Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfesson started writing about the impact of AI and machine learning (ML) almost a decade ago. They teach at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and their early books, “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” and “Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy,” provided deep insights into how the era we live in would unfold. We saw a lot of their ideas on display recently at TrailHeaDX Salesforce’s developers’ conference in San Francisco.
In a recent interview with McKinsey, McAfee says that few executives, even the ones pursuing digital futures for their organizations, have sized up the potential impacts,
Even though they see a lot of disruption coming, I still think that many really smart, well-managed companies are underestimating the scale, scope, and speed of disruption this time around.
Perhaps the greatest challenge all leaders face is better separating the threats from mirages or the things that will and won’t change about running a business in light of advanced technologies, for instance,
Articulating a compelling vision that will attract talent, customers, and stakeholders; being true to that vision; and managing the culture that you’ve created to go tackle those visions. Those are deeply human skills, and leaders who are good at them are going to become even more valuable.
The clear implication is that machines are doing the rote work and humans have to gravitate to the higher value add activities. That’s what makes Salesforce and TrailheaDX so interesting. From the outset the founders, Marc Benioff and Parker Harris, intuitively understood the importance of culture-building. They’ve always strived to make the business about something bigger than making money or even building a great company.
We all know about the company’s famous 1:1:1 business model in which it donates one percent of its profit, product, and time to charitable causes. While the fundamentals of the model haven’t changed, perhaps in a nod to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Salesforce has broadened the culture quest to encompass as much of the outside world that’s relevant to its mission as possible.
They now talk about the Ohana, a Hawaiian word for family and like any well functioning family, they concentrate on the success of their members. This translates into the vision of Salesforce’s Trailhead as a training vehicle for users but more broadly as an approach to helping people develop the skills needed to secure good paying middle-class jobs.
Fundamentally, Salesforce may be a very successful technology company but it is also a strong culture play. In fact, the company and its products apply McAfee’s digital disruption analysis well. Products like Einstein and the Analytics Cloud help customers to grow into a world of relationships dependent on analysis and statistics rather than gut instinct while simultaneously offering a vision of a culture focusing on the customer and the employee.
All of this came into focus at TrailHeaDX conference in San Francisco. Trailhead, the product, is a self-paced learning and certification environment that teaches all levels of users about the Salesforce platform, Lightning. The platform offers users ways to develop and maintain systems based on no code, some code, or a lot of code depending on the task and the user’s ability.
But more than this, the digital disruption has enabled app developers to take much of the work out of being a customer. We used to talk a lot about the customer experience until we learned that customers value plain old vanilla competency in their dealings with us and not a grand show. It was a subtle change and we discovered we can only be really good at the blocking and tackling if we can anticipate customers’ needs which exposed the need for AI and ML. By successfully anticipating customers we can shorten the interaction time and demonstrate our competency.
But note that this change requires building capabilities into software which is not trivial and is, frankly, best done by the software itself and not a coder. That’s why the platform has become such an integral part of any software vendor’s arsenal. It’s also why something like Trailhead has become a vital part of Salesforce’s overall offering.
My two bits
It all fits together but we aren’t at our destination yet. The digital disruption should be considered as the mountain we need to climb before we get to the promised land. Platform technology frees us by generating running code and splicing together analytics, process flow, and quite a bit more. With our new freedom we can devote more resources to dealing with the interpersonal parts of customer relationships that people are good at and machines are not. It would be a mistake to think that we can reap a technology dividend by simply removing people from all of our processes. That’s why, to do the people part we need a people focused culture within a business and this includes the people we call employees.
So, in my mind, TrailHeaDX was a lot more than a developers’ conference. It certainly was that but if that’s all you got from it, next time bring your boss and culture visionaries because even if they can’t write a line of code, the culture part is large.
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.