Tech, drugs and rock 'n' roll: Inside Salesforce Dreamforce

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Attendees walk the grounds at the DreamForce conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Attendees walk the grounds at the DreamForce conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

"Insanity" might not be the best word to describe anything, but it's how some people described Salesforce Dreamforce prior to attending the event for my first time. And to an extent, it certainly is crazy.

More than 170,000 people came to this year's spectacle and regardless of where you were, where you were going, you always saw a sea of people wearing Dreamforce badges. Escalators at hotels and event venues were slammed in every direction. Walking outside meant keeping your head on a swivel.

Dreamforce takes over several blocks and transforms them with forest-themed installations: There's fake grass on gravel, waterfalls and rock climbing walls.

At the park, gaggles of people were moving in all sorts of directions and they all seemed like they had to be somewhere – fast. I'm also pretty sure I saw four corporate types sitting Indian style with their shoes off smoking a bowl.

There was a Metallica concert on a baseball field. If you got bored of that, you could mosey 100 yards or so and watch Janet Jackson perform live indoors. There was also plenty of free beer.

Why are all these people here?

Jamie Gutfreund, global CMO of Wunderman, described Dreamforce as "the Cannes for marketing technology people." She might be right; people here are frenzied and eager to share big ideas.

Mainly, however, Salesforce attracts this many people because so many of them make their livelihoods off its back. Asking what all these people actually do is a damn good question and it's one I asked myself several times over.

As it turns out, Salesforce operates somewhat similar to Google's Android operating system. It's like the app store and companies—big and small—make apps for its ecosystem.

There are companies such as Nintex, which automates things like onboarding new employees, or sending RFPs to publishers. It seems incredibly niche; on the showroom floor, it had a booth the size of a mall kiosk. But Nintex has 500 employees and revenue of more than $100 million last year. And there are thousands of companies just like this at Dreamforce, each specializing in very specific areas like reputation management, corporate education, measurement and even "geo-productivity" – whatever the hell that is.

The apps these companies make live within the Salesforce ecosystem and anyone who uses Salesforce often rents them on an annual basis. Most outfits I spoke with told me they charge anywhere between $8,000 to $20,000 each year for access to their software.

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, claimed during his keynote that, come 2020, Salesforce will have indirectly created some 3.3 million jobs.

Salesforce's ecosystem also differs from platforms such as Amazon Web Services, because people use AWS cloud services to push their apps outside of Amazon's ecosystem to consumers. And it is much cheaper, making it an ideal choice for startups or people with big ideas and a small bank account.

Ethical tech

There were perhaps too many discussions about placing the consumer at "the center of every experience." There were also hackathons, lots of live music and ice cream trucks at regular intervals, offering free frozen treats to anyone wearing a badge.

There was even a protest, one that many people likely missed due to its size. Fight for Their Future, a non-profit that aims to prevent the negligent use of technology, projected a sign during Wednesday night's Metallica concert saying, "Cancel the Contract," a reference to a Salesforce contract the company has with the U.S. Border Patrol.

On Thursday, the group claimed that its protests have led to a group meeting with Salesforce executives.

Benioff himself is an outspoken critic against President Trump and on Tuesday, his charity donated $18 million to Bay area schools. People with knowledge of the situation say its software has nothing to do with sepearating children from parents, but instead provide software for hiring new people, for example.

Still, both Salesforce and Fight for Their Future did not return request for comment.

"Is everything we are doing with technology ethical and humane?" Benioff said during his keynote speech. "Because it is a question every company CEO will have to answer."

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