forward.

That’s a good mantra for any Chief Technology Officer to keep in mind. For Parker Harris, CTO and co-founder of Salesforce, it’s one that’s served him well for over two decades as he’s worked to build a cloud computing company that’s on track for a $50 billion run rate by the end of fiscal 2026.

Over the years, there have been many Salesforce executives who have come and gone, but alongside CEO Marc Benioff, there has always been Parker. It’s indicative of how hardwired he is in the Salesforce corporate DNA that he doesn’t really need a surname. Like Cher and Madonna, Parker has single name recognition throughout the Ohana.

And rightly so, given the steady hand he's had on the tiller of the firm’s technology strategy since the founding days in a San Francisco apartment back in 1999. While that’s the stuff of tech sector legend now, things would be done differently today, he said this week at Dreamforce:

When we started Salesforce, we were saying, 'Where are we going to work?' and got an apartment. Now we would say, ' How are we going to connect online?'  and maybe we wouldn't even all be in the same area. We might actually start a company and not have to say, 'Well, we all have to be in San Francisco'.  [We'd] boot up a digital HQ. We're thinking a lot about Slack these days, but we would take technologies like Slack and think about how are we going to start to align and build our company, hire people and we wouldn't think about physicality nearly as much.


There would also, he hopes, be different cultural considerations to the fore early on:

The world right now is very different than when we started. You heard a lot at [Benioff’s Dreamforce] keynote about the crisis of trust. We have climate change, all the things that are happening in the world. I would like to think we would emphasize that even more. I think we would try to definitely emphasize equality more.

Given that Salesforce has been a pioneer and possibly the most outspoken high-profile advocate around equality issues in Silicon Valley, that might sound like Parker beating himself up a bit, but he insists:

Equality is a big aspect of our value system, but I have to admit when we started Salesforce, that was not top of mind. In 1999 we were not thinking about an equality crisis and that it's something that we need to be prioritizing. We were thinking about trust certainly, customer success, innovation. Equality came later. I hate to say that. I'd like to be proud to say that was always one of our values, but it came later. I think it would definitely be a top value now.

What brought equality and diversity onto the values agenda was the Salesforce Ohana itself, he recalled.

It came from our employees really in a couple of different ways. In Indiana our employees were very upset about a law that was going to be passed that was really anti-LGBTQ. They said, 'We got to do something about this' and as a company executive team we took that and said,  'Yeah we're gonna support you'. Marc was on the phone with the Mayor there and we were really working hard to try to do what's right there.

Racial and gender equality focus was also triggered from within: 

We have a big off site every year and Molly Ford, one of our top Black leaders, stood up and said, ’We need to do something about underrepresented minorities at Salesforce, we need to support them more’. This was not that long ago.  So it came from our people, it comes from our Trailblazers.

His advice to other organizations trying to achieve the same value system is straightforward:

It's about listening and then doing something about it and not being embarrassed, for example, that we didn't have that value in the first [place]...You know it's the right thing to do, but you don't always know that yet, so you really have to prioritize listening and then taking action.

The future of work...and Dreamforce

Looking ahead, one of the main topics of debate is inevitably going to be what the future of work looks like. At present there are around 100 people currently going in and using the 61 storey high Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in San Francisco and only part of the real estate footprint that comprises the firm’s city campus. It’s the same situation in London and Paris and all around the world. So what happens next? Parker has been thinking about this:

We're trying to project into the future. We have been, I think, in many ways surprised by how successful we've been in the pandemic with everyone working remotely. We're getting better access to the C-Suite, we are engineering better.

But we have lost connectivity with each other, the physicality…You lose a bit of culture and you don't realize that we've had a few very small meetings and that I've seen people online for a year. Then you kind of go, 'Wait, I'm with you!'. I think the future is about embracing where we are now.

That will mean remote working will remain a critical part of the corporate mix:

We trust this work model. It's productive. People aren't like, 'Well, no one's going to be productive, they're going to do their laundry or play with their kid'. It's been the opposite...We surveyed our employees and 60% say they do want to come into the office, but not full time. And we're going to give people a choice.

But there is a tower and it needs to be used. It will be, reckoned Parker, just differently to the way it was in the ‘old normal’:

If on my team, I choose individually to go in on a Monday and other people go in on the Tuesday and Wednesday,  we're not going to get together. So, what we're thinking about the future is about teams deciding what do they want for themselves and doing a team agreement, saying, 'We would like to see each other and we want to be in on Wednesdays and this is what we will do'.

The office is no longer going to be just this destination; there is going to be a reason to go to the office. I live here in San Francisco and I'd think, 'I have to go to work'. I'd get in my car and drive down and get into the tower and get to my desk and open my laptop and start my day and that was a sense of purpose. Now I'm doing the same thing, I'm just doing it at my house.

But I know I do want to go and see my team, I do want to come together and I think we're going to have to find ways to do that safely. I think that's the challenge we all have. But I think it's going to be an opportunity where we can hire people in a lot of different locations and then we can embrace coming together, but also allowing people to be all over the world. We're figuring it out one day at a time.

The same applies to Dreamforce. This year has seen a small on-the-ground event in San Francisco, but plans for similar physical gatherings in New York, London, Paris and so on were squashed by the Delta variant. It raises the question of whether there will ever again be a ‘proper’ Dreamforce, with tens of thousands of delegates descending on the Bay Area for a week-long jamboree?

Acknowledging that the first question Benioff will ask his team at the end of this week is what’s happening next year, Parker was measured in his own response:

I hope it's bigger. I hope it's just as safe as this year. Maybe, hopefully, we'll be further into a new world that's less restricted. I don't think the pandemic is going to be gone. I think this is part of who we are now. But I hope that we can bring more people together….Maybe it'll also not be in one place, maybe we'll have it in different places.

We're going to keep reinventing ourselves. This [Dreamforce] is a reinvention. There are many companies in the world  looking at us and going, 'How did they do this? This is crazy. [They're] having an event in the middle of a pandemic and it's working'. And next year, you know, we're going to keep trying these new things.

My take

Keep looking forward Parker!  This has been Dreamforce 2021 - and that’s a wrap!

A grey colored placeholder image