Comment: Benioff’s Dreamforce address proves expectedly bizarre

Emmet Ryan reports from the surreal pomp of the Salesforce chief executive’s keynote

Emmet Ryan

Technology Correspondent @emmetjryan
6th October, 2016
Salesforce chief Marc Benioff. Pic: Getty

There was far more sizzle than steak to chief executive Marc Benioff’s keynote at Dreamforce, Salesforce’s giant annual get together with 170,000 attendees.

Those expecting anything else probably got a hint to rethink matters when, arriving in Moscone South here in San Francisco, they were greeted by a blown-up cover of Forbes featuring Benioff’s mug and ‘Tech’s Made Genius’ as the headline.

The game plan seemed pretty clear. Benioff would bring the show, his underlings would pad the gaps with actual details on products.

Access to the keynote was like going through airport security. Attendees started pouring into the arena a full 90 minutes before the main event kicked off.

The queuing didn’t quite end there, with attendees grabbing mascots for selfies as a band played rather bland and gentle cover versions of songs which weren’t exactly all that cutting to begin with. It’s all part of Salesforce’s effort to look different, or at least for what people associate it with to be more than the name in a blue cloud.

The mascots – a bear, a who knows what that thing is, an Albert Einstein, and a giant no symbol with the line going through the word software – are meant to play to the firm’s efforts to look more cuddly and consumer influenced.

After some time-killing interviews with customers, Will.I.Am got matters on stage under way properly by calling the attendees the most inspirational group of people on the planet. Within his first couple of breaths he had set hyperbole up to 11.

Following a standing ovation for Will.I.Am’s video, a new version of Where is the Love, there was some conching, blowing and chanting from a Hawaiian duo which seemed to leave the room confused on how to react.

After getting a bunch of thank yous out of the way, making oodles of references to Salesforce’s ‘ohana’ (the firm likes to refer to everyone that works for or uses it as family), Benioff hit the marks that were expected. The company’s expectation to create two million jobs through its eco-system by 2020, its obsession with core values, and then an Albert Einstein quote that hammered home the cuddly feel.

This was followed by a sequence of Benioff calling out individuals and groups to get roared at and applauded. After all of that preamble he finally got onto covering the actual business stuff.

Einstein, Salesforce’s new artificial intelligence tool, is the big sell this year. Essentially it’s all about bringing together all the info from all of Salesforce’s products to help customers make decisions. Benioff kept hitting product keynotes quickly and moving on, literally. He walked for a solid 20 minutes in the middle of the keynote around the room.

There was a brief reference to Lightning, then Quip, then another ‘hey this guy’ to stand up – although this was where the keynote got more pointed. Salesforce’s current, what would best be described as disagreement, with Microsoft has the firm pushing Quip over Office 365 for productivity applications.

The heavy lifting was passed over to Benioff’s co-founder Parker Harris. The Salesforce chief technical officer spent some time actually explaining what Einstein, the AI, does before introducing a cartoon representation of Einstein on stage. The bizarre sight of those in the arena seeing two men talking to empty space on stage while the video projection featured the cartoon seemed to not bother anyone present.

At that Benioff and Harris passed off to an engineer who went into legitimately good detail on how Einstein actually works. Short version: it’s not Skynet but is still going to freak out the odd user.

While guest speakers came on stage to discuss specific issues, be it products or philanthropy projects, Benioff segued proceedings with his own schtick. After referring to Will.I.Am as a guru and mentor to him, he put a giant gold medal around the singer’s head before doing the same to Deborah Dugan, chief executive of Bono’s Red charity.

In Benioff’s defence, detail really wasn’t his job. The event has 2,700 sessions to do that. His job is to fire up the true believers. They got what they came here for and left happy. Those looking for the deeper substance had plenty of options after the big show.

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