Making sense of Salesforce R&D

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett November 20, 2013
Salesforce is making a big deal out of its R&D efforts and specifically Salesforce1. Is it the road to world peace or a work-in-progress?

Salesforce does a tremendous job of marketing its wares. But behind the glitz, glamor and celebrity walks ons, I was left wondering whether announcements that talked 10x APIs, new this and that around Salesforce1 were merely lipstick on a pig or something more fundamental.

And this is where life gets difficult because if Salesforce is to deliver on its long term vision of being the platform from which everything else flows, then it surely must do a better job of communicating what this really means.

Dial down the product marketing BS and dial up the meat and potatoes. Or alternatively, split the show up into the flogathon we all know and love and the technical piece as a standalone event. That way, you don't get buggers like me missing the point as we try to weave our way through the marketing blizzard. So what is Salesforce1 and why should any of us care?

Listening to CEO Marc Benioff's keynote and Q&A, you'd be forgiven for thinking Salesforce1 is about to solve world peace. In the media Q&A, while comfortable handling the many softballs, he was less assured when dealing with the tougher questions. When asked by an Australian media person: "Is this just Salesforce wanting to sell more shit?" the best Benioff came up with was an expanded version of 'Yes.' Not helpful. We really needed people like Kendall Collins, EVP products to step forward.

After the media Q&A, I put the 'lipstick on a pig' question to Kendall. It turns out that 10x APIs may be something of an exaggeration. Now there's a surprise (sic). Instead and as I suspected, Salesforce is working furiously towards rationalizing its large portfolio of sales, service and marketing solutions with a view to making it easier for everyone to consume Salesforce solutions while providing developers with an easy on-ramp to solution creation. That makes perfect sense. It could be described as hammering the pantomime horse into something that resembles a racing unit. But it's not without challenges. And the job isn't done - yet.

The impression I got was that despite Salesforce attempting to stir up interest in Salesforce1, it is reluctant to provide a lot of detail until the solutions are well baked. I'm not so OK with that. So for example when I asked Steven Tamm, CTO about solving the long held moan regarding poorly featured analytics, the answer was very much 'wait and see.' Putting my ISV hat on, my response is: Nope - not going to do that.  When asked about a decent debugger for the platform, the answer was equally woolly. Where is support for Java on Why are these long standing gripes not being addressed? All answers were less than satisfactory. Why oh why?

It was suggested to me that while the keynotes may have been short on detail, tiy could infer much from what is being said. That may work in the hide and seek world of analyst speculation but doesn't work so well for customers plotting their development course going forward.

At the heart of Salesforce1 is the company's 'mobile first' strategy. Salesforce somewhat belatedly believes that supporting the smartphone first into the future is a key requirement. It also believes that the embedding of Chatter into workflows needs to be a priority. It also needs to be enterprise grade. All of this makes sense but it is not an innovation, neither is it a leading anything. It is a recognition of the market reality as Salesforce sees it in the context of a much larger platform play. From that perspective, Salesforce recognizes that it has a lot of infrastructure heavy lifting to prepare for the nirvana it promises. However...

The subtext is that R&D is competing heavily with marketing at Salesforce and losing the battle albeit the company is well ahead of competition in developing mindshare around the mobile and 'internet of things' topics. Benioff repeated what he said on the earnings call that there is a balance to be struck between growth (his priority) and profit (which the Street increasingly wants to see.)

My sense is that despite its bulk, the company cannot quite figure out how to allocate resources in a manner that satisfies all imperatives. When I suggested to Tamm that the number of people needed to build a debugger can't be that great, implying that the cost would not necessarily prove prohibitive, he replied that getting good Apex programmers is a tough ask. OK - but weight that against the many ISVs who cannot be as productive as they'd like which in turn hurts application time to market.

But...there is one area where is way ahead of its competition - attracting developers. Last year I was amazed at the number of developers Salesforce is bringing on board. This year I was blown away by the number I saw at the hackathon. No-one could tell me how many teams were competing live but the finger in the air estimate was something around 500. For all I know it could easily have run 1,000. In addition, I really like the way Salesforce puts its partners at the center of the developer conversation. Appirio for example ran a number of code sessions with hundreds in a attendance.

According to Collins, they have so many teams competing, it will likely be an all night race to whittle the teams down to find a million dollar winner. That's the kind of problem any large development organization wants. I wish them well in selecting a worthy winner.

Disclosure: Salesforce is a premier partner and funded part fo my T&E.