In Letters from the Earth written in 1909, rather late in his life, Mark Twain took the voice of the archangel Satan (before the fall) writing home to his peers Gabriel and Michael about a visit to earth to observe the human condition. Satan’s greatest finding and source of consternation was that humans imagined a heaven devoid of sex. There were plenty of white robes, harps, singing, and what not, but it represented an eternity without sex. Twain’s Satan thought this odd.
Twain died in 1910 and the book was only published in 1962, long after relatives, who strongly objected that the book would do nothing to embellish Twain’s reputation, were gone from the scene. I stumbled upon Letters as a young man, a halfhearted student of American literature, and have kept it in my mind for all these years. It’s not the heaven and sex that makes the book memorable but the apparent ability of the novelist to, as Scott Fitzgerald once noted, keep two distinct ideas in mind and still be able to think that impressed me.
Letters and CRM were in my mind over the weekend as a demonstration and counter-demonstration in Charlottesville disintegrated into murder and mayhem. You might think there’s no connection between CRM and the bigotry most Americans denounced whole heartedly the day of the incident (okay, there was one holdout in a high office) but I think there is and not only that but the modern CRM orientation dooms the bigots.
CRM is all about enhancing the free market and removing barriers so that it can do what it does best, matching buyers and sellers. It’s an unwritten rule in CRM that there should be no barriers and that transparency is king. Vendors who forget this inevitably suffer the slings and arrows of fickle customers. But as long as a vendor keeps in mind that the business serves the customer all can be well. Imagine the opposite, that the vendor controlled the customer. It wasn’t that long ago that such was the case, that information was tightly controlled and doled out by the vendor and its agents on an as needed basis. In some ways, it’s a world that the haters in Charlottesville would like us to return, but we won’t. We can’t.
The internet changed all that by democratizing information which caused vendors to compete on things other than information control. At first it was ugly as vendors increasingly competed on price, which ultimately drove more than a few out of business. But it also caused many to rethink their business models and how they compete and that directly drove greater adoption and further evolution of CRM.
In the wake of Charlottesville we’re beginning to see headlines like, “Ridgeville man out of a job following photo next to Charlottesville murder suspect” in The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) and from the New York Post, “Family disowns racist outed at Charlottesville rally.”
The torchlight procession of hate on Friday night made smartphone filming and later identifying the marchers trivial and many similar headlines are circulating. So the tools of the internet, social media and mobile computing, that CRM has made integral have also become integral to the blowback to hate.
One thing the haters didn’t figure on is that hate requires a great deal of infrastructure and organization as well as labor to support it. Who would build and pay for the infrastructure of their demented dreams and who would man the barricades? Most importantly, who would be left to do the things that make our society strong?
The history of America is one of occasional flirtations with authoritarianism that fall of their own weight. As time races ahead the romances become briefer as they are more easily consumed by the lightness of democracy (and our increasingly powerful ability to communicate). There might be little we can do to disabuse haters of their hate and in our democracy it’s their right to hold whatever opinions they choose. Satan was here on Saturday but he left early with little to report. As our experience with CRM and recent headlines show, there’s no need to tolerate the vendors of hate and the marketplace of human ideals continues to advance.
It’s hard to believe that the founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX could have such reactionary views about artificial intelligence (AI). Last weekend, Elon Musk addressed the US National Governors Association’s meeting in Providence, RI and had some very un-Musk like things to say about AI.
“AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that,” Musk said.
He even suggested that government ought to regulate the nascent industry. But it’s hard to regulate that which isn’t even formed yet. It reminds us of what happened when the George W. Bush administration decided to restrict stem cell research. The regulation didn’t work because the research simply moved to more friendly jurisdictions. It harkens back to Jurassic Park and the character, Dr. Malcolm, who warned that life always finds a workaround. AI will be no different so we need to embrace it and work with it.
What’s striking is that those pronouncements come from the man who re-invented the space program as a for-profit industry and who also took the electric car to the edge of technological capability and then busted through all barriers. In both cases something new and good resulted. In space, this year his company demonstrated lift capacity to launch 10 satellites at once and return its booster rocket to earth for an upright landing. His cars, though expensive, are gradually reaching the general marketplace and there is a multi-billion dollar waiting list for them.
Let’s not be Polly Ann-ish about this and acknowledge that things don’t always work out but then again, even when things go sideways it’s exceedingly rare that they threaten human civilization.
Let’s unpack this. For all of the notoriety Musk’s success has brought him, it’s worth remembering that his greatest successes have been in re-imagining existing paradigms like cars and space. Before that Musk had a lot to do with getting PayPal up and running. Nothing wrong with any of that; Musk has shown that you can make a lot of money building a better mousetrap. But his comments suggest that he might not be as well positioned on the cutting edge as we’ve been led to believe.
Way out there on the cutting edge there are no paradigms to improve and you have to make things up out of whole cloth and it’s hard. Consider the difference between John Harrison and Charles Lindbergh.
Lindbergh, an aviator, was first to cross the Atlantic in an airplane and he won the $25,000 Orteig prize (over $300,000 in current funds) in the process. But if he hadn’t been the one, some other person would have performed the feat because there were multiple teams jockeying for position at the time and, most importantly, the solution to the problem was constructed from off the shelf parts. Take nothing away from the man who could stay awake for more than 33 hours to make the trip and his courage, but Lindbergh’s feat was of a different order than Harrison.
Two centuries earlier, Harrison figured out how to determine longitude at sea and won most of a prize established in 1714 by the British parliament for a successful solution. The Longitude Prize was worth a cool £20,000 equal to about £2.5 million today. Harrison was a carpenter and clock maker, he knew a lot about making a standing pendulum clock with wooden gears. But his solution to longitude involved building a clock out of metal, without a pendulum and capable of precision not seen up to that time. In his effort Harrison had to reinvent timekeeping and the result was the first chronometer capable of encountering life at sea and maintaining the correct time within a small margin.
So perhaps Musk is more Lindbergh-esque than Harrisonian and as such he’s really more into improving solutions than inventing his own. So the whole idea of the brave new world of AI can seem scary to him and thus his crusade to save us. Musk’s Providence pronouncements were not the first cautionary words he’d offered on AI. The March 26 issue of Vanity Faire magazine carried a long article by Maureen Dowd, “Elon Musk’s Billion-Dollar Crusade to Stop the A.I. Apocalypse.” The article describes Musk’s effort to, “[S]ave humanity from machine-learning overlords.”
On the other hand though Musk’s Tesla factories are models of robotic efficiency and seem to be a significant counter factual to his statements in Providence. But robotic assembly lines might be drone-like compared with Musk’s vision of powerful AI. Possibly, Musk is angling to clear out some space for a new venture he’s been incubating.
His new company, Neuralink, might be an attempt to build what he’s called a “neural lace” that might function as a kind of interface between the human brain and machines.
There aren’t many details yet so keep an eye out for whatever’s next but meanwhile I’d take the Providence declaration with a bowl of chowder.
Everywhere we look today things are changing in fundamental ways. The AI scare, and that’s what it is, was forecasted a few years ago in “The Second Machine Age” by a couple of MIT professors who warned that the acceleration and disorientation we feel is exactly what happens in the second half of an exponential growth curve. There’s no doubt that job losses can be scary and the new era never arrives in time to short circuit the pain associated with the end of a prior era. But there are lots of things we can do to smooth the situation. First and foremost we can quit the unproductive doomsday talk and figure out in earnest how to take advantage of what’s before us.
We can also embrace the change and actively participate in its roll out. Participation yields control and that’s far more useful than trying to shut something down. We’re looking at a free market phenomenon, which means it has a momentum of its own that won’t be stopped by regulation. More or less the same situation Dr. Malcolm found himself in. By the way, electric cars are the same type of free market phenomenon so it’s a pity their patron hasn’t seen that yet.
Salesforce finished up the second quarter with a strong showing at its annual developer conference in San Francisco, TrailheaDX, a two day event that took place at Moscone West June 27 and 28, roughly quadrupling last year’s attendance and flooding its developers with new technology. Over the last few years the company has built out a multi-dimensional matrix of product offerings that include CRM components like SFA and customer service, but it has also been careful to introduce back end technology products that support administrators and developers as well. It makes all the sense in the world.
Salesforce is rapidly transitioning past a point where it can grow only by selling more CRM seats. Market research shows that only a plurality of businesses use CRM today implying that there’s room for further growth, and there is. But many of the businesses that don’t have CRM are either too small or don’t fit the model. A tire dealer and a restaurant are both businesses but not likely candidates for CRM.
But that’s not to say that they couldn’t benefit from application support. They can and the bottleneck has always been the limitations of a spreadsheet app on one side, and the effort needed to build something new to fit a business. You could say the same about smaller businesses that already use CRM—they need ways to build and tailor apps and that’s what made TrealheaDX conference so interesting.
TrailheaDX encompasses all of the knowledge that one needs to develop applications on the Salesforce1 platform and there are a lot of moving parts.
- Trailhead is the name of the self-teaching/learning system that people can use to learn everything about app development on Salesforce.
- There are three modes of configuring/customizing/developing apps that Trailhead teaches about corresponding to the tree development modes Salesforce offers: completely codeless, some code, and traditional professional developer mode.
- Corresponding with these modes are roughly 200 learning units each with a badge for the resume of everyone who passes an exam.
At the TrailheaDX conference, Salesforce introduced some sweeteners for developers that enable them to develop very robust apps that go way beyond traditional database applications, briefly they include,
- Einstein Sentiment, which enables classification of the tone of text in a message. This rating capability will be useful for helping the Einstein AI tool to rank situations from negative to neutral to positive.
- Einstein intent, helps developers to train models to understand the underlying intent of customer interactions, which will further help determine next actions and offers.
- Einstein Object Detection, for training models to recognize different objects in an image.
CEO Marc Benioff said this would be the year of Einstein at last year’s Dreamforce and the company has been executing on that strategy by embedding the AI solution in all of its clouds so it was time to make these tools available to developers too. By the way, the developer tools are classified as “Salesforce DX” which I find confusing—a naming convention that probably needs revisiting.
Two new partners Atlassian, an agile development methods company and GitHub which provides source code management and collaboration capabilities have joined the partner ecosystem as well to help ensure developers leverage the new capabilities optimally. The emphasis throughout Salesforce DX seems to be configure if you can but if you’re going to code leverage all of the modern capabilities, like agile methods, that you can. These partners appear to be testimony to that thinking.
What does all of this mean for CRM? Lots. First, it further opens up the greatest opportunity for Salesforce to sell seats by enabling many more apps to be built and subscribed to through the AppExchange. Second, it puts a friendly arm around developers at a time when all of the major software houses offer something to make developing code easier and faster. This might seem to defy a Salesforce precept that coding would never be needed with its products, unlike other CRMs. But the fact of the matter is that in a general-purpose development environment, coding isn’t going away. Instead the little coding that will be done in the future will be really hard stuff that machines can’t do.
Third, this approach from no code to full code is expected to discover thousands of new people who can do the work, talent that might have been overlooked in another era. In a time of talent shortages, programs like Trailhead should help businesses find additional people to at least do some of the easier system maintenance saving the developers for the hard stuff.
Salesforce DX is in an open beta and will likely show some results by Dreamforce. Einstein Sentiment and Einstein Intent are also in beta while Einstein Object Detection is in pilot and no pricing was available at the show for any products not fully GA.
It’s not too early to begin wondering what Salesforce will want to announce at Dreamforce. I suspect there will be more Einstein capabilities especially in concert with other products like IBM Watson. Meanwhile this company continues to impress—while other vendors are puffing up their reputations with cloud basics, Salesforce continues to imagine a bright future.
So much is happening as we approach the end of Q2, our industry’s busiest quarter, at least by some measures. I’m flying around seeing things but not always able to comment from a middle seat on a red-eye. So this piece is an attempt to catch up and set some markers for the traditionally slower summer.
Last time, I was searching for a word to describe a new category I see. You can call it various things like on-demand services or even services as a service which somewhat distinguishes them from things as a service such as SaaS but it’s also confusing.
SaaS has led the way in things as a service and while it’s a perfectly good descriptor the rapid evolution of IoT, Internet of things, has introduced some confusion. Things as a service describe any traditional good delivered as a service, such as software or a car or a cell phone. Services delivered as services often don’t have a physical component or that component is of a different type, perhaps not even human.
For instance you can get software as a service but the training or consulting that needs to go with it is very different. First, it’s delivered by people who show up, do a job, and disappear; you don’t employ them and you certainly don’t own them and their work product is pure service, often leaving behind only thoughts in other’s minds or software code.
Another example, and my favorite right now, is earth moving. Various makers of things like excavators and bulldozers now offer earth moved as a service obviating the need to purchase the big device. The difference is that the service is intentionally and decidedly temporary. These companies calculate amount of earth moved (in a simple example) and charge by a meaningful metric such as tons or cubic yards moved. Moreover, these are short-term services; the equipment and people to run it show up one day, do a specific task and then are gone. Or perhaps they are idle for one week per month—how do you charge for this?
In a SaaS model you might buy a specific number of seats per month and that’s it, if your people don’t use it, too bad. But in the earth-moving example, an idle machine still has overhead for a vendor. How does the vendor capture revenue when the device is idle? It’s not hard to do but it gets into some branching logic that typical billing systems might not cover. So very quickly, we see that service as a service is different from a thing as a service. What do you call that? And what’s the name of the business model and how do you account for these services?
My thoughts include words like precision services or discrete services. Each conveys a sense of the ad hoc, a temporary, specialist thing that won’t become part of the status quo in the sense that it will be gone at some point. Just think of the earth-moving equipment required to build a tall building and understand that it’s not there any more once the building is completed.
So that’s one thing I’ve been noodling on. Send me a note with your thoughts.
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Also on the docket have been Oracle’s results for the last quarter. It’s only important to look at the direction, which is up and to the right of the graphs, to know that the company has hit stride on cloud computing. I am happy for them and have previously written that their model is uniquely suited to their customer base. It includes all phases of cloud computing including infrastructure, applications, and platform to support customers in various stages of the move.
Oracle’s big footprint attracts lots of competition from Amazon’s AWS at the infrastructure end to Microsoft, Salesforce, and SAP on applications and platform. I am not even sure if they all agree on what platform is and that’s important. It tells us that the tip of the spear is platform and that’s the competitive landscape. It’s also the metric that we need to use to analyze and understand the quality of any software vendor’s earnings.
Infrastructure is heading toward pure commodity status and it’s getting close if in fact it has not already arrived there yet. But ironically, you can’t be wildly successful in the other phases of the game if you don’t have a credible infrastructure offering. So you have to look with great interest at Oracle’s infrastructure number which equals just north of $400 million on what I believe is a $1 billion cloud base. Is it a good thing? I think it’s a necessary thing and it might set the company up to do well in other phases but that jury is still out.
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Finally, there was a piece on AI in the New York Times Sunday Review, “The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence” by Kai-Fu Lee that I am in complete disagreement with. I’ve seen the argument before: AI will swallow up jobs leaving a large and unemployable group of people who will require some form of guaranteed income support. But rather than offer an opinion, let me supply an analysis and some data.
Massive income assistance has never worked well in human history. You might go all the way back to the Roman Empire and recall the idea of bread and circuses as an example of such welfare. But if you do, you also need to factor in that it didn’t work out well for guys named Caesar. In modern times the top earners have always objected to the confiscatory taxes needed to make such a scheme work.
This kind of analysis is too dependent on straight-line thinking. What’s missing is any sense of the dynamism of free markets in a democracy. Free markets enable innovation and entrepreneurship and with them come new industries and new jobs. I know things look kind of bleak for people with high school educations or even people with BA’s in literature or philosophy. But the fact of the matter is that since the Industrial Revolution there have been 5 ages when an industry or a clutch of them took off and did really well for a few decades only to fall back to earth later killing some of the jobs it created in the name of efficiency and commoditization.
What we’re going through with AI is cyclical and not one of a kind. I just wrote a book about it and it’ll be out in September, a time when we come back from the beach and put our game faces back on and rediscover that a machine really can’t do what we do.